During his trip to Brighton yesterday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn ruled out working with other progressive parties to form an electoral alliance. Luke Cooper argues this could be a fatal error on the part of the left-wing leader he supports.
'Doing politics differently’ was a key promise of Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable victory in the heady summer of 2015. But since then he has focused on his economic message, not a vision for political change. Those of us set to vote for him again as Labour leader are entitled to demand a new course - not least because Labour faces electoral annihilation unless it considers entering pacts with other progressive parties.
Tonight my Constituency Labour Party, Islington South and Finsbury, will host its nominations meeting in the current leadership election. It is not quite the home of Corbynism but close enough (the Labour leader’s constituency is next door), and I anticipate my local party will support him by a wide margin, as I will too. It’s a pattern that’s emerging across the UK.
This election follows a long planned yet failed coup by Labour MPs against the elected leader of the party, and differences have inevitably become stark and cemented: with or against Corbyn is the mantra of the day.
Middle grounders in the parliamentary party were largely dragged behind the plotters on the Labour right. But in the grassroots an opposite dynamic appears to be unfolding. Even those with criticisms of Corbyn’s leadership seem set to fall behind the leader. They know all too well that to do otherwise would not only doom Labour’s clear opposition to the Tory’s austerity programme, but also imperil the party democracy the current leader is committed to.
But those of us who will vote for him again are entitled to demand change from a leadership that has disappointed. As someone who campaigned against the disastrous Brexit now unfolding in front of our eyes, it is difficult not to sympathise with Owen Jones’ refrain that ‘Corbyn often seems entirely missing in action’.
Not, to be clear, because of the scale and range of his campaigning activity all over the country – which was ceaseless and seemingly untiring – but due to his inability to breakthrough into the mainstream media across the campaign. Even when the Tories were pushed out of the remain camp’s media schedule to make room for ‘Labour voices’, Corbyn found himself upstaged by Gordon Brown with his quite different political message.
Corbyn’s inability to breakthrough into the public debate, by utilising both traditional and new forms of media, with a compelling vision for Britain, has to change if Corbynism is to survive.
This criticism is hardly new and the response to it is equally well rehearsed. “The media are hostile to Corbyn and will never give him a fair hearing”. “Focus on the politics, not the subjective or organisational”. And so on. But while it is evidently true that improvements in how Corbyn is conveying his message in the media would not go amiss, it’s fundamentally wrong to assume these criticisms only point to an organisational set of refinements. They are about politics. And whether Corbyn has put together the radical vision and roadmap for Labour to win the next election.
There are two tests we must ask of Corbyn and his team. Firstly, has he conveyed a clear vision for change in the twenty-first century that can really resonate with the voters Labour needs to win? Secondly, does he offer a plausible and compelling pathway to victory, which can seize that crucial spirit of momentum – as in the impetus and driving force of a dynamic process, not the organisation – vital to inspiring belief in the electorate that the country is on the cusp of real change?
When asked to outline his vision for Britain in an interview, Corbyn summarised the following priority areas: public investment not cuts, welfare provision for all, an end to the crisis in the NHS, and an ethical foreign policy. The problem is there are obvious omissions from the list, in particular the set of issues that has fuelled the rise of right wing populism and anti-migrant discourse in general: jobs and economic insecurity, stagnating wage levels, and access to quality and affordable housing.
We also have to broach the question of whether it’s enough in the twenty-first century to focus so overwhelmingly on a series of economic policies without a sense of the political and constitutional change Britain needs. What did Corbyn mean, for instance, when he promised to ‘do politics differently’? We Corbynistas might loathe the legacy of Tony Blair, but it is impossible to deny that a package of constitutional promises (some of which were delivered, others, notably proportional representation, were not) formed a key part of a pledge for a ‘different’ kind of Britain back in 1997.
If ‘doing politics differently’ is to mean anything more than a rhetorical flourish in tune with the participatory discourse of the time, it should surely mean reviving Labour’s forgotten promise of truly radical political and constitutional change.
Ultimately, generating that societal belief in a Labour victory needs a compelling road map that recognises the confines imposed by the grossly unfair ‘first past the post’ electoral system. The British electorate is historically fragmented with the rapid rise of new, highly successful minor parties.
The SNP have wiped out Labour in Scotland. UKIP threatens Labour heartlands in the north of England. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, the Green Party has not seen its standing in opinion polls dented by Corbyn’s Labour either. Twelve months into his leadership and at best we can say that Corbyn has proven electorally ‘neutral’ in the face of these challenges to the Labour vote.
The outline of a solution, however, is tantalisingly close if only Corbyn were prepared to seize it. A powerful electoral coalition of progressive parties could readily be formed around a commitment to a radical economic and political vision.
The maths are simple. If a progressive coalition had been in place in England alone at the last election, then it would almost certainly have cost the Tories their overall majority.
But seeing it simply in these terms ignores the enthusiasm factor: the difference offering a pathway to victory around radical political change would make to Labour’s overall standing in the opinion polls. The making of such a coalition is there for Labour to seize if only the leadership were willing, one that could combine bold constitutional change, such as electoral reform, with a radical economic programme.
But to do so means overcoming a tribalism that still bedevils the current Labour leadership. Corbyn declined to endorse even a limited electoral pact with Caroline Lucas in Brighton when asked by a local journalist yesterday. In the European referendum too, he refused requests to speak alongside other progressive politicians.
This has to change rapidly if Labour is to recover from its current position. At least many in the Labour Party wholeheartedly support a new, pluralist approach. It’s beholden on all of us to use the leadership campaign to win a commitment to it from the likely victor. With a general election looking possible in the next year the alternative will be a crushing defeat and with it a historic setback for the left.
Luke Cooper lectures in Politics at Anglia Ruskin University and was a spokesperson for the Another Europe Is Possible campaign in the EU referendum. You can follow him on Twitter.