So when Brexit happened, it should have been a fantastic moment for Labour. Not in the sense of ‘wooh! Brexit, we totally wanted that!’ but in the sense that it was a crushing defeat for the government and as the opposition party that generally means good things are afoot.
Then Labour stabbed itself in the eye. Then the foot. Then for good measure decided to start surgically removing limbs one at a time until it resembled the black knight from Monty Python…
It could have been so different. With Cameron gone, Labour had the easiest political line and narrative to push in modern political history; ‘We want a general election, and we want it now.’ Given an unelected PM (I know the arguments surrounding not electing the PM directly) a divisive policy being set as the government’s main agenda for the foreseeable future and the obvious discontent felt across much of the country that the result indicated, it should have been a clear and simple argument to make which would a) at worst, damage the government in the short term or b) result in a general election.
Now one could argue Corbyn’s chances of winning any general election at the time weren’t great. That said with the Tories in disarray, Labour united in their narrative and a lack of clear leadership in what the Tories were offering – compared to a clear and decisive ‘No to Brexit, no to austerity’ ticket on the other hand, you’d think Labour could have at least stood a chance of removing the government four years early.
That however would have required competence from Labour, and what is becoming increasingly apparent is that asking for competence from Labour is like asking a wolf not to eat those chickens over there in the corner. You know, the ones covered in butter, that can’t move, that are singing ‘eat me! eat me!’.
Now let me be clear, who exactly that charge is levelled at. A lot has been made of Corbyn’s incompetence. A lot. And he is. But only mildly so, in the way most in politics are. Hell, if the Greens were the main opposition party I’m sure they’d be equally incompetant. Remember when their leader went on the Daily Politics to discuss the Greens’ policies and botched it completely?
Equally the Lib Dems’ only time in office was hardly a raging success either for the country or politically for them as a party. The bottom line is most people are incompetent. And if you’re not used to doing something – being in power, being constantly in the public eye, presenting a coherent narrative and scoring party political points etc then you will be more incompetant at it that those who are so experienced.
So when John McDonnell had his little red book moment, or when Corbyn had his first anemic PMQs performances, and stupid run-ins with journalists, this was to be expected. Equally some of the stories told by his shadow cabinet hardly seemed surprising for the leadership of a lifelong backbencher. The job of the rest of the party in these moments was to support him, educate him, aid him in whatever way needed and at the very least; not knock him.
Of course the last of these points had already run into stormy waters when his opponents in the leadership race said they wouldn’t serve in his cabinet. When he needed the experienced heads around to support him, they instead labelled him unelectable. So when the coup began it was not surprising that it was happening so much as it was surprising that people claiming to be more competent and electable than Corbyn had chosen the worst possible moment for such a leadership bid.
Why was it bad timing you ask? Well, firstly they had gone to early. Like a cycling race where timing your attack to catch the leaders before they open an insurmountable lead, so to timing is critical in political assassinations and boy did the coup plotters mess up on that front. Regardless of who the leader is, attacking them before seeing out a year in charge is going to get the hackles of a lot of undecided party members and supporters up. You don’t have to like Corbyn to at least think he should have a year to try and get things going in the right direction.
Second, they had chosen a time of Tory party disarray to launch their own, even more acrimonious, civil war, which thus diverted a lot of negative attention from the Tories onto Labour. Rather than scoring points on the Tories, Labour became the media punching bag. Rather than mounting a credible alternative, calling for a general election or, you know, anything productive, we got an expensive, damaging civil war that left us in the same place we started but worse off, whilst the Tories emerged from their moment of grand disaster with a new leader and a swell of support.
On top of this, the coup failed, not just because of the awful timing, but also because it was so catastrophically ineptly enacted. Attacks on Corbyn at the time focussed on his lack of charisma, his poor political judgement and other such comments. So when deciding who should run against him it might have been nice if political competence and charisma had been used as qualifying factors. Instead it seemed like the whole parliamentary party had decided he had to go, but no one could quite figure out who should replace him. In politics it is usually a good start to have an alternative to the thing you dislike. Ed Miliband demonstrated that quite aptly.
