Normally when I write about politics I try to be measured but since so many of my social media friends voted for him I thought I’d try something less nuanced.
The Corbyn project is of course fundamentally flawed. Jeremy Corbyn has been an MP for 32 years. During which time he as regularly voted against his own party and voiced his own opinions; often to criticise the status quo or received wisdom. Politics needs such people who expose, critique and subvert power but it requires them to maintain a certain detachment from power. That detachment collapsed the moment Corbyn became leader of Her Majesty’s official opposition. Leading the parliamentary Labour party, making use of a ‘chief whip’ and seeking to represent the party in an official capacity are all about the exercise of power.
The opening days have been a disaster. A brief look at political history shows the degree to which public perceptions of the opposition leader are formed in the early days. William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Ed Milliband were all affected by this and so will Jeremy Corbyn. The number of women in the shadow cabinet and the roles they hold; singing / not singing the national anthem, rambling speeches all create the impression of someone at sea on a small boat in a raging storm. Yesterday there was a commons vote on reducing tax credits.
He’s in an impossible position. It is known what Jeremy Corbyn thinks, for example about Trident and nuclear weapons. However, as leader he is bound by existing policy decisions which means he has to fall back on phrases like ‘our policy is developing’ and ‘we are going to have to change our policymaking process’. Those are perfectly reasonable things to say when you are making gradual change, but make it almost impossible to lead the party on a day to day basis. Every journalist worth their job will prize into the gap between Corbyn, his MP’s and the Labour party’s policy.
There will be some, of course, who will counter by saying that these are early days and he is just finding his feet. There will be those who argue that the media are locked into, largely right wing, paradigms and there treatment of him is part of the problem. There will be those who argue that his determination to do politics differently means it will be messy because the whole system needs to change.
More worrying however is the fact that Corbyn doesn’t appear to have thought any of this through in advance, nor to have seen much of it coming. His response to criticism has been to change his position or to say ‘if that’s what the requirement of the job is’. Take, for example, singing the national anthem. Those who voted for him knew he was a republican, and choosing not to sing the national anthem is a reasoned decision. So why not let it be known that he wouldn’t sing but would stand respectfully, and then do it? Instead of having to explain it after the event and then 24 hours later changing your mind about singing in future? A similar issue appears to be bubbling with his appointment to the Privy Council.
It is all a crushing disappointment. The hype surrounding his election is reminiscent of the ‘I agree with Nick’ excitement at the 2010 election, where Nick Clegg (leader of the Liberal Democrats at the time) got lots of public affirmation and votes for his party which he lost as soon as his party voted for tuition fees once in government. Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign energised large numbers of people who want a different way of doing politics. It resonated with people who are longing for a political system which reflects their concerns and aspirations. But the danger is that it becomes like an unhealthy large church which attracts lots of people in the front door, whilst seeing an equal number leave out the back doors, but with their faith replaced by disillusion and cynicism.
“You campaign in poetry you govern in prose” said Mario Cuomo some decades ago. To be leader of the opposition is not to govern the country but to govern your party and appear as an alternative potential government in the hope that at a future election your party will have the chance to form the government. That requires competence in opposition and an attractiveness that wins wavering voters (and those who didn’t vote for you last time) to your cause in the General Election. Thus far there is precious little evidence that Labour, under Corbyn’s leadership is going to be able to do this. Indeed, many of the most negative press coverage so far has been written by left of centre writers.
Who knows what will happen. He might resign in a matter of months. His party might support him through the next election, based on the positive feedback and enthusiasm of Labour party supporters. Some of his policy ideas will be proved right, some will be nicked by the Conservative party (for example a people’s QE) but, like his performance at PMQ’s his stint as leader will prove to be interesting but ineffective; a sign of what might be rather than a bright new dawn. It might just give birth to a new generation of labour politicians who change the country but only after a longer stint of Conservative government.