Abi Wilkinson: A plea to both sides of the Corbyn divide
Responsibility for Labour’s abysmal polling doesn’t lie entirely with Jeremy Corbyn's supporters - or with his opponents.
There’s a scene in Peep Show I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently. A disagreement on a psychiatric ward degenerates into farce as Mark and Jeremy begin making increasingly silly claims about each other’s behaviour in a desperate bid to get them sectioned. “If you try to section me, Mark,” Jeremy snarls, “you will have crossed a line and I will section you, so help me…”
Remind you of anything? Replace “section” with the words “deselect”, “suspend” and “proscribe” and you’ve basically got the Labour party. Wild threats and accusations are flying in all directions. Language choices from hardliners on both sides are becoming increasingly frenzied and, bizarrely, militaristic. The whiff of testosterone is becoming overpowering.
Although it’s a small minority who’re responsible for the worst of the hostility, they’re some of the loudest voices. When you care deeply about Labour’s fate it can be hard to take a step back and consider how this must look to outsiders. Talk to ordinary people, though, and they’ll tell you: we’re a joke.
No swing voter with any sense is going to find what we’re currently offering appealing. I know the stock responses to this contention: one side argues that the current leadership makes that inevitable regardless, the other that he’s been undermined by members of his own party from the get go, but the truth is that responsibility for Labour’s abysmal polling doesn’t lie entirely with either camp.
Undeniably, mistakes have been made by Corbyn and the team around him. Though there have been some recent improvements many MPs are concerned that it’s too little too late. In Corbyn’s defence, I should acknowledge that his office is forced to run on roughly half the staff Ed Miliband had. It’s a partial explanation but it’s not an excuse.
It’s also true that there are some in the party who never intended to give him a fair shot, though they’d argue that their initial opposition has been well vindicated. In their minds he’s ideologically unsuitable – his leadership in conflict with their own beliefs, the assumed preferences of the electorate or both. Few of these particularly virulent critics seem interested in understanding members’ reasons for selecting an outsider backbencher they’ve repeatedly been told is entirely unelectable.
One year and one disastrous leadership challenge later, it’s looking almost certain that they’ve made the same decision for a second time. It’s expected that Corbyn will have actually increased on the majority he secured last time around. At this time the options seems clear: either the party pulls together and tries to make the best of it or an ongoing war of attrition continues to drive the whole thing into the ground. The possibility of a split is sometimes mooted, but everyone knows at heart that splitting the vote would spell certain disaster.
Listen to the people who’re arguing for continued conflict and tell me: do they actually sound like they’ve got a plan? And by that I mean a genuinely plausible route forward that doesn’t involve tearing the party apart in a stubborn quest to claim ownership of the resultant detritus. I’ve spoken to numerous people at both extremes of the divide and have heard very little realistic or constructive.
The grammar schools debate has shown what can be achieved with everyone working together. Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner has been the absolute star of the show. Jeremy Corbyn gave the best PMQs performance of his life, hammering May with six targeted questions on the issue, and even some of his most hostile MPs tweeted their support. The situation has somewhat deteriorated in the days since then, but it offered a glimmer of hope.
Consider this a plea, if you like. A desperate begging letter to everyone not too deep in the bunker to consider the option of compromise. To focus on that which unites us rather than the things that divide us. To provide real opposition to the Conservatives and attempt to approach things with a somewhat open mind. Most of all, to take the concerns of those on the other side of the divide seriously.
Though Corbyn’s supporters feel like it’s been used as a stick to beat him with, electability isn’t an imaginary issue. It doesn’t matter how appealing a party’s policies sound if it can’t secure the power necessary to actually implement them. Labour needs to develop a serious, carefully considered electoral strategy that recognises the necessity of appealing to a broad coalition of voters without abandoning core Labour principles and priorities.
That’s the other side of the equation, of course. The utility of power depends greatly on what it’s actually used for. For many Corbyn supporters, backing certain welfare cuts is a moral line they’re not prepared to cross. They think Labour should be strongly anti-austerity and don’t accept that this principle should be abandoned in pursuit of the nebulous quality of electability. Though Owen Smith has claimed to be on the same page, they suspect that replacing the current leader would increase the risk of the party pivoting in a sharply anti-welfare direction. (Many aren’t convinced that Smith is exactly electoral catnip himself, which makes the decision easier.)
This is where we are, and the differences are not going to be easy to reconcile. Unless the puzzle can be solved, though, the outlook for Labour seems bleak. So surely it’s in everyone’s interest to try?
Picture by: Jane Barlow/PA Wire/Press Association Images