Recognition of some of Jeremy Corbyn’s shortcomings is a step forward, but competence is not the only problem the leadership has, argues Richard Angell in response to Owen Jones
The video Owen Jones published this week was brave. Many in his position would not have done it. He is right to be concerned that Labour is dying before our very eyes, that an election loss with the two per cent swing against Labour seen in Stoke-on-Trent Central, let alone the 6.2 point swing in Copeland, could be impossible to recover from and that the Tories are getting off scot-free and are on course for a massive win at the next election. How rightwing, anti-migrant and blasé about cutting disabled people’s benefits they are should scare us all. Jones is right to make clear that this is in our hands and happening on our watch.
In my opinion Jones has little need to repent – two summers ago he did what he thought was right and in the best interests of his politics. It is not an apology people are looking for but for Jones to finally get the analysis right. His most recent argument still falls short. Obviously the Labour leader is a terrible communicator and Copeland was a disaster for the party. Jones is right to identify the Stoke-on-Trent Central byelection as arguably a worse result. For every 100 Labour votes in each seat in 2015, there were 69 in Copeland and 64 in Stoke Central in 2017. The Tories had a 96.9 and 73.5 per cent retention respectively.
But the voters of west Cumbria did not pass judgement on Corbyn’s press strategy, performances at prime minister’s questions or lacklustre approach to campaigning. It was not about establishment Westminster bubble concerns – Jones should really know better. It was a judgement on his politics.
The people of west Cumbria were appalled that Corbyn’s lifelong and ‘principled’ position is to scrap their jobs. Emily Thornberry might call this ‘fake news’ but as recently as 2011 he casually called for closure of Sellafield and the like. His desire to abolish civil nuclear power in the United Kingdom would leave their community, and many others across Britain, on the scrap heap. The politics of Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and, yes, Jones too, would see Copeland go the same way Margaret Thatcher let mining communities go across Britain: bereft of work and the dignity that goes with it, with no prospect of it being replaced. Despite what Momentum’s Emma Rees argues there are no roads nor infrastructure projects that could be built that would provide a viable and well-paid alternative.
Jones provides a number of dangerous straw-men in his argument about why the left should ditch Corbyn as part of a deal with Labour members of parliament to put the Norwich South MP or another hard-left candidate on the ballot. He argues that Corbyn’s politics is a leftwing version of motherhood and apple pie: ‘to invest in the economy rather than cut, or introduce a genuine living wage, or return public services and utilities into the hands of the British people, or increase workers’ rights’. This is nonsense. Liz Kendall stood for most of these things, their best chance of being implemented would have been under the then chancellors’ ‘Darling Plan’ and remaining part of the European Union.
No, the people of Copeland know what hard-left politics really is. It is an aversion to the industrial interests of the working class. Whether it is on civil nuclear power, fracking, Trident, defence more generally or security firms like G4S, the current leadership of the Labour party is against it. West Cumbrians were so appalled by the Labour leadership – and its plans for their jobs in the unlikely scenario that they get into power – that they preferred to punish it rather than a Tory government for actually closing their maternity unit and urgent care centre. This is the harsh reality those who supported Corbyn, including Jones, must acknowledge. The idea that someone like Clive Lewis – who wants a ‘progressive coalition’ with the Green party, who also believe this anti-industry nonsense – is the answer is just not true.
The voters last Thursday were not taking a narrow view of their future. The voters in Copeland clearly see their neighbours in the Barrow shipyard as canaries in the mine. Opposing nuclear – weapons rather than power – has been central to the creation of Momentum and Corbyn, even as party leader, has spoken on platforms against Labour policy on the issue. Yes the two issues are interlinked – they know that unilateral disarmament is the step immediately before the abolition of civil nuclear power – therefore they clearly felt they had to make a stand. The left once referred to this as ‘worker solidarity’.
The result was clear from just these issues. This is before the Tories repeat accounts of Corbyn and McDonnell support for the IRA, their reference to Hamas as ‘friends’ and association with the anti-West Stop the War Coalition. Jones’ says ‘Corbyn’s first impression was disastrous’ and he is right – it will be hard to change the introduction he made to British public: refusing to sing the national anthem, snubbing British troops and refusing to protect the public if what happened in Paris were to be repeated here.
Jones is right to say not all of Labour’s problems started with Corbyn. I know of no one in Labour who thinks that the opposite is true, and few come more ‘militant anti-Corbyn’ than I. But the aforementioned reasons for our loss of support in Copeland, are in addition to the problems inherited from Ed Miliband and the last Labour government. Equally, ‘Corbyn’s internal critics’ as Jones points out ‘have remained largely silent, yet Labour’s polling has continued to slide’ so Corbyn’s problems are not Labour MPs fault either.
The ‘dilemma torturing so many who supported Corbyn’ must be personal and real. I do not down play that. However, as Jones points out: ‘consider the stakes’. It is a ‘rightwing Tory government, infused with an increasingly xenophobic and authoritarian brand of populism’. As horrific as that government is, the voters in two Labour-held seat deliver their verdict on both Corbyn and Corbynism.
But the reality is worse than Jones’ analysis suggests. It is the incompetence surrounding the leader that is currently cocooning him from electoral reality. His poor communication strategy and inability to deliver a message for Labour left it unclear in voters minds about whether his longheld view on nuclear or recent support for Moorside were what he actually believed. Had he been between more forceful in his argument he would either have more clearly articulated what is clearly a ‘principle’ against nuclear and thrown away the seat more convincingly or shown his u-turn for what is was – a cynical attempt to win voters with no intention of seeing his promise through. Hardly the best route to become prime minister. Instead his ‘means well just incompetence’ imagine is in tact.
It is the politics that lost for Labour in Copeland and is why is so far behind in the polls. Jones need to wake up to the fact that had Corbyn been a better communicator of his politics the result in Copeland, and potentially Stoke Central, would have been worse.
Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets at @RichardAngell
Photo: Richard Gardner
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