It's easy to forget how potent a force disappointment can be in politics. If Corbyn loses the membership over Brexit, it could jeopardise his whole political projectby Emma Burnell / January 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
Corbyn’s strength has always been in his relationship with the Labour Party membership. The reason the 2016 “coup” attempt was always bound for failure was that he knew when asked the members would choose him over any other MP.
That campaign—even more than 2015—focused on Jeremy the man, making him indivisible from his political programme. This gave him the strength to put Labour on a path towards socialism it hadn’t been on in decades. And those like myself who worried about the electability of such a strategy were proved wrong. The 2017 manifesto offered policies that would transform our economy “for the many not the few” and added ten points to Labour’s performance as a result.
But the internal political gains the left has made within Labour come attached, at the moment, solely to the figure of Jeremy Corbyn. No one else gets a look in when it comes to the members. The programme and the man have become so indistinguishable that even those who have shown great loyalty are considered suspect (by some) if they show a glimmer of future leadership ambition.
Supportive, left wing MPs like Angela Rayner and Clive Lewis regularly come in for criticism for not being loyal enough to Corbyn. Even his right-hand man Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is sometimes seen as not sufficiently Corbynite.
This loyalty—and conflation of Corbyn the man and Corbynism the politics—has proven to the be the man’s greatest asset. But it could be the project’s greatest weakness.
Disappointment is one of the most pernicious forces in politics. Once it sets in little can dislodge it. It doesn’t just change people’s minds, it changes their memories; they don’t simply lose faith in the project they once showed such enthusiasm for, they forget they ever supported it in the first place. And once lost, that enthusiasm is almost impossible to regain.
Just ask Tony Blair. It’s hard to remember now, but he was once known as “Teflon Tony” because nothing stuck to him. Then came Iraq. Few now can remember the adulation with which he was once greeted; the cheering crowds, the chanting and the endless standing ovations.
Iraq wasn’t Blair’s only mistake, although it was his worst. And Brexit probably won’t lead directly to mass bloodshed. On some important measures, it’s a facile comparison. But in going against the anguished will of so many members, like with Iraq, Corbyn is opening up a sense of disappointment even in some of his most loyal supporters.
In an excellent piece calling for Labour Party democracy to carry the day on the decision over party policy on Brexit, left-wing commentator Paul Mason outline’s the leadership’s concerns—and lack thereof—of losing members to a centrist party. Indeed, there is even a sense that any such new party will further strengthen Corbyn’s grip on the Labour Party—and loosen that of the Blairites.
Maybe. But that belies the tribal instincts that sit at the heart of the Labour membership. Of course, some members who could not reconcile to Corbyn left. But many others didn’t. Some stayed because they largely support the overall project despite some misgivings; some stayed who want to take their party back for their faction.
If they are joined in fighting Brexit by the many thousands of members whose disappointment over Labour’s position on Brexit creates a sense of disillusionment and detachment, the momentum will be hard to stop. And that opens up the a far bigger threat to the Corbyn project than the 2016 coup attempt ever did.
If Corbyn breaks decisively from what the membership has overwhelmingly said they want on the single most important issue of our times, there are no guarantees they will stay with him—or that those who don’t will leave their party. Instead, as they did with Blair, they may well look for a new leader who embodies the values they hold dear—including on Brexit.
This doesn’t necessarily mean a return to Blairism. But it would put an end to one of the most radical, exciting and unlikely periods in modern Labour Party history—and do so before any real structural, political or policy changes have had a chance to be embedded, understood and tested.
If Mason has currently summarised the belief of Corbyn’s staff as being that “nothing will be lost if a few thousand old Blairite members and councillors clear off with Chuka Umunna when he forms his new party,” they are probably right. It is not the few members who might leave Labour who are a threat to Corbynism. It is Corbyn letting down the thousands who remain. For their sake, for the good of the overarching project and for the sake of the party democracy Jeremy has spent his life fighting to protect, Corbyn should back the call for a special conference and ask the members to support a People’s Vote.
Brexit may not be Jeremy’s political priority. But everything that he wants to do flows from this moment. This is not just ‘make or break’ for Brexit—but for the transformation of the Labour Party.