Labour ought to have won the 2019 General Election. Tories had been in power for almost a decade and austerity had been hitting the country hard. Instead, Jeremy Corbyn’s party suffered a crushing defeat. In this edited extract from his new book, Three Years in Hell, Fintan O’Toole predicted Labour’s catastrophic losses and attributed this failure to the Corbyn Effect.
It is a mark of the strangeness of current British politics that an epoch-making election is being contested by two would-be losers. Boris Johnson is prime minister because he led a Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum that, as he assured David Cameron at the time, he expected to be ‘crushed’. And Jeremy Corbyn had no real intention of becoming leader of the Labour Party for any great length of time. Historians of the future may struggle to understand how things of such consequence have been determined more by accident than by design.
Labour ought to be headed for a great victory on 12 December, one that could change Britain as radically as Clement Attlee’s triumph over Winston Churchill did in 1945. The ambient noise in most parts of the UK is about the state of the health service and social care, cuts to police numbers and the melting away of local facilities, from buses to libraries to playing fields. The Conservatives have been in power for almost a decade and their fingerprints are all over the austerity policies that have brought the country to this pass. They have also shredded their own brand, abandoning any claims to pragmatism, competence or indeed conservatism. They are led by a man who has very low levels of public trust and who has to dodge TV debates and interviews because he is so liable to self-destruct in a welter of lies and bluster.
Labour should be walking it. But the party has no chance at all of winning a majority and it could well suffer catastrophic losses in its own traditional heartlands. A large part of this failure can be named in advance: Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is relentlessly vilified by the Tory press and there is no doubt that this is a huge factor in the election. But talk to anyone on the ground in those crucial areas of the Midlands and the North, including those who want Labour to win, and they will tell you that traditional Labour voters are, as perhaps the best journalistic diviner of the popular mood in Britain, John Harris, puts it, ‘bitterly dismissive of Jeremy Corbyn’.
Polling bears this out. Corbyn is regarded favourably in YouGov’s large-scale surveys by 21 per cent of voters and unfavourably by 61 per cent. The authoritative British Election Study last March showed that the relatively benign view of him in the 2017 election campaign had by then evaporated. Asked to rate him out of 10, voters gave him 2.6 for competence, 2.8 for likeability and (crushingly for a man who can claim to have been true to his principles for a very long time), just 3 for integrity.
These dire figures are not all down to anti-Corbyn propaganda: even voters who say they were impressed by him in the 2017 campaign now rate him at dreadfully low levels. More than half (54 per cent) of those who voted Labour in 2017 wanted Corbyn to be replaced as party leader before this election.
Corbyn is so widely disliked that he has created an electoral paradox that probably deserves to be named after him. The Corbyn Effect is that bad opinion polls for his party are good news because people are more likely to vote for their local Labour MP if they are convinced that there is no chance of Corbyn becoming prime minister. It is not a distinction any party leader can be proud of.
But it does require explanation. Corbyn is, by all accounts, a nice man with a largely avuncular presence. He can become peevish under pressure but he is quite fluent in debates and generally retains his dignity and his innate politeness. He is not corrupt or venal. He clearly cares about social justice and equality. He does not come across as cynical or crazed by ambition. He is not a sociopath.
He is up against an opponent in Johnson from whom just 13 per cent of voters say they would buy a used car. So why are so many traditional Labour voters so ‘bitterly dismissive’ of Corbyn?
One reason has to do with ambition. It is the misfortune of the British to be faced with a choice between a man who has far too much of it and a man who has far too little. Johnson developed as a child the demented desire to be ‘world king’ – he hungers for power above all else and is willing to do and say anything to get it. But Corbyn is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Nothing in his political career before he became party leader suggested the slightest appetite for power. This may be personally admirable, but it is politically disabling.
Politics is about power. Voters may not trust those who are too obviously power-hungry, but a politician who is not drawn to power is like a plumber who doesn’t like pipes or a carpenter allergic to wood. Corbyn has been a politician since 1974 and a member of Parliament since 1983. In his thirty-two years at Westminster before he became leader of the Opposition, he made no effort to be on the Labour front bench or, when the party was in government, to hold office. He was happy to be a campaigner, taking up causes, many of them admirable (he was an early champion of LGBT rights, for example, and of the Guilford Four and Birmingham Six), many not (he voted against the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, a key step in the peace process, because Sinn Féin opposed it). He was comfortable with those who already shared his view of the world – his role was to galvanise and reinforce, not to persuade.
