Can the Corbyn comeback overcome its Corbyn problem?

Labour have gambled the project, the party and arguably the country on one man

December 05, 2019
Corbyn's unpopularity could be the thing that scuppers Corbynism this election. Photo: PA
Corbyn's unpopularity could be the thing that scuppers Corbynism this election. Photo: PA

After a tepid first half of the election campaign, Labour started to make up ground in the polls. Record numbers of people registered to vote, most of them young. Labour's cash splurge on the WASPI campaign hit home on the doorstep in a way that free broadband didn't.

Yet something else is repeatedly coming up on the doorstep, too. Throughout the campaign, the biggest risk to Labour has been its historically unpopular leader. Jeremy Corbyn was more unpopular at the outset of this election than he was at the time the 2017 election was called, which provided the setting for his, and his party's, dramatic rise in fortunes.

That progress had been squandered in the ensuing two years—on anti-Semitism scandals, factional warfare, the hubris that sparked the ill-fated Labour Live, and endless confusion and dithering over Brexit.

Labour centrists have long fantasised that some favoured product of the Blairite machine (David Miliband; Yvette Cooper) “would be 20 points clear in the polls.” It was nonsense. Brexit cut across Labour's coalition of voters, and while their 2017 manifesto stance on the EU was deliberately unclear, it did help neutralise the issue at the polls.

But now, almost any plausible alternative leader would be outperforming Corbyn with voters—John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry, Angela Rayner, Keir Starmer. Voters have simply not taken to him, particularly the working-class Leave voters that Labour is desperately trying to hold onto under pressure from the Tories.

Media coverage plays a part, as it did with Ed Miliband. And as with Ed's bacon sandwich, some of the coverage has been nonsense. But as with Ed, not all of it has: it was fair to say Miliband was often indecisive and rarely sure of himself under assault from all sides. Corbyn is decisive in his comfort zones, but has meandered back and forth on Brexit while his frontbenchers publicly fight among themselves. The public's perception of him as weak is wrong on many issues, but it's right on this one.

And then there is anti-Semitism. The evidence that British voters are heavily influenced by concerns about racism is limited—otherwise Boris Johnson would be electoral anthrax. It is also true that media coverage of racism by Conservatives has been inadequate.

Nevertheless, one consequence of Labour's ongoing anti-Semitism problem is it suggests to voters that Labour is “extreme.” The idea of a Labour leadership at ease with racists adds to some voters' existing unease about higher spending, borrowing and taxes, no matter what assurances economists give—to say nothing of his 'friends' past and present.

Labour's manifesto is better than that of2017 in terms of welfare and public service spending—but it's also riskier, both politically and, if elected, practically. And Corbyn is not the most reassuring salesman for transformative change, lacking John McDonnell's command of detail, Angela Rayner's ability to connect with voters, or Sir Keir Starmer's “moderate” sheen. As others have noted, voters who don't believe your promises aren't going to be swayed by them.

Reported anecdotes suggest Labour is firming up its middle class support but struggling with working class Leavers. Polling data isn't so clear cut: Labour is improving quickly in Wales, for instance, and Lord Ashcroft's most recent data showed Corbyn's personal ratings improving markedly among Labour Leave voters.

But in that same Ashcroft data, Johnson was still thought of as the better prime minister by more Labour Leavers than Corbyn. (Around a third expressed no preference: voters caught between two unappealing options, who may decide not to vote at all.) When forced to choose, 46 percent of Labour Leavers preferred Johnson as prime minister to Corbyn—down from 52 per cent, but still a dangerously high figure for a party hoping to win power.

Most damningly of all, the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn being prime minister was the joint biggest fear of Labour Leavers—equal to the prospect of a second Brexit referendum. That Labour Leave voters are as worried about Corbyn as prime minister as they are about Brexit being cancelled suggests Labour should have put similar effort into finding a leader tolerable to Labour Leave voters as they put into finding a Brexit stance tolerable to them.

Boris Johnson is a terrible option on the other side. He is a charlatan who has knifed everyone who has ever known him, and someone who in debates and interviews makes it blatant, not subtle, that he has no interest in answering the question.

His manifesto, by offering so little to those wanting an end to austerity, has left a route open for Labour. Indeed, the Tories underplayed their pre-announced NHS and schools spending commitments to look even more like the party of an unpopular fiscal status quo than they are.

The Labour Left did not have to stick with Corbyn. Unlike in 2016, in the last year there have been other plausible leaders who could have successfully got Corbynism over the line into Number 10—McDonnell's standing has risen since 2016, while Rayner is less raw than before. Had Corbynite elders whispered in his ear that he should step aside, it's unlikely he would have resisted.

Instead, they have gambled the project, the party and arguably the country on one man. It is a wild gamble, one they may yet win—but if they lose, the losses will be spread well beyond their ranks.