A confession. I should have written this piece some time ago. I say this not to underline my incompetence, I fear this is scarcely necessary, but out of fairness to my subject. It’s now a touch over two weeks since I interviewed former senior Labour staffer Jo Green, who held various positions within the party between 2005 and 2016 including Head of Press and Broadcasting and Director of Planning. It turns out two weeks can be a long time in politics (that’s a catchy phrase – people should use it more often). When we spoke the Conservative Party was enjoying double digit polling leads, according to the most recent YouGov poll this has been cut to five points. The Tories social care disaster, and a dose of magic money tree politics from the Labour leadership (think tuition fees), have seen to this. I don’t know whether this is a temporary blip or a sign of something more substantial, but for the purposes of this article it scarcely matters. Both of Green’s fundamental points, that the Labour leadership doesn’t look like a Government in waiting and has been morally compromised by extremist associations, remain valid. The Labour Party still needs saving.
My first piece based on the interview with Green dealt with how the radical left were able to take control of the Labour Party. This follow up article addresses a still more important question. How can the party be saved? That is how can Jeremy Corbyn be removed from the leadership, and then the Labour Party’s reputation reconstructed. Green starts by outlining those factors which support the present leadership. The Labour membership has, in Green’s own words ‘changed radically’ since Corbyn became leader in 2015. Corbyn has ‘hoovered up every sort of left wing activist in the country’ alongside which there’s been a ‘gradual chipping away of moderate people who’ve left’. Most interesting is the social changes which have accompanied this transition. More than a little ironically, Green argues that the Corbynite influx has made Labour less a party of the working-class. The new members are drawn disproportionately from the ‘university educated middle-class’, with large concentrations in certain ‘very much metropolitan areas’ such as London, Bristol and Brighton. This argument is supported by a trove of internal party date which was leaked to The Guardian at the beginning of 2016.
Alongside a change in its membership Green argues the Labour movement has become increasingly inward-looking since Corbyn’s triumph, focusing on a bubble of existing supporters rather than reaching out to the wider public. This is perhaps best observed in the rise of new ultra-partisan pro-Corbyn media publications, like The Canary and Skwawkbox, which stylistically feel very similar to the American alt-right’s Breitbart. Green describes the growth of these publications as ‘a huge problem…one of the biggest problems for the Labour Party’, asserting that ‘these sort of alternative media sites have absolutely no interest in engaging with anyone outside of a very small echo chamber and that is a disaster’. Green is convinced the some of these sites are receiving information from the party leadership, claiming that ‘the leadership loves these people, they speak to them on a daily basis, they feed them stuff’.
Jeremy Corbyn at the 2016 Labour Party Conference in Liverpool.
If Labour gets hammered on 23 June Green thinks there’s a good chance Corbyn will stand down voluntarily, or semi-voluntarily following massive pressure from within the Labour movement. He questions what Corbyn would stay on for, noting ‘he’s in his late sixties, there’s not going to be an election for five years’. Some believe that Corbyn will try and hold on until the Labour leadership rules are changed, so another radical left candidate can get on the ballot to succeed him. Green views this as unlikely, claiming the left ‘can’t win that vote now, the rules aren’t going to change’. Should Corbyn prove reluctant to go Green thinks the key push could come from the unions. The GMB, which backed Owen Smith last summer, is already hostile whilst Green is confident that Unison won’t back the Labour leader again. Perhaps the most important reaction will be that of Unite General Secretary, and current Corbyn ally, Len McClusky. Green opinions that ‘if McClusky turns on him it’s definitely all over’ adding that the election result is likely to be ‘so bad that Len McClusky won’t want to look utterly ridiculous’ by continuing to support Corbyn.
Should Corbyn refuse to stand down following a decisive defeat Green believes another leadership challenge will be required, which ‘in all likelihood he wouldn’t win’. But if Corbyn does hold on Green ‘can’t see any other course’ for Labour moderates ‘than to form a new party’ as ‘it will be very clear that the [Labour] party’s basically been taken over’. If this happens the British party system could experience its most fundamental shakeup since the post-WWI Liberal collapse. Wouldn’t it be grimly ironic if, far from being the promised savour, Corbyn turns out to be the Labour Party’s gravedigger?
Labour’s 2010 leadership election candidates, when David Miliband was the members choice.
If Corbyn resigns or is removed from the Labour leadership he ought to be replaced by someone more moderate. Another candidate of the radical left would require nominations from 35 Labour MPs to get on the ballot paper, and it’s hard to imagine this will be forthcoming (I doubt the desire to ‘widen the debate’ will be as strong this time around). Assuming this is the case Green is clear that the party will need to take significant steps to reconnect with the public, though he’s confident this can be achieved. Green harks back to the aftermath of the 2005 General Election, when some commentators argued the Tories wouldn’t win again, yet ‘within two or three years there was a sort of inevitability about them forming the next Government’. This is a process Green believes Labour can repeat. He asserts that to re-establish trust ‘we’ve got to be honest with people and say that we’re out of touch and we’ve let them down and we’ll listen to you’ as ‘we haven’t listened to people for a very long time’. Particular effort will be needed to rebuild the link with parts of Labour’s traditional base, as Green claims that ‘large sections of the working class are just appalled…by Corbyn and have nothing in common with him’. Labour needs the support of these voters to rebuild the election winning coalition which kept it in power between 1997 and 2010.
The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn is, to my mind, morally and intellectually a shadow of its former self. I suspect we will shortly be able to add electorally to this list. If the Labour Party wants to have a realistic chance of governing Britain again, its clear Corbyn needs to go. He lacks the competence to effectively lead either the country or his party, and on several crucial issues is badly out of step with the British public. Even today many of Corbyn’s internal opponents go out of their way to describe him as a decent man. Perhaps. But if Corbyn attempts to stay on as leader after electoral defeat I doubt historians will be so forgiving. If he is rejected by the general public in addition to his own MPs, an attempt to cling to office will look worse than indecent. If Corbyn does go Labour will have to work hard to resurrect its reputation. At times this process won’t be pleasant. Sacrifices will be needed to show that the Labour Party still owes more to Methodism than Marxism. Yet if there’s one thing we’ve learnt from Corbyn’s period as Labour leader it’s that reputations can be transformed remarkably quickly. It may be a painful process, but there’s no reason why Labour can’t again become a natural party of Government. The Labour Party can be resurrected.