Corbynism: phase two

What are the implications of Jeremy Corbyn’s relaunch as a leftwing Donald Trump?

This week will see Jeremy Corbyn ‘relaunch’ as a leftwing, anti-establishment populist, ditching the mainstream centrist approach that has ill-served him up until now.

Inspired by the rise of Donald Trump, Corbyn’s team have determined that the lesson to learn from the defeat of Ed Miliband is that there is nothing to be gained from trying to appeal to traditional media outlets. Rather than trying to avoid negative press, they hope to make a virtue of it, and take a hostile approach to journalists who will not peddle a soft line. What the Guardian can’t, the Canary can.

As someone who, exactly a year ago, spent a week in the stairwell outside of Corbyn’s parliamentary office trying to cover his interminable reshuffle for a pro-Labour website, surviving on next to no information and occasional cups of tea from concerned passing shadow ministers, I dread to think what hostility looks like.

Part of the rebrand push will see Corbyn hire a new deputy director of strategy and communications, to join a team which already includes a director of strategy and communications, head of strategic communications and a media spokesperson – not to mention the Labour party’s own press officers. That is quite a lot of spinners for someone who prides themselves on straight talking politics. Given the new comms policy is to revel in bad news, and the strategy devised after 16 months of leadership is a 1980s cliche nabbed from the first series of The West Wing, it is not quite clear what they will all have to do. Binge-watching the second series of The West Wing, maybe.

Still, the need for a relaunch does at least acknowledge that Labour is in a dire position, and that Corbyn is at least party responsible. Polling indicates he is repelling previous Labour voters, and less than half of current Labour supporters think he would make a better prime minister than Theresa May.

Within the world of Corbynism, however, there is a growing belief that it is not necessary to win back the voters Labour has lost, but build an entirely new coalition of support.

A strategy that works in turning away previous voters should not be surprising, given their model for victory is someone who convincingly lost the popular vote, and won only through a quirk of the electoral system, but it flies so brazenly in the face of logic that it still comes as a shock.

It is not altogether a new idea – Compass’ Neal Lawson vocalised it two years ago when he said that ‘the wrong people were voting Labour’ during our years in government.

Much of this comes down to the genuine belief on the left that 20 years ago Labour took a step away from its history and traditions, rather than a step forward within that space. The idea means that not only did Labour have the wrong policies and the wrong values, but that it attracted the wrong people (hence the disdain with which so many of Corbyn’s supporters hold Labour members of parliament). Not only was the party wrong, but the voters were too in thinking it was right. That fallacy played a role in helping Corbyn be elected leader, as many saw him to take the party back to its roots.

Phase one of that project is now well underway, as the party sheds the weight of the wrong kind of voters. Tomorrow, when Corbyn takes to the stage in Peterborough to relaunch his leadership, will presumably be the start of phase two, when the right kind of voters flock back. Whether phase one has reached completion yet is sadly unknown.

Taking such a laissez-faire attitude with your own voters is a risky plan, for obvious reasons – not least because many deterred by Corbyn have been Labour’s bedrock of support over generations. This is not just a relaunch of his leadership, then – as the various Ed Miliband revivals were – but of the Labour party itself: of what it is and who it wants to represent.

Whether it is worth pursuing as an electoral strategy should be clear from the Copeland byelection. It is a seat Labour has held continuously since 1935 (when it was called Whitehaven), despite a slim majority of less than 5,000 in all but two elections since 1983. 2017 cannot become the year of decreasing expectations.

With the so-called anti-establishment successes of 2016, Corbyn and his acolytes have now made clear they believe there has never been a better time for their politics to succeed.

They should be held to that.

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Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress.

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Comments: 15...

  1. On January 9, 2017 at 3:37 pm Alf responded with... #

    Corbyn should stick with Tory-lite New Labour methods. We lost in 2010 and 2015. Third time lucky, eh?

    • On January 9, 2017 at 3:50 pm Sophie responded with... #

      Or maybe rebuild a broad coalition of support for Labour as we did in 1992-1997, 2001 and 2005. We won then. Replicate a winning formula again, eh?