But he had no legislative achievements and avoided the difficult choices that come with power. And avoided, too, the kind of broad alliance-building that those who want power have to engage in. If Corbyn had more ambition, he would have forced himself outside his comfort zones of like-minded left-wingers. The way he has been as leader, surrounded by a bubble of hardliners who tell him what he wants to hear, is the way he was as a comfortably marginal backbencher. Their disastrous inability even to tolerate his own (elected) deputy leader Tom Watson is a result of Corbyn’s profound uneasiness with challenges from within.
In 2015, when he agreed to stand as a token left-wing candidate for the Labour leadership, his pristine lack of ambition was part of the appeal: as he put it, ‘I am much too old for personal ambition.’ It is indeed crucial to understand that even the comrades in the hard-left Campaign Group who put him forward as a candidate to succeed Ed Miliband had absolutely no notion of Corbyn as potential prime minister. Subsequent Corbyn boosters like the Guardian columnist Owen Jones did not want him to stand at the time and argued that a ‘soft left’ candidate should be supported instead. (Keir Starmer or Angela Eagle were seen as the best options.)
Most of those on the hard left who did want to run a candidate favoured John McDonnell, a far more obviously adept politician than Corbyn. But McDonnell himself was utterly demoralised. ‘This,’ he wrote in Labour Briefing, ‘is the darkest hour that socialists in Britain have faced since the fall of the Attlee government in 1951.’ When Corbyn’s name began to be discussed, it was as a short-term, interim figure who could hold the arena open for debate while a more credible leader emerged. As Jon Lansman, who went on to found the pro-Corbyn Momentum movement, put it:
‘Could we find someone who would be a caretaker leader, who could do it in order to have a debate about the future direction of the party and then have another leadership election two years later? It was in that context that we began to think about people like Jeremy.’
There is no evidence that Corbyn, in putting himself forward, thought of himself as doing anything other than fulfilling a duty to provoke debate. As Alex Nunns puts it in his definitive account of the 2015 Labour leadership campaign, Candidate, ‘In all probability Corbyn was volunteering for a couple of weeks of lobbying and media appearances, a chance to raise the issue of austerity and, when he failed to make the ballot, to demonstrate that the leadership election rules were rigged against the left.’
This is where accident took over. Right up to the deadline for nominations, Corbyn did not have the thirty-five nominations from Labour MPs necessary to be a candidate for the leadership. Oddly, the Corbyn Effect started here – he got the crucial extra nominations from Labour veterans such as Frank Field and Margaret Beckett, purely on the basis that he had no chance of winning and that a broad debate would be healthy. What no one – including Corbyn himself – had thought through was that Labour’s voting system had been thrown wide open to new members of the party and that there was an incoming tide of anger at the centrist politics that had produced austerity, insecurity and inequality and a new appetite for socialist and environmental radicalism.
Corbyn, instead of being at best a two-year caretaker figure, became the lightning rod for a genuinely transformational energy. His accession to the party leadership has allowed Labour to put forward serious alternatives to the feral capitalism that has unleashed brutal environmental destruction and levels of social inequality that are incompatible with democracy. But there is something tragic in this – the great current of insurgency has been channelled to a politician who has no great interest in power, no experience of using it and no ability to convince voters that he knows what to do with it.
The brutal truth is that no one (including those closest to him ideologically) would have chosen the unambitious Corbyn as the person to implement the most ambitious governmental programme in the UK since 1945. There is a vast gap between the scale of the political task Labour has set itself – a profound rebalancing of the economy and society – and the evidence of Corbyn’s capacities. His inability even to deal credibly with an issue as egregious as anti-Semitism in his own party generates a deep public cynicism about his ability to implement such sweeping change. The mismatch is viciously corrosive. Corbyn is a victim of his own radicalism – he is cruelly dwarfed by the sheer size of the task Labour has set for itself. Corbyn is the Wizard of Oz inside the great edifice of Corbynism.
Nowhere is this inadequacy exposed more brutally than with Brexit. The issue is not so much whether he has been right or wrong on the defining question of his years as leader. It is that he has been a study in powerlessness. He was conspicuous only by his absence in the 2016 referendum. And his promise to remain ‘neutral’ if there is a second referendum, as if he were the Queen staying above the fray, does not come across as regal. It comes across as an extraordinary inability to use power to shape his country’s destiny. It means, too, that he is unable to take the fight to Johnson, to expose for what it is the most pernicious reactionary project in contemporary British history. Being neutral on Brexit means being neutral on the ways it will set back every progressive environmental, social and economic cause that Corbyn believes in. At the heart of his public persona, there is a contradiction that diminishes him. If he cannot say what he believes on the question that is dividing voters, voters cannot believe Corbyn on all the other questions he cares about.
Three Years in Hell by Fintan O’Toole is published by Head of Zeus at £20 in hardback.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics.