Did Labour moderates ever really ask ourselves why Jeremy Corbyn won? Conor Pope on the failure to try and understand the party
When Labour loses an election, those of us on the moderate and modernising wing of the party tend to be robust in our examination of why we did not win. The key is to listen to what the voters have to say, no matter how uncomfortable. Any comfort zone analysis – that we needed to concentrate more on the issues we care most about, that millions of non-voters really wanted to vote for us, that the voters were simply wrong – only ever leads to more defeats.
But, given the past few years, it may be fair to ask whether we examined our own internal defeats in the same scrupulous manner. It seems likely that a failure to properly examine why Jeremy Corbyn is so popular, following the leadership contests of 2015 and 2016, may have contributed to our surprise at Labour’s performance in the general election. Simply put, did moderates ever properly ask themselves: why did Corbyn win?
We have made an effort to at least partially correct that in the new issue of Progress magazine, which lands with members and subscribers this week. It is not for the first time: the same idea to better understand the direction of the Labour leadership lay behind the ‘Corbynite ideology’ essay we published in the February issue.
Then, though, we only looked at one aspect of the Corbyn phenomenon: the dogma that drives him. It may sometimes be more hidden than others, but it is important to be able to view his actions in the context of his long-held and deeply-felt beliefs. (His reluctance to push for single market membership post-Brexit makes a lot more sense when the Bennite idea of a ‘siege economy’ is considered, for instance.)
This time we have attempted to take a broader view of the Corbyn movement. Who does this politics appeal to, and why? What lessons are there to be learned? I am not so interested in self-flagellation for failing to accurately predict the outcome of the election, but analysing, without predisposition, what actually happened.
That is why our editorial rejects the idea that centrists need to eat ‘humble pie’, but does reserve praise for Corbyn and Momentum for a well-run campaign, particularly on social media. It is why we have devoted four pages to assessing the manifesto, including a feature by New Statesman journalist Anoosh Chakelian investigating why elements proved to be so popular; and it is why we have Camden council leader Georgia Gould scratching beneath the surface of a surge in youth turnout. It is all because, as Philip Collins writes, ‘Corbyn has earned the right to be taken seriously.’
In the end, centrist and centre-left Labour politics did not lose on 8 June. It could not: it was not on the ballot. That kind of politics lost in successive internal Labour elections. Its defeat was in not being convincing enough to assure fellow party members that it was the right direction for Labour. You can look back and blame rule changes or an unexpected influx of new members all you want, but that will not explain why Labour received almost three million more votes than it did two years ago under a leader that comprehensively won two internal contests in that time.
One thing the election result did was settle some internal questions for a period. That gives us on the moderate flank of the party opportunity to debate ideas, free from the prism of who exactly those ideas ‘belong’ to in some ongoing factional tug-of-war. While another candidate with Corbyn’s politics may not have struck the chord he did, the Labour leader undeniably values ideas, even if he is strictly wedded to a certain few. By interrogating why those ideas are suddenly more popular than they ever have been before, we might be able to work out some of our own.
Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress. He tweets at @Conorpope.
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