David Herdson: Labour should ditch Jeremy Corbyn - but not over Brexit
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour has belatedly entered its final phase, though that could yet be quite a long one.
The warnings were there. The revolution might have finally eaten itself. Corbyn has turned out to be the ultimate Red Tory, voting to give the government power to trigger Article 50.
In reality, he of course remains nothing of the sort but reality has very little to do with it. Scottish Labour stood alongside the Tories in 2014 and in doing so, accelerated decline into disaster. Blairites and moderates have similarly been labelled ‘Tories’ for daring to listen to what key swing voters want. And now the greatest betrayal of all: Corbyn himself joins Bill Cash, Peter Bone and the like in voting for Brexit.
That he has done should come as no surprise. Corbyn has always been on the Eurosceptic wing of Labour although it’s never been a particularly core issue to him, hence his ambivalence during the referendum. This all was known and ignored by members who looked to him as the new messiah.
His history for them, however, is beside the point. He was elected to oppose, and oppose he has not.
The irony here is that for once, Corbyn is far more in touch with the public and with the kind of voters Labour needs to win back than his parliamentary party is (the most recent ICM poll, for example, suggests that the voters Labour’s lost since 2015 break about 4:3 for Leave). In backing the public and endorsing the referendum result, it is he who is the moderate and his critics who are the ideologues and extremists.
In fact, Corbyn’s strategy of endorsing the public vote and then trying to tie the government down over the details, to limit the extent of Britain’s withdrawal and to exploit weaknesses and divisions within the Conservatives is exactly the right one and what any sensible opposition would be doing.
But that won’t save him. His decision to vote to leave and to back the Tories in doing so looks to have produced a sea-change in the support that saw him elected and re-elected. The New Statesman reports that Labour has lost 7,000 members in the last week. Chances are that most of these are disillusioned ex-Corbynites. More will follow and more again will simply let their membership lapse. After all, the Brexit process will produce plenty more votes like this week’s.
In reality, it’s not Brexit that will doom Corbyn, even if it’s the excuse. His failure to speak up strongly and clearly during the referendum might well have tipped the result from Remain to Leave (among many other things that achieved the same end). It wasn’t held against him then, when it really mattered. Why is what ought to be a much lesser transgression in the eyes of Europhiles being held against him now?
Part of the answer is that those critics aren’t seeing straight. As ever, what is done is far more visible than what isn’t done. The larger part of the equation though is that Corbyn’s opponents have only ever been awaiting the right opportunity to strike, and with good reason. Labour’s polling figures remain catastrophic: only Michael Foot’s Labour and William Hague’s Tories have ever polled so poorly in opposition; neither is a happy precedent.
The risk for Labour is that while they would be entirely right to ditch Corbyn, they’d be wrong to do it over Brexit. If they did then the only logical course of action that they could take would be to reverse his policy and compete with the Lib Dems and SNP for the hardline Remain vote, infuriating further those who’ve already switched from Labour to UKIP and possibly pushing more in that direction. These might be offset by other voters attracted by the prospect of a competent leader (assuming that Corbyn’s replacement is indeed a competent leader) but still wouldn’t represent much of a step forward.
Above all, opposing the Article 50 Bill hands the Conservatives the enormous campaigning advantage that they can claim that they respect the will of the people while Labour ignores it.
Corbyn’s leadership has belatedly entered its final phase, though that could yet be quite a long one. Trust once lost is hardly ever regained and all the more so for those who are in politics to protest and campaign. In doing what he’s done, Corbyn has lost a huge amount of trust and with it, authority.
That gives his opponents their chance. They will probably only get one more shot at a leadership challenge this parliament (assuming it runs through to 2020; it may not) – it wouldn’t be credible to mount a bid every summer. To make it count, they need to nominate the right person and that means doing so at the right moment and on the right issue. Now isn’t yet that moment and above all, Brexit isn’t that issue.
Picture by: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images