For me, it all comes back to the 13th September 2015. Following Jeremy Corbyn’s cataclysmic victory, there was a general mood of uncertainty over how the lifelong backbencher would proceed. There was optimistic talk that, true to his word, he would offer an olive branch to the Parliamentary Labour Party and appoint the talented Angela Eagle as his Shadow Chancellor – with the bonus of maintaining female representation in the top jobs. Alas.
One wonders if, in another universe, there exists a Jeremy Corbyn who stuck to the spirit of his campaign rhetoric; one who was interested in having a broad debate, one who was willing to work with wary Labour MPs. Imagine having that Corbyn as leader! Imagine a Corbyn who would have compromised and listened to the concerns of his MPs; a Corbyn who wouldn’t have overseen the creation of a party-within-a-party or exacerbated tensions by sacking Pat McFadden for the most capricious of reasons; who wouldn’t have played genial good cop whilst allowing bad cop McCluskey to hint at the deselection of the disloyal; imagine, if you dare, a Jeremy who would have done the decent thing when the majority of the PLP expressed no confidence in him. Alas.
Jeremy Corbyn isn’t interested in uniting the Labour Party. He never has been. Now that MPs have begun seeking the return of shadow cabinet elections, his team has responded by calling for the members to elect it instead. As if this wasn’t a recipe for further factional strife. His interview with Laura Kuenssberg on Wednesday saw him offering to “wipe the slate clean” and encouraging MPs to come together to combat austerity. He then went on to – remarkably – counterbalance this with the statement: “Despite a lot of very personal criticisms that have been made about me, all the unpleasant remarks that have been made to me by a very large number of Labour MPs, I have not replied to any of them.” Brazen divisiveness, as ever.
What unpleasant remarks might Corbyn mean? It brings to mind his victory speech last September, in which he condemned the media for its treatment of his family. For all his incompetence when it comes to the political battles that really matter, he is very good at using his image as Principled And Decent to maximum effect. Thus, every critique of his policy or strategy is denounced as a “personal attack.” This really began following Tony Blair’s painfully tactless intervention into the leadership battle last year; Corbyn refused to respond on the basis that he “doesn’t do personal.” Although Blair’s words were crude, he was not attacking Corbyn’s character. But Corbyn’s conflation of valid criticisms and “personal attacks” has made him invulnerable.
And so, even though we don’t know the result for sure, we can be pretty certain that Owen Smith has been beaten. It can’t be attributed to his gaffes. Indeed, although Smith is a talented communicator, there was almost certainly no way he could have ever beat the leader. We may wistfully consider what-might-have-been, if he had fully optimised the potential of his second-referendum bluster and signed up an army of Remainers as registered supporters. Yet even this is doubtful.
Regrettably, Corbyn’s supporters believe that bad polling can be attributed to a disloyal PLP. According to the prevalent narrative, if only every Labour MP got fully behind Jeremy, all would be well. Never mind that Labour was behind in nearly every poll behind the coup. Never mind that, apart from the likes of Simon Danczuk, Labour MPs were rather loyal to Corbyn. Those that knew he was unelectable – Eagle, Seema Malhotra, Lucy Powell and so many others – gave it their all whilst serving in shadow cabinet. A clear majority of those who went to the backbenches, like Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, were never loudly attacking Corbyn in the press. Concurrently, after his first month, Corbyn was receiving the worst poll ratings for an opposition leader since records began. Yet MPs are to blame. As is the nature of politics, truth is always beaten by a good story.
Even those who are aware of Corbyn’s incompetence are happy to support this spurious narrative: occasional realist Owen Jones has repeatedly criticised the PLP for choosing the opportunity of Brexit to rebel against Corbyn. Never mind that Corbyn’s team was uncooperative with Alan Johnson’s during the Remain campaign. Or that Corbyn was hardly an enthusiastic campaigner. Or that this would probably be the best chance to get rid of a leader who, in May’s local elections, had taken Labour to its worst results in Scotland since 1910, in third place behind the Tories. Never mind all that. Apparently, Corbyn could have used Brexit to undermine the Tories. But this is nonsense, as Corbyn himself ably demonstrated when, in the first PMQs after summer, he didn’t bring up Brexit once. We already knew that Corbyn was ineffectual though. When IDS resigned over welfare cuts, Corbyn didn’t bring it up in PMQs. Remember that disastrous Osborne budget last November? No? Oh, of course – you only remember that day because McDonnell threw Mao’s little red book across the Commons.
There are those who have claimed that, as Labour is likely going to lose in 2020 anyway, we might as well lose while being candid about our principles – an argument akin to responding to a blocked toilet by burning your house down. Then there are those such as Sam Kriss who sneer about how Tory-lite politics would be just as ineffective at winning elections – as if anyone was suggesting we should simply return to them. If it’s just a choice between anachronistic Blairism and Corbynism, then we’re doomed either way. But it isn’t. Owen Smith and the PLP at large have rightly embraced the anti-austerity agenda – it was a question of competence. If Corbyn stood down, his legacy could be a Labour Party that was a truly left-wing opposition again. But instead, he will work to exacerbate the tensions between members and MPs, and his team will work towards remaking the party in their own image, regardless of how many Tory governments they will guarantee for the future. There can be no compromise, and so there can be no unity.
In hindsight, Smith’s campaign was a bad idea, because of an even darker truth. If the members are to lose faith in Corbyn, then they must see him fail on his own terms, which rules out further pre-2020 challenges. Labour moderates will not and cannot consider splitting, which would only make things worse for everyone. What, then, is the future for Labour moderates? For now, there is no future. We are trapped in this never-ending nightmare.