Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure was defined by turmoil. Ultimately, the Labour chief lost his battle with the right despite a valiant effort.
Drinking a pint in a West London pub, I was going back and forth with a fellow Labour member but not someone from my wing.
We exchanged views as amicably as we could, but a certain amount of tension was inevitable.
“How could you not plot against him?” said the Labour staffer, who worked for a right-wing MP at the time. “Labour needs to get back to the centre ground. Right now, Theresa May is holding the centre.”
“Give me five policies you think would guarantee Labour victory,” I asked. But the staffer fell silent. They hadn’t even considered policy.
The conversation in the pub took place less than a year after the 2016 attempt to oust Corbyn and replace him with Owen Smith.
The Labour staffer worked for a right-wing MP who had joined the coup attempt. They were adamant that Corbyn should be brought down.
Just a couple of months later, Jeremy Corbyn won 40% of the vote in the biggest vote swing since 1945.
A majority of every age bracket (except people over 70) voted Labour. It was a tremendous shift in Labour’s fortunes.
Two years on, the UK is in a different world.
The COVID-19 outbreak has shut down the country and the most right-wing government in post-war British history has a stranglehold on power.
How did we get here?
Many people would say Jeremy Corbyn was just not ‘electable’.
He was too radical and too unkempt and his ability to read off of teleprompters wasn’t convincing enough. His policies were just wrong.
That’s the centrist view.
Others would say it was the British media and the Labour right that killed the Corbyn project.
Jeremy Corbyn was a good man facing an insurmountable challenge. He was slandered from all sides, day and night. Even Labour MPs were actively plotting against him.
As much as it would be easy to fall into the betrayal narrative, the Labour left has to look in the mirror and ask why its efforts fell far short of their aims.
It’s not all down to the machinations of bureaucrats in Labour HQ and a hostile media. It’s time for some self-criticism.
If Shoe Fits, Wear It
There are several reasons why the Labour left failed to prevail.
Perhaps there are too many to break down and analyse in this article. But it’s worth running through some of the internal problems that held back the party’s left.
The Labour leadership had no real media strategy.
There was very little effort to engage with the media beyond press releases and occasional press conferences.
Social media was a key part of Corbyn’s strategy from 2015 onwards, but it was not enough on its own.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn’s team seemed incapable of taking the offensive on issues like anti-Semitism.
The Labour Party faced a stronger vilification campaign than ever before, but the leadership played a defensive game and tried to hide behind bureaucratic solutions.
Richard Burgon, Shadow Justice Secretary, took a more direct approach.
When The Sun tried to claim Burgon had sung an Antisemitic song, the Yorkshireman took the Murdoch-owned newspaper to court for libel and won.
This killed the allegation against Burgon.
At the same time, General Secretary Iain McNicol was still presiding over the National Executive Committee and the governance unit that processed the anti-Semitism cases.
McNicol expelled just one person over such allegations in his seven-year reign.
It wouldn’t be until April 2018 that the Labour left finally won in NEC elections.
Jennie Formby took over and bolstered the efforts to process the Antisemitism cases and expel people when necessary.
She expelled 89 people in less than two years.
What was Corbyn’s response to McNicol? He gave him a peerage.
We now know thanks to the leaked Labour report that McNicol and his team spent more time working to undermine Jeremy Corbyn than they did dealing with serious claims of misconduct.
However, the deeper problem was the lack of democracy in the party.
In Need of Reforms
Labour HQ was unaccountable and unreachable to the membership and the voters. It was effectively a party within a party.
This is the real failure of the Corbyn era.
There was no democratic revolution in the party despite the fact that there was a historic opportunity to transform Labour from a Tammany Hall party.
After the 2017 victory, Jeremy Corbyn had the political capital to call for open selections. He should have insisted every member of Parliament, including himself and all of his allies, face re-selection.
Corbyn should have called for a new party constitution to build democratic structures and make them permanent.
He could have held a vote in the party on the constitution and make it a rule that the structures could not be dismantled without majority support from party members.
Instead, the Labour chief and his team were complacent.
They thought the May government was a sitting duck and the Labour left was on the verge of taking power.
As a result, the party did not see the kind of radical democratic change it desperately needs.
In a particularly sorry episode, Momentum saw its internal structure overhauled by email.
The grassroots organisation that was supposed to fight for democracy in the party became little more than a ‘get the vote out’ group.
The party machine continued to rely on the same methods as it had under Blair and Brown. Candidates were flown into constituencies over the heads of local activists.
Even the Grenfell activists were largely ignored by the local machine in Kensington.
Contrary to popular perceptions, the Jeremy Corbyn era was defined by compromise. The leadership tried to find compromises and indirect solutions to the problems it faced.
Sadly, this just maintained the sclerotic character of the party apparatus.
All of this is history now. Labour has a new leader and a new team at the top.
Well-meaning people who support Keir Starmer hope he will deliver a left-wing agenda once he’s won power in 2024.
But there’s very little hope of Labour ceasing to resemble Tammany Hall any time soon.
Photograph courtesy of Diego Sideburns. Published under a Creative Commons license.