We have already begun to hear laments that Corbyn’s second victory means the end of Labour as a broad church. This is nonsense, unless that church is one where only people from the right and centre of the party are allowed to be its priests. Alison Charlton (@alicharlo) responded to my tweet to that effect by saying “It’s the soft left, like me, who shouldn’t be priests. We’re rubbish at it.”
That I think captured my thoughts this last weekend. As Steve Richards writes
The so-called shadow cabinet rebels must be the most strategically inept political group in the history of British politics.
And although they were never the tightly knit group of coup plotters that some Corbyn supporters imagined, their collective thinking was completely flawed. It was self-indulgent folly by the minority group that I call the anti-Corbynistas to constantly spin against Corbyn from the start: as I predicted, it was totally counterproductive. But it was equally naïve of centre-left MPs who nominated Owen Smith to believe that all they needed to do was adopt the leadership’s economics policies.
Forget all you read about Smith not being experienced enough, or about how he made gaffes (journalists just love gaffes), how he could have run a better campaign and so on. This is nonsense. Just as with Sanders in the US, Corbyn’s support is the result of a financial crisis the after effects of which we are still suffering from and where the perpetrators have got away largely unscathed. The crisis came as a complete surprise to the political centre, and only those on the left had warned about growing financialisation. Yet these warnings went unheeded by the Labour party, in part because the left had become marginalised. That is why politicians like Sanders and Corbyn can talk about the financial crisis with a conviction that others cannot match, and their supporters see that. The constant UK refrain about entryism is, frankly, pathetic.
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In those circumstances Owen Smith had a mountain to climb. I wrote on 1st August a list of things he needed to do to win. Crucially he failed to back reducing the number of MPs required to nominate a candidate for leader, which in practice excluded any successor to Corbyn from the left being able to run. I wrote
If Smith wants Labour members to trust him, he has to show that he also trusts them in the future.
I also suggested he should now offer John McDonnell the job of shadow chancellor to show he meant to unify the party. How naïve I was, some retorted: didn’t I know McDonnell was hated by much of the PLP. Of course I knew, which was partly why it was a good idea: at least I was trying to show some imagination that seemed absent from the PLP. Team Smith even seemed unable to acknowledge McDonnell’s positive achievements, like the Economic Advisory Council (EAC) and the fiscal credibility rule. No wonder he lost.
There is no getting away from the fact that the vote of no confidence is going to be fatal to Labour’s chances at the General Election. Of course Corbyn’s performance had been extremely poor, and he ran a deeply flawed Brexit campaign. But the no confidence vote was a do-or-die act, and the chances of it succeeding were always minimal. That is political ineptitude: sacrificing your party’s election chances for slender odds. All MPs can do now is help minimise the scale of that defeat, and if some feel that given all that they have said about the leadership that that is best done from the backbenches, Corbyn supporters should respect that. They should use the spare time to think about how to revitalise the centre left, but keep these and other thoughts out of the public eye. Talk of sacrificing being part of the single market so we can end freedom of movement is not a good start. As Chris Dillow argues, they are not even worthy of the label Blairite.
What Corbyn needs to do is clearly set out by Owen Jones here. To say he has a mountain to climb is an understatement. He carries the weight of the no confidence vote. Even if the PLP now unites behind him, much of the media will act as if it does not. He risks being outflanked in the traditional heartlands by UKIP: if voters think their problems really would be reduced with less immigration (and which politicians are telling them otherwise?), they will vote for the party that talks about little else. In the new heartlands of London and other cities, anti-Brexit feeling may well find LibDem clarity on the issue attractive. (Corbyn’s margin of victory in London was small.) Corbyn’s ridiculing of warnings about the economic cost of Brexit (despite the advice of his EAC) does not set him up well to capitalise on any bad economic news.
In short, if he manages to defeat the Conservatives in 2020 it will be one of the most remarkable achievements in UK political history. Even to come close would be a great success. For what it is worth I hope he does, if only because it would force the centre-left to finally recognise their failure since the financial crisis.
This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.
Simon Wren-Lewis is Professor of Economics at Oxford University.
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