On 24 September at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader for the second time. Roundly thrashing Owen Smith, Corbyn increased his percentage of the vote from 59.5 per cent in 2015 to 61.8 per cent in 2016 – even more impressive given that almost 85,000 more voted in 2016.
The leadership contest was launched in the aftermath of the EU referendum, when dozens of Labour Shadow Cabinet members – fearful of a disaster in an early general election – resigned in an attempt to dislodge Corbyn from office. When he refused to go, Angela Eagle stepped up to launch a leadership contest, before stepping back down to allow Owen Smith to have a clear run at taking Corbyn down. Smith sold himself as just as radical as Corbyn, but without the baggage – essentially, an electable Jeremy Corbyn. And yet, Smith couldn’t even win the leadership election – how was he meant to win a general election? And how can Corbyn win two leadership elections so convincingly when the vast majority of his MPs think that he is electoral poison?
Corbyn scraped on the ballot, literally at the last minute, and from then he was off.
The answer, as so many do, lies in Ed Miliband. In 2013, Miliband proposed changes to the way that Labour elects their leader, and these proposals were accepted by the party in 2014. Miliband and previous leaders had been elected by a system that placed one third of the vote each in the hands of three groups – the party members, the trade unions and the Labour MPs. This meant that, while the MPs were fewer in number, their collective vote towards the leader was equal to the vote of the mass membership. The changes, however, altered the voting process to a system of ‘one member, one vote’ – in other words, the vote of a single MP counted just as much as any regular member. This gave the most voting power to the more left-wing grassroots membership, which far exceeded the other two categories in numbers. To become a leadership contender, a Labour MP needs to gain the nominations of 15 per cent of their colleagues. For the 2015 election, this was 35. Corbyn scraped on the ballot, literally at the last minute, and from then he was off. Defying predictions from the entire political class, he was elected leader.
So who is Jeremy Corbyn, and what endeared him so quickly and profoundly to his supporters? The lifelong backbencher was not a typical leadership candidate – in fact, he didn’t even particularly want to be leader. Before the leadership election, Corbyn and his left-wing allies met to discuss putting up one of their number to broaden the debate. Corbyn explained: “We decided somebody should put their hat in the ring in order to promote that debate. And, unfortunately, it’s my hat in the ring.” Given that a few others had previously stood, it was decided that it was “[his] turn.” Supporters see this reluctance to lead as one of his many qualities suiting him to leadership. He is seen as honest – his slogan ‘Straight talking, honest politics’ makes this one of his main selling points – and principled, having fought for causes his entire life without changing his views to suit the mainstream political consensus. Given decades of spin and media management, as well as common dislike and distrust of politicians, surely a down-to-earth, principled man is exactly what the public wants?
Despite this, he has had to endure constant criticism and calls to resign from members of his own party, coming to a head after the EU referendum when much of his Shadow Cabinet resigned and 80 per cent of his MPs voted that they had no confidence in his leadership. The majority of his MPs – and his general critics – have a laundry list of his faults. For one, there’s his (and his close ally and Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell’s) association with the IRA, which includes speaking at several official republican commemorations that honoured both the dead and living IRA ‘soldiers’. Corbyn was the general secretary of the board of editors of the hard-left magazine Labour Briefing, which ran an article shortly after the Brighton Hotel bombing of 1984, in which the IRA targeted Margaret Thatcher and other senior politicians, killing five – including a Conservative MP. This article praised the bombing, saying that “the British only sit up and take notice when they are bombed into it.”
For another, there’s his political positions. Critics see him as a throw-back to the 1980s, where Labour roamed unelectable by standing on ideas such as, among other things, that Britain withdraw from NATO and unilaterally disarm itself of nuclear weapons. Corbyn has suggested that we have Trident submarines without nuclear missiles, and when asked whether he would act in accordance with the treaty by defending another NATO country if it had been invaded, ignored the question and simply said that he wants to work towards a world without war – implying that he would ignore Britain’s international obligations. Put simply, the key criticism of Corbyn is that he is not a leader but a protester, a campaigner, someone more happy marching than being marched against.
This may well be a fair assessment. In a VICE interview with Corbyn and McDonnell shortly before the 2015 election, McDonnell opined that: “You can’t change the world through the parliamentary system,” and that “getting political representation is important, but change comes through using direct action, campaigning, and trade unions.” Corbyn often speaks using ‘we’, not ‘I’, referring primarily to McDonnell but more generally to the left-wing clique they lead. The article even notes that both feel comfortable with the other taking the lead in the interview. It is fair to say, then, that the opinion of one is – generally – the opinion of the other. By his own admission, Corbyn believes more in campaigning and protest than Parliamentary politics, and has repeatedly expressed his desire to transform the Labour Party in to a ‘social movement’ led by the mass membership.
His critics argue that this primary focus on building a social movement is a futile, introverted effort that will lead in failure at a general election – after all, what’s the point of just getting the votes of those who were already going to vote for you? They believe that Corbyn’s politics – and, perhaps more importantly, public perception of Corbyn – will push key swing and Conservative voters in to the outstretched arms of Theresa May, condemning the country to another five years of Conservative rule. Corbyn supporters counter with the suggestion that a genuine, no-spin candidate will bring back disaffected voters who deserted the party and politics generally in the Blair years. It is unlikely, though, that Corbyn can win without appealing to those who have voted Conservative in the past.
where some see a Prime Minister, others can’t even see a leader of the Opposition.
Jeremy Corbyn is certainly a unique politician. His strengths to some are his weaknesses to others. Where some see principles, others see inflexibility. Where some see a desire to expand party democracy, others see the desire for power being replaced by the desire for protest and, ultimately, where some see a Prime Minister, others can’t even see a leader of the Opposition. Having just increased his mandate, it seems unlikely that Corbyn will be deposed by his own party. Many of those who had resigned from his Shadow Cabinet have signalled willingness to come back, and noises are coming from all sections of the party about ‘unity’. Those stringently opposed to Corbyn will likely keep their heads down for the foreseeable future to avoid being excuses for Corbyn’s defeat at the next election, if that is the case. The next test – the only real test – will come in 2020, and we will see whether the radical can convince enough of the country to try out his new style of politics.