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Why Corbyn must go

I'm not deeply invested in the fortunes of Britain's Labour Party. (I accidentally rejoined the Lib Dems last year, but haven't paid any subscription this year so possibly am no longer a member.) But I am very interested in questions of political leadership, and in the quality of democracy in a political system.

In this context, I found very interesting three pieces published online in the last week by Labour Party activists (none of whom I had ever heard of before, which must show my disconnect from UK politics). Two of them are women MPs of about the same age as me, Thangam Debbonaire (Bristol West) and Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South). The third is the somewhat older Richard Murphy, part-time Professor of Practice in International Political Economy at City University London. They all made similar criticisms of the leadership style of Jeremy Corbyn, sufficient to convince me that the Labour Party will make a huge mistake if it fails to remove him as its leader.

To take it from the top. Thangam Debbonaire tells a grim story of a botched appointment to shadow culture policy, followed by lack of communication from the leader, followed by hassle on social media from Corbyn supporters when she was ill, followed by her disillusionment with Corbyn's post-referendum stance on Brexit and his reluctance to talk about winning elections. It's got a lot of coverage, but actually it's the weakest of the three - in some ways the most telling, though; there is crucially no mention of Corbyn commiserating with her on her illness. A good leader ensures that the foot-soldiers remain loyal to the ranks, even those who might have liked a different general.

Also a former shadow minister, though on transport rather than culture, Lilian Greenwood recounts three crucial moments of betrayal by her own leader. One was perhaps just about excusable - a long-planned policy announcement knocked off the media agenda by a Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. Of course the Shadow Cabinet gets reshuffled from time to time, but there are elements of sequencing which a wise leader would respect. The other two, however, are cases of Corbyn actually contradicting, on personal whim, careful policy positions worked out by Greewood with full participation of his own staff. For Greenwood also, Corbyn's post-referendum stance on Brexit was the final straw - after several betrayals on the issues she somewhat wonkishly cared about. I am a wonk myself. I accept that sometimes our feelings get ruffled. But when our expert advice is not only given, but sought, and then over-ruled without explanation, we wonks get upset. And a good leader does not upset the wonks without telling us why.

Most damningly of all, Richard Murphy reports how his economic ideas were adopted by Corbyn for the leadership election, and then simply abandoned. The killer passage for me was this:
The leadership wasn’t confusing as much as just silent. There was no policy direction, no messaging, no direction, no co-ordination, no nothing. Shadow ministers appeared to have been left with no direction as to what to do. It was shambolic. The leadership usually couldn’t even get a press release out on time to meet print media deadlines and then complained they got no coverage.
This to me is really serious. Murphy's disillusionment is perhaps all the more powerful because he did not hold any official position in the party. A good leader doesn't just spout ideas to sound clever during the leadership election, a good leader takes steps to push them forward as a key theme of their leadership.

This all goes some way to explaining the extraordinary 80% vote of no confidence in Corbyn's leadership from the people who work most closely with him and who would theoretically populate a Corbyn-led government. It's not convincing to argue that the parliamentary party was against him from the start. As leader of a parliamentary party with a membership of more than, say, three, you have massive tools of persuasion and patronage at your disposal to engender loyalty where previously there might have been none. But Corbyn has not decided to play the game by different rules; he has chosen not to play it at all, preferring to sit on the sidelines. As Alexander Hamilton sings in the musical,
you don’t get a win unless you play in the game
Oh, you get love for it. You get hate for it
You get nothing if you
Wait for it, wait for it!
Of course, if you're not actually interested in winning, it doesn't matter. But this apathy is having real consequences. The Conservative government has a wafer-thin majority and has just had one of the most bizarre and bruising leadership contests in living memory. A competent opposition leader would be snapping at their heels and making their lives utterly miserable. On 20 July 2011, the despised Ed Miliband's Labour Party sat at 44% in the polls. Today Corbyn's Labour Party is at 29%. As Martin McGrath commented on Twitter, if his project is to replicate the "success" of movements like Syriza (polling 23% in Greece) and Podemos (21% in Spain), he's nearly there. This is no help whatsoever to the people Labour normally claims to represent or, if you like, lead.

If the UK is to have a coherent opposition which actually holds the government to account, Labour is going to have to find a leader who is actually interested in leading. The introduction of leadership elections by members only, at the same time as broadening the membership base rather dramatically, has made this much more difficult and in fact has enabled a fatal disconnect between the membership and the elected representatives. The process of resolving this disconnect is going to be very messy indeed, with many stupid and reprehensible things done on both sides. But it is an urgently needed catharsis.

NB I've said very little about the actual content of policy here. I don't regard analysing policy debates within a party that is stuck in opposition as a terrific use of my time. My argument is entirely about the execution of the policy decisions that are made, and even more so about leadership of a team to deliver those decisions. That's where I see Corbyn failing worst, and unforgiveably so.


