Corbyn won't be removed—but what happens after he steps down? The answer depends on what you think "Corbynism" isby Chaminda Jayanetti / September 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
Labour’s terrible summer, scarred by self-inflicted wounds over mishandled accusations of anti-Semitism, has once more brought grumblings about Jeremy Corbyn’s suitability as Labour leader.
Whilst immovably popular with members, MPs feel increasingly alienated and the public is wholly unimpressed; the hapless Theresa May consistently scores much better—or rather, less bad—approval ratings than Corbyn.
Indeed, a recent poll found that removing Corbyn as leader would increase Labour’s poll share far more than any shift in its Brexit policy.
Another ‘coup’ to oust Corbyn is out of the question: his position has been strengthened both by the last general election and the departure of centrists from the party membership.
No backroom manoeuvre to ease Corbyn into retirement should be considered imminent. Labour remains within touching distance of the Tories in the polls, and the horizon looks much sunnier for the opposition than the Brexit-bearing government.
However, were Labour’s poll ratings to drop sharply for any reason, and as Corbyn nears 70, attention may turn to how to preserve key parts of his agenda under a different leader while keeping the party together—“Corbynism without Corbyn,” so to speak.
Who would take up the mantle?
Critically, there are now viable alternative leaders who could in theory appeal to the Corbyn base. Two years ago, Emily Thornberry was still relatively inexperienced on the shadow frontbench, John McDonnell was seen as identical to Corbyn, and Angela Rayner was virtually unknown.
That has changed.
Thornberry is now seen as a polished media performer armed with withering putdowns and an ability to ambush rivals in debates. Rayner is one of the strongest performers in the shadow cabinet, pressuring the government over school cuts and pressing her own leadership to pledge more funding for early years’ childcare.
McDonnell has established his reputation as the brains of the operation, fleshing out a radical economic strategy and privately—but not too privately—urging Corbyn to adopt a pragmatic approach to shut down damaging rows.
Superficially, the party has three alternative leaders who could satisfy members whilst being less toxic to the public than the current incumbent.
However, while parliamentary centrists might currently think they’d settle for anyone but Corbyn, many of the current divisions are likely to continue under a different leader.
Thornberry is, fundamentally, a social democrat who dislikes Trident. Rayner is more left-wing, and was one of the rookie MPs in 2015 who publicly called for a more left-wing candidate to enter the Labour leadership race (cue Corbyn).
And yet, for a while at least, Thornberry sounded the more left-wing of the two in public. Rayner’s paean to the Blair government for helping single mothers like her was a love letter to the parliamentary party, while she has displayed little enthusiasm for Labour’s flagship commitment to abolish tuition fees.
Thornberry, meanwhile, has adopted stances on the war in Syria that critics say chime heavily with the instincts of Corbyn’s most hardline advisers—and with the line of the Putin government.
It’s as if Thornberry is trying to prove she is more left-wing than she really is so as to appeal to members; while Rayner initially sought to reassure centrist MPs that she could be trusted with the leadership—before going full-fat Corbynite to appeal to the members.
The triangulation challenge
Perhaps that is reading too much into their intentions—but even if we ditch the second-guessing, it’s possible to see how MPs might regard Thornberry with suspicion over Trident and foreign policy, while Corbynites question just how much trust they can put in Rayner to deliver a socialist transformation of the economy.
The next leadership election may turn into a test of loyalty to the Corbynite creed, even if most members are far from the ‘cult’ found in the wilder corners of social media.
But in an election where the candidates compete for the Corbynite mantle, would the winning candidate be forced into public pronouncements that bury them in the eyes of a Corbyn-sceptic public—particularly on foreign and defence policy?
Which brings us to McDonnell. Corbyn’s old ally is focused more on economic policy than foreign affairs—and it’s the former, rather than the latter, that truly motivates Corbyn’s support within the party and the country.
Corbynites of the Novara mould, seeking radical economic solutions, may well be drawn to McDonnell as the only one who can be trusted to keep the flame alive and not settle for the turbo-Milibandism of the 2017 manifesto.
Many centre-left MPs had feared Corbynomics was a recipe for electoral disaster—no longer, after last year’s snap election. And McDonnell takes a more inclusive line than in the past.
The shadow chancellor’s evident competence compared to Corbyn might also help persuade the party’s centre-left to put aside their doubts—having twice manoeuvred to keep McDonnell off leadership ballots, Labour MPs may acquiesce for a little less chaos.
What is “Corbynism”?
But would MPs follow him on foreign and defence policy where, whilst not his focus, it is hard to imagine him supporting Trident replacement, NATO commitments or military intervention? Could they be sure he wasn’t just boiling their frog until he could dispense with them? Does McDonnell really see Liz Kendall and Rachel Reeves as part of a future Labour Party? Would his supporters be happy if he did?
Corbynism without Corbyn was impossible in 2016, when no credible candidate existed. Now there are three on the horizon, but the battle lines are far more entrenched, and the mutual suspicion even deeper than it was. Corbynites have the wind in their sails—the 2017 manifesto brought much of the party together, but is now seen as milquetoast. Corbyn-sceptics see Corbynites as toxic.
What, ultimately, is Corbynism? Is it simply opposition to liberal interventionism, or outright pacifism? Will it nationalise the utilities, or private enterprise too? Is it purely anti-austerity, or does it seek a fundamental transformation of the ownership of the economy? Is it social democracy, democratic socialism, or Britain’s one shot at socialist revolution? And does it risk everything for the Palestinian cause?
Corbynism without Corbyn is a simple answer to Labour’s problems—until people start asking what Corbynism is.