The eventual selection of a man whose name I literally can’t remember, who had the exact blandness and political identikit approach and feel that the membership had rejected in selecting Corbyn was such a poor choice as to warrant the question (by myself on a daily basis at least) of what the hell are you people doing!?
I suppose I could rant about the coup attempt all day, the bottom line is attacking a man for lacking competence before demonstrating none yourself is the single stupidest and most counter productive thing I’ve ever seen in modern politics from any party. To see it from Labour, a party I pay money to each year, a party I campaign for, defend, love… it wrenches you inside.
None of this is meant as a great defence of Corbyn I quickly jump to add. The man is incompetent – though not as bad as made out by many and there have been things to applaud – though usually from his shadow chancellor, who, unlike Corbyn, has grown into his job somewhat and advocates a perfectly balanced radical yet responsible approach to the economy that should be lauded as a brilliant strategy and exactly what the country needs. If the party could unite for one moment to put a consistent narrative to the media (and the media in turn could get its own head out in the game) it might go some way to addressing the Tory’s lead on the economy with the electorate.
Alas, instead, the party is tearing itself apart. By committing itself to Brexit, Labour have handed the Lib Dems a load of support from the Brexit Remain camp. Within the party, ‘moderates’ (who were most likely to back remain) are pushing for a tougher stance on immigration, whilst the Corbyn faction (more associated with leave) are backing a more liberal approach. Add to this people like Lord Donoughue calling for a change in tack on climate policy (because it’s bad for working people to try to avert a massive climate crisis, as if the impacts for these things never fall most on the poorest…) and you have a party full on questioning its direction and identity.
And what of potential leaders within the party? Well, Andy Burnham, a two time failed leadership candidate, is out spouting the anti-immigration line in his bid to become a local mayor. Apparently the left has to appeal to racist voters, because if we don’t legitimise their views, then the far-right will. I appreciate the need for a grownup and genuine debate on immigration, I reject the notion that involves pandering to the lowest common denominator.
Meanwhile others are keeping shtum. Probably in the hope the party won’t have disintegrated into two parties two years from now and will instead be crying out for someone to rescue the situation. It’s a problem the left has; we always pin our hopes on some brilliant leader to fix everything, rather than actually living our values and seeking co-operative success. And it’s a pity because things needn’t be like this.
Imagine, perchance, an alternative reality. Say in the wake of the Brexit result, Corbyn and his team had gotten together and taken a vote. Now is the time to strike, but we need a clear, concise, co-operative agreement on how to proceed. One that not everyone will agree with, but that everyone will follow. The question would be simple; push for a general election in advocacy of preventing Brexit, or push for a general election with the ‘best deal for Britain following Brexit’ line. Either way, it should have been a collective decision, collectively pushed.
Worst case scenario; Labour loses a general election. Corbyn gets to go down as the guy who forced the government into a general election four years early. His opponents rejoice because he’s had to stand down, whilst his supporters feel vindicated that he got to contest a general election. The party has a fresh leadership election in which it probably elects a ‘moderate’ who has the mandate to prepare the party for the next general election and position the party on Brexit etc.
Best case scenario; Labour wins a general election. Corbyn’s opponents rejoice that we’re in power and he’s kept them in employment.
Most likely scenario; The Tories don’t call for a general election, but take the hit politically. In a year or two’s time, Corbyn is politely told to stand aside or face a leadership contest which will either remove him, or doom him electorally. Corbyn, if he had any sense, would step aside, take a position such as Party Chairman where he could continue to keep the base energised and influence policy, but have a moderate, ‘electable’ individual take the reins for the run up to a general election.
Unfortunately we are not in that reality. We’re in the one where it’s a choice between different sets of incompetents. And all the while, as pundits and talking heads comment on it all, and progressives muse as to whether to back the Lib Dems, whilst Remain v Leave still dictates the political affairs of the day, it is the country at large and the most vulnerable in it who continue to suffer the most at the hands of austerity and will continue to do so until the left and the Labour Party itself can get its act together.