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.
Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress.
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