Why Corbyn must go

I’m not deeply invested in the fortunes of Britain’s Labour Party. (I accidentally rejoined the Lib Dems last year, but haven’t paid any subscription this year so possibly am no longer a member.) But I am very interested in questions of political leadership, and in the quality of democracy in a political system.

In this context, I found very interesting three pieces published online in the last week by Labour Party activists (none of whom I had ever heard of before, which must show my disconnect from UK politics). Two of them are women MPs of about the same age as me, Thangam Debbonaire (Bristol West) and Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South). The third is the somewhat older Richard Murphy, part-time Professor of Practice in International Political Economy at City University London. They all made similar criticisms of the leadership style of Jeremy Corbyn, sufficient to convince me that the Labour Party will make a huge mistake if it fails to remove him as its leader.

To take it from the top. Thangam Debbonaire tells a grim story of a botched appointment to shadow culture policy, followed by lack of communication from the leader, followed by hassle on social media from Corbyn supporters when she was ill, followed by her disillusionment with Corbyn’s post-referendum stance on Brexit and his reluctance to talk about winning elections. It’s got a lot of coverage, but actually it’s the weakest of the three – in some ways the most telling, though; there is crucially no mention of Corbyn commiserating with her on her illness. A good leader ensures that the foot-soldiers remain loyal to the ranks, even those who might have liked a different general.

Also a former shadow minister, though on transport rather than culture, Lilian Greenwood recounts three crucial moments of betrayal by her own leader. One was perhaps just about excusable – a long-planned policy announcement knocked off the media agenda by a Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. Of course the Shadow Cabinet gets reshuffled from time to time, but there are elements of sequencing which a wise leader would respect. The other two, however, are cases of Corbyn actually contradicting, on personal whim, careful policy positions worked out by Greewood with full participation of his own staff. For Greenwood also, Corbyn’s post-referendum stance on Brexit was the final straw – after several betrayals on the issues she somewhat wonkishly cared about. I am a wonk myself. I accept that sometimes our feelings get ruffled. But when our expert advice is not only given, but sought, and then over-ruled without explanation, we wonks get upset. And a good leader does not upset the wonks without telling us why.

Most damningly of all, Richard Murphy reports how his economic ideas were adopted by Corbyn for the leadership election, and then simply abandoned. The killer passage for me was this:

The leadership wasn’t confusing as much as just silent. There was no policy direction, no messaging, no direction, no co-ordination, no nothing. Shadow ministers appeared to have been left with no direction as to what to do. It was shambolic. The leadership usually couldn’t even get a press release out on time to meet print media deadlines and then complained they got no coverage.

This to me is really serious. Murphy’s disillusionment is perhaps all the more powerful because he did not hold any official position in the party. A good leader doesn’t just spout ideas to sound clever during the leadership election, a good leader takes steps to push them forward as a key theme of their leadership.

This all goes some way to explaining the extraordinary 80% vote of no confidence in Corbyn’s leadership from the people who work most closely with him and who would theoretically populate a Corbyn-led government. It’s not convincing to argue that the parliamentary party was against him from the start. As leader of a parliamentary party with a membership of more than, say, three, you have massive tools of persuasion and patronage at your disposal to engender loyalty where previously there might have been none. But Corbyn has not decided to play the game by different rules; he has chosen not to play it at all, preferring to sit on the sidelines. As Alexander Hamilton sings in the musical,

you don’t get a win unless you play in the game
Oh, you get love for it. You get hate for it
You get nothing if you
Wait for it, wait for it!

Of course, if you’re not actually interested in winning, it doesn’t matter. But this apathy is having real consequences. The Conservative government has a wafer-thin majority and has just had one of the most bizarre and bruising leadership contests in living memory. A competent opposition leader would be snapping at their heels and making their lives utterly miserable. On 20 July 2011, the despised Ed Miliband’s Labour Party sat at 44% in the polls. Today Corbyn’s Labour Party is at 29%. As Martin McGrath commented on Twitter, if his project is to replicate the “success” of movements like Syriza (polling 23% in Greece) and Podemos (21% in Spain), he’s nearly there. This is no help whatsoever to the people Labour normally claims to represent or, if you like, lead.

If the UK is to have a coherent opposition which actually holds the government to account, Labour is going to have to find a leader who is actually interested in leading. The introduction of leadership elections by members only, at the same time as broadening the membership base rather dramatically, has made this much more difficult and in fact has enabled a fatal disconnect between the membership and the elected representatives. The process of resolving this disconnect is going to be very messy indeed, with many stupid and reprehensible things done on both sides. But it is an urgently needed catharsis.

NB I’ve said very little about the actual content of policy here. I don’t regard analysing policy debates within a party that is stuck in opposition as a terrific use of my time. My argument is entirely about the execution of the policy decisions that are made, and even more so about leadership of a team to deliver those decisions. That’s where I see Corbyn failing worst, and unforgiveably so.