      • On January 9, 2017 at 4:02 pm David Lindsay responded with... #

        No one else contested those Elections in any meaningful sense. The Tories would certainly have won in 2005 if they had made any effort.

        On the scale of public ownership and on the extent of trade union power, Jeremy Corbyn is well to the right of Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home. That is not hyperbole. It is fact. As it is that Margaret Thatcher presided over publicly owned railways, and over a 60p top rate of income tax well above that proposed by Corbyn. And as it is that Tony Blair promised to renationalise the railways in several speeches leading up to the 1997 General Election.

        Why would Corbyn’s position not be the centre ground? You can have all the private health insurance that you like. But if you were hit by a car, or if you collapsed in the street with a heart attack, then someone would call 999, and an NHS ambulance would take you to an NHS hospital. That that call would certainly be made, even by a perfect stranger, is testament to the definition of the United Kingdom’s culture by the social democratic legacy of previous Labour Governments, and supremely of that which was elected in 1945. Everyone benefits, of all classes and in all areas. Such was always the intention behind it.

        This is the only British identity that almost anyone alive can remember, or that almost any of the rest would wish to have. Today, however, it is under threat as never before. Even in the 1980s, nothing came close to the scale of the attack, not merely since the 2015 General Election, but since that of 2010; under the Liberal Democrats, who never moderated a thing, as much as under the Conservatives.

        Labour grew from many and various roots. Trade union and co-operative. Radical Liberal and Tory populist. Christian Socialist and Social Catholic. Fabian and even, in the space both on Labour’s fringes and on Marxism’s fringes, Marxist, subject to the balancing and moderating influences of the others. Giving the wrong answers does not preclude asking the right questions. Much of the Fabian tradition also gives the wrong answers.

        Labour has always had a right wing. It always will have. It always should have. People who would prefer the purity of a Stalinist, Trotskyist or Maoist groupuscule have never been short of options. The point is to have a right wing of the Labour Party, and not merely a right wing in the Labour Party. The Leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and the Deputy Leadership of Tom Watson can achieve that.

        From the Trade Union Act, to public ownership, to the proper centrality of rail and coal, to foreign policy and wars, to Trident, to civil liberties, to the case against the European Union from the very start, Corbyn’s views are the views of Peter Hitchens, who, unlike John McDonnell, still openly wishes to disband MI5. Many of them are also shared by Peter Oborne and by several other commentators who could hardly be described as “Loony Left”.

        Furthermore, they are popular. For example, the renationalisation of the railways is consistently supported by between 65 and 70 per cent of the population, stable across all parts of the country and across the electoral bases of all parties. There is strong public support for rent controls, and for a mandatory Living Wage properly so called. Defending the NHS is massively popular. But even if none of those things were the case, a political party does not exist purely in order to follow public opinion. What would be the point of the Labour Party if it did not campaign for such policies as these?

        Labour needs to be a broad alliance between the confidently urban and the confidently rural, between the confidently metropolitan and the confidently provincial, between the confidently secular and the confidently religious, between those confident in their liberal social values and those confident in their conservative social values. It must seek that alliance across all ethnic groups, across all social classes, and across all parts of the country: One Nation.

  2. On January 9, 2017 at 4:08 pm David Lindsay responded with... #

    The tripling of Labour’s membership under Corbyn has paid off all its debts. Labourhas increased its national share of the vote at the local elections by four per cent. It has won five parliamentary by-elections, three of them with increased majorities of as much as eight per cent. It had been predicted to lose them all to UKIP, a prediction that is being made again about Copeland, Leigh, and Liverpool Walton. Some people never learn.

    We shall soon see whether one of those people is Paul Nuttall, with impending by-elections in no fewer than three Labour seats in his own North West. When UKIP does not win any of them, when Labour certainly wins two and probably wins all three of them, and when Gerard Coyne does not win the election for General Secretary of Unite, then it will be very high time to stop pretending that Labour was dying in the North. Or that its working-class supporters were exercised much at all by immigration, including in the casting of their decisive votes for Leave at the EU referendum.