( 26 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 20th, 2016 08:55 pm (UTC)
This sadly seems convincing. But at the same time I do not see Owen Smith, or Angela Eagle until a few days ago, as a viable alternative. They support austerity, and seem to basically accept the premise of pre-Corbyn Labour that winning requires moving to the center and adopting a slightly softer version of Tory policies on things like immigration and benefits.

Apart from the moral problems with this, I don't think this is any longer a viable way to win (it may have been in the 1990s). I think that centrist social democracy is dead or dying all over Europe. The sort of message that Labour was offering before Corbyn, and is likely to offer again if Smith wins, is one that has nothing to say to the discontented working classes that have abandoned Labour, whether for the Tories or UKIP. It is appealing to a narrower and narrower section of the electorate. The fact that so many of them were willing to abstain on the welfare bill is symptomatic - accepting defeat, refusing to even contest the argument, on what ought to be a core tenet of social democratic belief, that society should protect the poorest. Such an approach seems to me to be doomed to defeat.

I would like to see a left-wing candidate, or at least genuinely soft-left, anti-austerity in particular, other than Corbyn, who also possesses rather more competence. I'm not sure if there's any on the horizon at the moment.

In these circumstances, there are no good options. I think the chances of Labour winning the next election are minimal either way. Overall I think I still want Corbyn to win, because if Smith wins it represents the pusillanimous Labour establishment regaining power and continuing its previous course of leading Labour into irrelevance. If Corbyn wins, Labour will at least be putting forward some sort of counter-narrative, even if badly. And it might convince the middle ranks of Labour MPs (rather than the outright Blairites) that they can't just ignore the membership. And, well, the chances of winning in 2020 are low but not zero, I'm not convinced they're less with Corbyn than Smith, and in this unlikely event I'd rather it was the left winning than the right.

On the other hand, it occurs to me, given that the strong likelihood is that Labour will lose, maybe it's better if the right of the party loses the next election rather than the left. I don't know.

It maybe says something about my despair at English politics at the moment that I am excited about moving to the US where the political situation seems more hopeful. More frightening, but also more hopeful.
Jul. 20th, 2016 09:44 pm (UTC)
I joined Labour immediately after Corbyn won the leadership, because I wanted to support him. Now I am deeply concerned for exactly the reasons detailed in this post.

I am increasingly impressed with Owen Smith. He does not support austerity and it is shocking to me how many people are uncritically repeating this completely false factoid. Especially when it is often the same people who (rightly) cite the LSE study showing how many lies have been repeated about Corbyn. I did not know anything about Owen Smith a week ago but I have looked for myself at what he has said and how he has voted. He is not a Blairite, does not support austerity, and does not want to privatise the NHS -- on the contrary he is proposing massive public investment and insisting on a publicly owned NHS that stays free at the point of service. He's proposing to renationalise the railways for heaven's sake. I am sure he has flaws, but I am really fed up with people blindly repeating these complete lies.
Jul. 20th, 2016 10:01 pm (UTC)
OK, I just watched the video where he said "austerity is right", but it may have been a slip of the tongue, as he later agreed with Angela Eagle "we agree on anti-austerity". Or it may have been an attempt to appeal in both directions? I don't know. I've seen plenty of other stuff that gives reason to distrust Smith's politics, including a personal report from a disabled person who attended a meeting and challenged him on why Labour weren't opposing the iniquitous Work Capability Assessments, and he replied that it was because it would make them look "weak on benefits".

But maybe he's not as bad as I'd imagined.
Jul. 20th, 2016 10:40 pm (UTC)
I have read that personal report too, and I have some friends in Plaid Cymru who really dislike him. It sounds like he can be sort of a pissy jerk at times. But I guess it's possible to be a good politician and also an occasional pissy jerk. If you look at the transcripts of him speaking in the House of Commons as a shadow minister, he did really go to the mat to attack the cuts to PIP and other disability benefits. Regarding the video I think it's pretty clear it was a slip of the tongue as he has said the complete opposite in no uncertain terms on the record a number of times since then.

ETA: I am unhappy about his support for Trident and about the bit where he said on C4 that we might need a "progressive case for restricting immigration". He hasn't said anything about immigration since then that I am aware of, probably avoiding the topic for tactical reasons I suspect.

