Jeremy Corbyn: weak leadership and a middle-class fantasy

Toby Williams proposes that left-wing politics, both in Oxford and nationally, is drifting from pragmatic electability to idealist fantasy

Cartoon: Annabel Westermann

Super Thursday, as it was dubbed, has been and gone but – to the surprise of some – Jeremy Corbyn has not. Having survived his first electoral test – thanks largely to Sadiq Khan’s excellent campaign – Corbyn seems set for at least another year at the top of the party. Some will inevitably herald this as a triumph for ‘The New Politics’. I will just see it as another nail in the coffin of British Progressives. The result did nothing to convince me, or anyone else for that matter, that Labour can win the election in 2020. Yet neither has it done anything to dislodge Corbyn and co.

But you may still ask why Corbyn can’t win in 2020 and why can’t he become Prime Minister? It certainly isn’t to do with his policies on welfare, the NHS or education. They are policies I agree with, policies which a large majority of the country agrees with. So the reason he can’t win the election is not substance, nor is it even style – many like his honesty and humility – but his perceived ability to lead. Corbyn has even failed to convince the majority of his own MPs to really get behind him, confirmed last month by a leaked internal list which identifies 36 of them as being openly hostile towards him. This could be due to fundamental disagreements on issues such as Trident or Syria. Yet this shouldn’t be cause for open hostility as even in the Blair/ Campbell era of hyper-discipline MPs were able to vote with their conscience and still remain loyal to their leader.

Instead, the reason may be that MPs simply aren’t confident in Corbyn’s ability to lead the party to victory. They may agree with his stance on tuition fees, on welfare and mental health but don’t believe he will ever be in a position to act on his convictions or even if he was, be able to do so effectively. The evidence for such a claim is plentiful. Most striking are his lacklustre performances at the Dispatch Box where the Prime Minister is consistently let off the hook. A recent episode came when Corbyn failed to question Cameron on the resignation of Ian Duncan Smith at the earliest possible opportunity in the Commons, instead waiting five days until PMQs. By this point the news cycle had moved on and any chance of landing a major political blow had been lost, demonstrating nicely Corbyn’s lack of debating prowess and political nouse. Worse still is the fact that the person who best stood up against Disability Benefit Cuts wasn’t the Labour Leader but the Conservative Work and Pensions Secretary.

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You may wonder then, given Corbyn’s shortcomings were so evident during the leadership campaign, why Labour members elected him; even more bizarre is that many continue to support him, seemingly blind to his weaknesses. So who then are these people?

They of course include some Conservatives, who hope to consign Labour to electoral oblivion, although to their credit at least they are aware of his deficiencies. Others seemingly less aware are the Trade Union affiliates who were always likely to vote for the most left-wing candidate regardless. However, it is now widely agreed that the impact of these groups on the election was overstated. In order to win so emphatically Corbyn required the support of many ordinary Labour members, of whom only 35 per cent are considered working class according to a recent Commons Paper. It seems then that many of those who voted Corbyn were in fact very much middle class, with the only cuts they have had to endure being on their taxes.

We can picture the stereotype: Guardian-reading, quinoa-quaff – ing, herbal-tea-swilling North London elites who have little idea of struggles of everyday life in Labour’s heartlands. They simply don’t and probably can’t understand the hardship that millions of people up and down the country have had to go through since the Conservatives took offi ce in 2010. They fail to acknowledge the electoral reality and instead engage in their own political fantasy. They failed to consider the consequences of electing a man who has demonstrated no capacity nor desire for leadership at a time when Labour, and all of those who oppose Tory cuts, are most in need of it. Like them, I agree with much of what Corbyn wishes to do, but I also believe that he and his team are incapable of achieving it.

This worrying trend also appears to be emerging in OULC. It too seems to be forgetting the political reality, closing its eyes to the facts of student politics and causing great damage in the process. In passing evermore extreme motions it is demonstrating the same naivety of those who voted for Corbyn. The latest example was banning all members who are signed up to other university political clubs from voting on OULC motions and in elections. It appears some OULC members have forgotten that, at the age of 18, many members may yet to have fully formed their political views. All the motion did was put off potential Labour supporters by asking them to commit to principles when they are in no position to do so. Again, whilst I agree with the idea behind the motion, that only Labour supporters should vote on Labour issues, I also accept that the world isn’t as simple as some wish it to be. Like with Corbyn’s middle-class supporters, some OULC members have voted purely on their convictions which, whilst honourable, will only lessen the likelihood of them actually achieving their objectives.

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The Left, whether here at Oxford or nationally, seems set on recklessly pursuing abstract goals in a way which doesn’t improve but only harms the chances of them being realised. I too want Corbyn’s policies, but know that his lack of leadership means he’ll never be able to implement them. I too want OULC to be filled with members who genuinely subscribe to Labour values, but know that blanket bans are not the way to achieve it. I accept we cannot always get the things we want; deep down, I think my fellow members do as well.

1 COMMENT

  1. An excellent piece Toby. I hope after Oxford you will return to the labour ‘ heartlands’ and get involved. People who are able to say it like it is are much needed.

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