    Instead, it will be very high time to concentrate on the issues emphasised by Corbyn and by Len McCluskey. For example, the fact that England’s NHS is now in such a state of humanitarian crisis that the Red Cross has been moved to intervene. On that basis, consider that Bernie Sanders was able to come within one year from 60 points behind the lavishly funded Hillary Clinton, and that in Britain there is no Democratic National Committee to rig these things.

    • On January 9, 2017 at 4:15 pm Sophie responded with... #

      I agree Labour ) are in line with, or leading, public opinion on many topics and most people agree with Labour positions – the problem is that we have no means to harnessing that opinion because most people do not have confidence in the abilities of Jeremy Corbyn to lead the country. Its no good having good policies if you have no means of gaining electoral support to form a government and begin to put then into practice

      • On January 9, 2017 at 4:18 pm David Lindsay responded with... #

        Winning five parliamentary and numerous local by-elections indicates considerable electoral support.

      • On January 9, 2017 at 4:19 pm Alf responded with... #

        No point in having slick Tory-lite careerists if they just get into power and promote Tory policies.

  3. On January 9, 2017 at 4:26 pm Chris W responded with... #

    To have a chance of winning Copeland, the party’s candidate will most likely need to be both pro-nuclear and pro-Brexit, to match local feeling. I’m not sure any wing of the party could comfortably support both of those combined – so the issue is rather will pragmatism or principle be put first at Copeland?

    There’ll be plenty to judge Mr Corbyn on in the months ahead. I just don’t think this unusual by-election is the litmus test you suggest.

  4. On January 9, 2017 at 4:27 pm Sophie responded with... #

    No point having plans for reform if you are never going to be in power and so able to implement them.

    Is the Labour Party a talking shop or a viable alternative government?

    I, and I suspect most Labour members, want the latter, ie we want to be in power, even if it means making a few changes to gain electoral support, and yes having slick salespeople to get our message across along the way

  5. On January 9, 2017 at 4:27 pm Tony responded with... #

    It’s all well and good having a popular message but if no one trusts/likes the messenger, they won’t vote for it.

    • On January 9, 2017 at 6:13 pm David Lindsay responded with... #

      They already are voting for it.

      • On January 9, 2017 at 6:32 pm Steve H responded with... #

        But not in Richmond or in Sleaford.

        Furthermore over the course of 2016 there was a Labour to Conservative swing of 0.55% in local bye elections, which saw us lose a number of seats.

        For an opposition party that is almost unprecedented and is a portent of further losses.

        Corbyn’s own ratings are abysmal.

        With him we are sunk.

  6. On January 9, 2017 at 4:58 pm Mick responded with... #

    It would be helpful if people who write articles for Progress try to do so without such blatant bias. The outcome of Copeland will be decided on which Party will promise that the jobs in the nuclear industry and associated industries will remain in that area including and a promise to invest billions in renewing Trident-and nothing else. It will not be decided on Mr Corbyns re-launch as a populist or anything else so please stop writing idiotic pieces that everyone can see through. The wish of Progress is to blame Jeremy Corbyn for a loss at Copeland, in fact I would go as far as to say many in Progress are praying for it.

  7. On January 9, 2017 at 5:22 pm Nick Poole responded with... #

    This is, of course, political suicide. Given the numbers, it is not even a question of winning back centrist Labour voters or of building a new bedrock of left-of-centre party support it’s about on-the-ground mainstream electability.

    Corbyn is a dead weight borne aloft by hard-left Labour members and harder-left entryists as an act of political revenge for so many years out in the cold while their party practised the politics of appeasement and appealing to business and the liberal end of the right wing.

    It is, in this sense, immensely selfish. Exorcising the demons of the 1990’s might be satisfying, but it is hardly the way to win an election in 2020 (or at any other time). The mark of a good leader is the people with whom they surround themselves, and actively seeking out constructive criticism. Surrounding yourself with comms professionals who strategise in a bubble and misunderstand that the increase in members was as much about people joining to vote him out as it was to endorse his leadership is just about the most wrong-headed PR plan conceivable.

    Will be interesting to see how this plays out!

  8. On January 9, 2017 at 7:59 pm Mike Homfray responded with... #

    This article was written by someone who is not only a member of the party but has a prominent position in a blog established to promote and support the party. With friends like these….

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