Edited at 2016-07-20 10:43 pm (UTC)
Jul. 20th, 2016 10:43 pm (UTC)
Yes, I checked on his website and he says something along the lines of, it is not enough to be anti-austerity, we also need a strategy for prosperity. So, slip of the tongue. As slips of the tongue go mind you, that's quite a bad one!
Jul. 20th, 2016 10:50 pm (UTC)
yes, I am sure he was kicking himself for it! that and the "normal" fiasco where he walked right into that journalist's trap. but he seems to be doing a good job of confronting the fallout head on.
Jul. 22nd, 2016 09:48 am (UTC)
It was definitely a slip of the tongue. Unfortunately, the debate is characterised by this level of dishonesty.
Jul. 20th, 2016 11:16 pm (UTC)
This is pretty close to where I sit. Is there an alternative left candidate to Corbyn? The only one I can think of is Trickett and he's problematic for reasons that can't even be discussed. If one accepts that the next election is lost maybe the best bet is a thorough purge of the PLP and some new blood that could throw up a better candidate.
Jul. 21st, 2016 10:18 pm (UTC)
I don't think the winner of this leadership contest will necessarily be the leader in the next general election campaign. I'd be surprised if there wasn't another challenge in a couple of years.

Meanwhile, there's an enormous influx of members, and likely a lot of internal battles. A split is still pretty likely. But we are overdue for a realignment of parties - we haven't had a serious one since the Liberals split over the Irish Question. I don't think the Tories are immune, either - Cameron's gamble was that a remain vote would have forced the Eurosceptics to shut up for a while, but with the political realities of an exit vote, it's hard to see how the divisions can be papered over for much longer.
Jul. 20th, 2016 09:31 pm (UTC)
there is crucially no mention of Corbyn commiserating with her on her illness.

From which you conclude that it didn't happen - even though the piece is specifically devoted to detailing his faults and shortcomings and justifying her resignation from his front-bench? I find that extraordinary.
Jul. 21st, 2016 03:25 pm (UTC)
It;'s crystal clear that he did not communicate with her at all for six weeks after the botched appointment in January, and indeed had not communicated with her beforehand either.
Jul. 21st, 2016 04:19 pm (UTC)
On the contrary, there's nothing at all in the link that suggests he hadn't communicated with her when it became known that she had contracted cancer (which happened very shortly after her election, on which occasion Corbyn came to Bristol to congratulate her). If you can't see how implausible it is that he would not contact a new MP in that situation I can't help you, but even in this hostile article there's nothing to suggest it (and if it were true I think we can take it that there would have been).

As a constituent of Debbonaire's and a member of her CLP, I might add that the idea that people "piled onto her" for missing votes while undergoing cancer treatment is one I find very hard to swallow. If people were aware of her illness of course they wouldn't do that. You can never legislate for the odd bastard at any point on the political spectrum, but a cancer-patient dogpile, from a CLP half of which works in the NHS? I don't buy it.

A few weeks before the election last year I found myself sitting next to her at a hairdresser's, and had the opportunity to overhear her in full political operator mode, on the phone to her agent. She struck me as a someone who was professional, ambitious, and extremely aware of the necessity of playing the media to best advantage. Her article reinforces all three impressions.
Aug. 3rd, 2016 12:27 pm (UTC)
Aug. 3rd, 2016 02:58 pm (UTC)
Indeed. It still doesn't state that Corbyn failed to commiserate with her on her illness.
Jul. 20th, 2016 10:03 pm (UTC)
What utter hogwash. We've seen what heel-snapping leaders do & look where it's got us. Time for a change. It's not apathy, it's not rising to the bait.
Jul. 20th, 2016 11:20 pm (UTC)
A month after the Tories last showed they cannot be trusted to do anything right if it's vaguely connected with Europe - 'Black Wednesday' in 1992 - they'd gone from 3% ahead in the polls to 22% behind. They never recovered from that and it was twenty three more years before they won a majority in a General Election.

The latest YouGov poll has them 11% ahead of Labour. Despite Brexit being the worst completely unnecessary Tory wound on the UK since Suez, voters are going 'actually, I prefer that lot' in large enough numbers to increase their majority.

How bad an opposition do you have to be for that to happen? We now know the answer.

It's particularly significant because YouGov are the only pollster to have ever shown any Labour lead since the 2015 election. (Three times, max 3%, so within the margin of error.)

It should be impossible to get a bet on Labour winning the next election! Instead you can get 10-3 on them just being the largest party, not actually getting a majority. I suspect that the chance of Corbyn losing the leadership is built into those odds, because if he stays, they're looking very very ungenerous.

It's lovely to see a Labour leader who's first thought is not 'What would the Daily Mail think?' but what we have in Corbyn is a Labour leader who clearly doesn't want to win a General Election, and that's more of a moral crime than anything Blair did.
Jul. 21st, 2016 06:49 am (UTC)
The Conservative government has a wafer-thin majority and has just had one of the most bizarre and bruising leadership contests in living memory. A competent opposition leader would be snapping at their heels and making their lives utterly miserable.

