Corbyn's re-election means it is now a permanent party of Oppositionby John McTernan / September 24, 2016 / Leave a comment
Jeremy Corbyn stands to speak, having been re-elected as Labour leader ©Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Press Association Images Is this the end of the Labour Party? It’s hard to say, but it is definitely well beyond the beginning of the end. Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as leader, his victory over challenger Owen Smith, has committed Labour to being a permanent party of opposition. Corbynistas readily say that Labour’s poor opinion polls are all because of the leadership election and nothing to do with the leader. Or they are because of a Tory honeymoon—a new Prime Minister makes the country feel as though there has been a General Election. The one figure Corbyn’s supporters never want to talk about are his personal approval ratings, which currently lag 71 points behind Theresa May’s. They have no answer for this because this is the one measure that Corbyn is responsible for. A brave few whisper “MSM!” (that is, they lay the blame with the “mainstream media”) and briskly try to change the subject, but they all know that the public has the measure of Corbyn. Voters have seen enough of him and have decided what they think—in Attlee’s immortal phrase, when sacking John Parker, “not up to the job.” The reasons for Corbyn’s unpopularity with the public are clear. They didn’t trust Ed Miliband and Ed Balls on the economy and they trust Corbyn and John McDonnell even less. To the traditional fear that the public have of “tax and spend” lefties, McDonnell has added the “Magic Money Tree”—his plan to print money, which rightly terrifies voters. To Ed Miliband’s weaknesses Corbyn has added the issue of defence and national security by opposing the renewal of Trident, the independent nuclear deterrent, and being highly sceptical of either the value of NATO or the aggressive intentions of Vladimir Putin. These views of Corbyn’s aren’t secret—they are front and centre. Like many on the ultra-left, foreign policy is the area about which he feels most comfortable. There has not been a serious statement by Corbyn in the last year about the National Health Service—which is in crisis—or pensions, where a barely adequate system has been trashed by George Osborne. There are many good reasons to stay in Labour and fight against Corbyn. The main one is the 9m voters who wanted a Labour government in 2015, and the 13-14m who could be persuaded to vote for a progressive centre-left government. Others include the desperate need for a viable parliamentary presence which can hold the government to account over its Brexit negotiations—which will affect our wealth and prosperity for decades to come. And the fact that there are basically two Labour parties. Not the Parliamentary Labour Party and the members, but the PLP and pre-2015 members—who want to see a Labour government—and the post-2015 members who just want Corbyn as leader and don’t want anything else. The bad reason for staying is that most human of flaws, “escalation of commitment,” or throwing good money after bad. Labour Party members who stay to fight may well just be doing that. There is talk of future challenges to Corbyn, though without changing the selectorate these seem doomed to fail. Or perhaps there will be an awakening after the pending General Election defeat, whenever it is held. The problem with this is that for Corbynistas it was winning more than anything else that proved to them that Tony Blair was a Tory. Victory is the first betrayal, so defeat will prove that Corbyn stuck to his principles. In the end, as the Liberal Party has shown, it takes a long time for a once great political party to die—there is a long and lingering after-life and it is even possible to scrape into power nationally once every seventy or eighty years and more often locally. Is this the future the current crop of talented Labour figures want for themselves? Emma Reynolds, Rachel Reeves, Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall and so many others would be great Cabinet Ministers. But how do they feel about being condemned to a career of curating Labour’s past, never able to create a future? George Steiner in After Babel has a telling description of how language slowly dies before being lost: “In certain civilisations there come epochs in which syntax stiffens, in which the available resources of live perception and restatement wither. Words seem to go dead under the weight of sanctified usage; the frequence and sclerotic force of cliches, of un-examined similes, of worn tropes increases. Instead of acting as a living membrane, grammar and vocabulary become a barrier to new feeling. A civilisation is imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches, or matches only at certain ritual, arbitrary points, the changing landscape of fact.” Watching the global retreat of social democracy I have often thought of those words. Is Labour there? It may well be.