James Millar: Jeremy Corbyn must choose his friends carefully
With his MPs no longer out to get him the Labour leader faces a moment of truth this summer
At Prime Minister’s Questions this week Jeremy Corbyn urged Theresa May to “take a check with reality”.
No-one says that. The phrase is ‘a reality check’.
Three months ago the lobby wags and the wits of Twitter would’ve mocked Corbyn for not even being able to say a popular phrase correctly.
Now it passes at worst without comment and at best it’s talked up as a hip new phrase that all the kids will be saying because their spiritual leader Corbyn has uttered it.
How things change. 12 months ago it was Corbyn dealing with a mutinous front bench, an uninspiring leadership challenge and a press that regarded him as a dead man walking politically. I don’t need to finish this comparison do I?
Now May is the zombie politician, humiliatingly described at the same PMQs session by Labour's Ian Murray as the "interim prime minister".
Instead of sending her troops off from the last session of the summer with a cheer May stumbled over her words, hesitated and generally sounded beaten. Which is odd seeing as she won the election, albeit she lost her majority and had to buy a new one from the DUP.
It’s Labour who are on the up, party chair Ian Lavery believes the “keys to Downing Street are basically dangling in front of our face”. It’s why his leader Jeremy Corbyn is going to be out and about all summer visiting target seats. It’s almost as if he misses having a leadership contest to keep him busy having spent the last two summers winning then defending his position.
But let’s be clear – Lavery, Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, these are not people known for being intellectual powerhouses in the party. They may have pulled off a surprising result last month in terms of the proportion of MPs Labour returned. But when it comes to the bald numbers Tony Blair’s mantra holds: ‘when a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party you get the traditional result’. Labour lost.
More thoughtful Labour members are sounding warnings about the party’s strategy which seems to combine campaigning with waiting for the Tories to implode.
Baroness Smith, a minister in Gordon Brown’s government and now Labour’s leader in the Lords, made a little heralded speech last week in which she said: “For what it’s worth, I don’t subscribe to the one more heave theory.” And she revealed that one of her Commons colleagues had dismissed her talk of transforming into a government in waiting because then the party would lose the ‘insurgency’ that had brought it so far under Corbyn.
Smith, who has led a model of opposition in the Lords for the last couple of years – professional, thoughtful and successful – refers to the facts. Her old seat of Basildon did not turn red at the election. Labour did not win seats it ought to have won, seats it needs to win to return to government.
That’s a refrain taken up in recent days by Caroline Flint too. She’s another former minister and she too has been considering the election results. Flint compared herself to the hugely outnumbered band of Spartans in the film 300 when talking about the onslaught from Ukip-turned-Tory voters that she and others like Gloria de Piero and even Dennis Skinner faced. She highlighted the uncomfortable truth that Labour did not win back the Copeland seat lost earlier in the year when Jamie Reed abandoned ship even though the Tory that beat him was so low key she only made her maiden speech days before the last parliament was wound up.
Flint said it was “amazing that more MPs in leave [voting] seats did not lose.”
It’s been reported that Tom Watson, deputy Labour leader, has stepped back from his role applying the brakes to the Corbyn project and trying to keep the Labour vehicle on the straight and narrow. He’s going to leave Jeremy to it, and let him decide whether to take a broad tent approach or pursue a niche left wing agenda.
He can do that now because he knows that the parliamentary Labour party is no longer hell bent on unseating Corbyn. They might not like him or his politics but the interventions from the likes of Flint and Smith are coming not from a place of disruption but a desire to help .
Corbyn’s going to have to make a choice. He doesn’t have to leave his old friends behind but if he’s going to succeed he cannot rely on the strategy that ultimately failed last month, he must heed the advice of older heads who have actually served in government if he is ever to form a government.
James Millar is a political commentator, author and podcaster
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