This is precisely why I can't forgive the self-indulgence of those members of the shadow cabinet and PLP who deliberately chose this moment to make that impossible. Even if you don't think much of Corbyn, this was the very worst time to make such a move, and showed with crystal clarity that they see ejecting the left from power in the Labour party as more important than representing the interests of their constituents in parliament.
Jul. 21st, 2016 08:00 am (UTC)
Yes, the bad - worse than Ed Miliband's, and way behind where an opposition that was going to win the next GE should be - local election results should have been one trigger.

But there is the tiny matter of the Labour Rule Book saying that 'no vacancy' leadership elections "shall take place so that the results are declared at an annual session of party conference", i.e. in September.

Doing all this in April would have meant a five month campaign, going through the referendum campaign.

Every she appears, Diane Abbott reminds us that anyone wanting a Campaign group leader should have gone for her rather than Corbyn.
Jul. 21st, 2016 07:44 am (UTC)
I have no reason to doubt all the stories about Corbyn being organisationally very poor, and terrible at the business of leading a parliamentary party.
If I was a member of the Labour party though, one who supported Corbyn because he was more left-wing on issues like austerity, Iraq, etc, a lot of this would be invisible to me. And many of the people making the organisational argument are people who oppose Corbyn on the issues too. So there's an obvious response that maybe he'd be a better leader if he had better followers.
Equally, if the parliamentary party argue that Corbyn should be replaced because of execution rather than policy, surely the smart thing to do would be to agree a candidate that broadly agrees with Corbyn's policies but is expected to execute them better. Putting forward a candidate from the Blairite wing of the party suggests that the aim is to change the policies, and that will just antagonise the members who voted for Corbyn for policy reasons. (I don't know much about Smith, but Eagle seemed doomed to failure for that reason)
Jul. 21st, 2016 03:25 pm (UTC)
And many of the people making the organisational argument are people who oppose Corbyn on the issues too.

True enough; but Richard Murphy is not.
Jul. 21st, 2016 12:49 pm (UTC)
I have many reasons to doubt almost all of the stories regarding Corbyn's alleged incompetence.

This is the New Labour machinery we're dealing with here. An organisation that had no qualms about producing the dodgy dossier to take this country to war.

Rubbishing everything Corbyn does is small potatoes to them.
Jul. 21st, 2016 07:47 pm (UTC)
Given the greatest gift in terms of an irrefutable demonstration of governmental incompetence any post-WWII opposition party has ever had, Labour under Corbyn are 11% behind.

You can argue that it's all the fault of the MPs (although the bad local election results pre-date any shadow cabinet resignations), but let us imagine that someone who wants to take the railways back into public ownership - hardly the most 'Blairite' of policies - is lying about how bad a leader Corbyn is.

Do you think they will stop, should he win again? Is the solution to give up any chance of winning the next General Election, get rid of the current batch of MPs, and hope anyone elected next time doesn't mind waiting for the next Tory disaster, say in 2045?

Jul. 21st, 2016 10:38 pm (UTC)
The general election is four years away. I'd expect another leadership challenge before then, but also a lot to have changed in the party in general, assuming some of the hundreds of thousands of people joining become active. If Corbyn wins this round, he has until (say) 2018 to deliver a policy package that most people get behind, or they will find someone else. Since Brexit will likely gridlock everything else, I think it is actually less urgent than people think for the Labour Party to have worked out what it now stands for before around then - whatever deal May ends up with is going to leave a lot of people (especially her own party) unhappy. I think both parties are due for a split, and it's probably better for Labour if they get it out of the way first.
Jul. 23rd, 2016 05:26 pm (UTC)
Labour's problem is not a policy thing. It almost never is.

When Robin Cook was shadow health secretary, he used to point to polls showing Labour's health policy had a big lead over the Tories. As there wasn't any Labour health policy worth the name in place, it was simply that the public (rightly) trusted Labour more on health. Why bother coming up with policies?

Here, the public simply don't trust Labour to be able to govern the country better than the worst bunch of Tories.

I'm also not so certain that there won't be a general election until 2020.

Yes, both Tories and Labour could sort out some of their issues by splitting, but with 'first past the post', that puts you at a huge risk of losing elections as a result.
Jul. 22nd, 2016 01:27 am (UTC)
I'm sorry.
Jul. 22nd, 2016 09:51 am (UTC)
The thing I would add is this. He's been leader for a long time now and I wanted some clarification on his policy direction. So I went to his website for a list of economic policies. It's basically a list of the text of speeches. So I went to the labour website for similar. Nothing I could find apart from a cookie policies.

It looks like he's firmly into the business of speechifying and stating loudly what he's against but it's actually very hard to find out what he is actually in favour of.
( 26 comments — Leave a comment )

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