I Was Wrong About Jeremy Corbyn
Any analysis of his time as leader must focus on his achievements as well as his failures, not least of which was to decisively shift the debate in British politics to the left
When Corbyn’s name was put forward for the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015 it was possible to get 100/1 odds on him becoming leader. Many of those who supported him within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) did so because they wanted to broaden the debate, fearful that the party would be dragged to the right. Even Owen Jones, who would become one of Corbyn’s biggest defenders in the media, didn’t expect that he would win and feared that his presence in the contest had the potential to further discredit the left.
I, like many others, was shocked by Corbyn’s victory, but it didn’t lead to a change in my analysis. I argued that it represented a self-indulgent lurch to the left that would consign the party to electoral oblivion, hurting the very people the Labour Party exists to support. Rather than seeing the Corbyn phenomena as a significant grassroots shift that tapped into something that had a chance of resonating with large parts of the electorate, I argued that his victory was largely the product of changed leadership rules, which had put the decision in the hands of party members and registered supporters for the first time.
Despite overwhelming support amongst the membership, Corbyn inherited a parliamentary party that didn’t support him and, from the moment he entered the contest, he faced a barrage of press criticism. At the time, I saw this criticism as sensible, middle-of-the-road analysis, because it chimed with my own beliefs about Corbyn and what he represented for the party. I even supported the coup against him in 2016 and voted for Owen Smith in the leadership election that was triggered as a result. I didn’t really pause to reflect about whether the criticism of Corbyn was fair and I didn’t pause to consider what Corbyn’s chances of victory would look like if we had a press that was willing to treat him fairly and actually listen to his arguments about austerity.
When Theresa May called the snap election on 18th April 2017, I confidently predicted a Tory landslide, that Corbyn would be removed after a humiliating defeat and that the party would then elect someone sensible to start a long march back to power. Even when this analysis was blown out of the water, I didn’t reassess my convictions. Instead, I pointed to the fact the Theresa May had fought a terrible campaign and I argued that, if anything, it was an election that Labour could have won with a different leader. Again, I didn’t pause to consider that the press had thrown everything at Corbyn and he’d still managed to come within an inch of power.
After the 2019 election, I finally had the evidence I needed if I wanted to sustain my analysis. Corbyn had been decisively defeated and his project lied in tatters. Despite the popularity of individual policy measures, people didn’t trust the party and they didn’t trust Corbyn. After a decade in power, the Conservative Party had won a decisive majority and Labour were reduced to a position they hadn’t been in since 1983. Surely, it was time for the Labour Party to get serious about winning again?
But it was at this point I started to ask questions about whether my analysis could really explain the last five years:
If the Corbyn project was doomed from the start what happened in 2017? If a lurch to the left was mistaken why were the individual policies in the manifesto so popular? How on Earth did Corbyn do so well despite the media onslaught in 2017? What would have happened if Corbyn had faced a neutral media? If the right are correct and the party can only win by watering down its principles, what exactly is the point of wining?
The conventional wisdom is that Corbynism was always doomed. My point in writing this piece is to question that, partly because my own failure to do so led to some terrible analysis and some even worse predictions.
I’m not an apologist for Corbyn. After all, I didn’t vote for him to be leader of the party at either time of asking. It goes without saying that the party under his leadership didn’t do enough to tackle antisemitism and it is a relief to see this finally being dealt with under Starmer. But, I think it’s important to have a proper debate about his time in office because there is a danger that the wrong lessons are being learned. In particular I want to make two points about what I personally got wrong:
Firstly, I was wrong to argue that Labour should have elected a candidate on the right in 2015. The big achievement of the Corbyn years was to challenge the narrative around austerity that Miliband had failed to confront during his spell as leader. Those who nominated Corbyn in 2015 wanted him in the race to shift the party to the left, but he achieved far more than this. His victory and his leadership of the party ended up shifting the debate in the entire country to the left. Whatever else you happen to think about Corbyn and the movement he led, the fact that a Conservative chancellor is now being cheered for putting in place policies that would have been seen as ‘ludicrously left-wing’ if they were in a Labour manifesto, is a significant achievement.
Secondly, any analysis of the Corbyn years can’t ignore the role of the media. In an interview conducted after the 2019 election Corbyn recounts that about a week after the election he sat down in his study and read a copy of the Daily Mail from cover to cover. When he got to the end of it, he breathed a sigh and thought ‘I wouldn’t want to live on the same street as this Corbyn guy.’ It was a typically self-deprecating comment from a man whose humility and sense of calm is unbelievable given the extent to which he has been personally attacked over the past five years. As Peter Oborne argues, Corbyn was the victim of a concerted effort by the media to discredit him and everything he stood for:
Lie after lie was told about Corbyn, day after day, month after month. For the last four years very few journalists have bothered to do their job to fact-check the claims and report fairly on him.
This press campaign helped to make the media’s analysis that he was ‘unelectable’ a self-fulfilling prophesy. But, despite all of this, he almost deprived the Conservatives of power in 2017. This demonstrates that a left-wing programme for government can garner a large amount of support from the British electorate.
As Owen Jones argued in a Tweet yesterday, “Corbyn’s Labour faced formidable opposition, and made many mistakes, during a period when European social democracy in general is in crisis. It’s impossible to have a rational conversation about this. The whole period is just buried as a disgrace, with no other lessons learned.” I hope the above is a small contribution towards addressing this.