Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s Labour Party since September last year, began his reign heading up the country’s second largest political party promising that things were going to be different. He came bearing the gift of a “new, kinder politics,” and a more obviously socialist take on an ostensibly leftist organization that had lately developed a reputation for capitulating centrism. Corbyn didn’t do things by the book, while his voting history showed a career-long refusal to compromise, even in the face of harsh criticism. Many of us tired of the studied, PR-shined Westminster politician were drawn to him for these very reasons. Perhaps inevitably, before long Corbyn was being hailed by some as the UK’s Bernie Sanders: a ray of light for the left, in a world now apparently hurtling ever-rightward.
Over 16 months into his leadership, it has become clear that Jeremy Corbyn is not the hero Britain needed. Corbyn and Sanders may share a certain stubbornness, and their policies may broadly align, but where one is a relatively pragmatic and deceptively wily politician that has connected with working and middle-class voters, the other is—in the words of Barack Obama this week—removed from “fact and reality” and driving those very same voters away.
Sanders may be a man who like Corbyn is already into retirement age, but where Sanders embraces new ideas, Corbyn has proven himself fundamentally old-fashioned. Where Sanders’ aims and beliefs after years of making near identical stump speeches are clear, Corbyn’s own as leader of Labour are rarely so certain. And at a time when the right wing need to be kept in check more than at any time since the dawn of fascism in the mid-20th century, Britain’s official opposition party is still busy figuring out what it even stands for.
On contemporary issues, Corbyn’s Labour is confused. The party subscribes to the idea of job creation (at a time when new models are being proposed by progressives with one eye on the looming automation revolution) above all else, even if that clashes with deeply-held policy positions. This has led to Corbyn making some baffling proposals, like supporting the continued operation of Britain’s Trident submarines despite his strict no-nukes stance, his idea being that the subs would run minus the warheads simply so that workers remain employed, and Labour supporting construction of the controversial Hinkley C nuclear power station (even though renewable energy is now more cost-effective) again simply because of the jobs that project will create.
Labour under Corbyn did nothing last month to oppose the Investigatory Powers Act, which has been labelled the most extreme surveillance bill in the western world and which is now law in the United Kingdom. (You’ll probably know the bill better by its nickname, ‘the Snoopers’ Charter.’) Corbyn had been an opponent of extending state spying powers, but when it came time to vote the bill out of Parliament he asked his MPs to abstain. The move seems doubly nonsensical when Corbyn’s most ardent supporters, largely younger voters who in 2015 elected to make him leader of Labour, are the ones who arguably stand to be most affected.
On an issue which now dominates British politics and which will continue to do so for years to come, Corbyn is even more conflicted. The breakdown of the Brexit vote showed that a majority of Labour voters and a vast majority of voters aged 18-34—a demographic more likely to support Corbyn—elected in 2016 to remain in the EU, but Corbyn supposedly failed to recognize this when he on a day of liberal mourning called for Article 50 to be triggered immediately. (He later changed his mind, saying he would ask Labour MPs to block triggering Article 50 until his party’s ‘conditions’ for Brexit were met.)
The morning of the referendum result, despite having ostensibly campaigned for the Remain side (though with such a lack of enthusiasm that Labour voters had no idea what their party’s stance on Brexit actually was), Corbyn told BBC News: “The British people have made their decision…the message that’s come back from this is that many communities are fed up with cuts they’ve had, fed up with economic dislocation and feel very angry at the way they’ve been betrayed and marginalized by successive governments.”
It was almost as though Brexit had been a victory for him. Historically, this makes sense: the British left was once much more ambivalent towards the idea of a European Union. But that was a long time ago. To most Labour voters today, including many of those who signed up to the party en masse last year in order to make Corbyn leader, Britain leaving the European Union is suicide—and yet Corbyn’s Labour seems more eager to make it happen than any British political party but the Euro-skeptic UKIP.
That said, it’s hard to truly know what Labour under Corbyn stands for, on Brexit or any other issue. More than anything, communication—or the lack thereof—is perhaps Jeremy Corbyn’s main problem. Bernie Sanders, like Corbyn, has often railed against the mainstream media, but the former also happens to understand that politicians today must work with the media if they want to get the message out. Since November 8, Sanders has been making mainstream news and talk show appearances and appearing in print (both as writer and interviewee) with such regularity you could be forgiven for thinking this former Independent is now the de facto leader of the Democratic Party. Sanders, like Corbyn, might not always have an ally in the media, but he recognizes using all channels available to raise the profile is smarter than not.
Compare this with Corbyn, who all but shuns the mainstream media, believing he can instead circumnavigate and communicate with voters directly through social media. It’s a nice idea, and perhaps in 20 years this will be an effective way of addressing the electorate at large, but the 2016 reality is most people still get their information from the old institutions. On the rare occasion British voters do hear from Jeremy Corbyn, what he’s trying to say can be unclear—but most of the time they just hear nothing at all.
It doesn’t seem to matter to Jeremy Corbyn that Labour are no longer getting through to the masses. He and his team have been accused of having a bunker mentality, and where the likes of the Liberal Democrats and Greens—much smaller parties—jump at chances to get their message out to the public, Corbyn has been seen flat-out ignoring reporters, prematurely shutting down media stunts and even hiding from journalists seeking his take on the failings of the very government he opposes. Corbyn regularly misses open PR goals simply because he refuses to play the media game. With the public in general uncertain of what his Labour stands for, more opportunistic parties with a strong, coherent message—such as the Lib Dems, who support a second EU referendum—are now making gains as voters nationwide forget the Labour Party even exists.
The delusion within this Labour, this party that has forsaken “fact and reality,” is staggering. Corbyn and his supporters still seem to believe that Corbyn can command an effective opposition despite 172 (out of a total of 229) of his MPs voting no confidence in his leadership in June of this year; they believe that his “mandate” of support among Labour members proves his popularity nationwide, even though this represents just 313,000 votes out of a country of 39 million voters; worse, those in Corbyn’s ever-shrinking circle still believe Labour can overcome a 17-point gap in the polls to beat the Conservatives at the next election. As inaccurate as polling has been of late, the margin of error would have to be enormous here for any Labour supporter to feel optimistic.
There is a ray of light for the British left. However, Corbyn’s Labour seems determined to blot it out, apparently under the impression that it can overcome all its many obstacles to win outright in 2020. In 2015, Labour lost Scotland; in 2016, it is losing working-class voters in the North of England to the far-right UKIP and socially liberal voters all over the country to the Liberal Democrats; in 2018, it will lose seats in a series of proposed boundary changes designed to consolidate power for the Conservative Party. With Labour under Corbyn proving an ineffective opposition, and with such long odds going forward of the fractured left succeeding against the Tories divided, an idea has been taking hold among the UK’s broadly progressive parties. A proposed ‘Progressive Alliance’ would see liberal parties including the Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems put their differences aside to form an anti-Conservative coalition. There’s just one party left holding out, one that still commands enough of the countrywide vote that its refusal to co-operate would prevent a Progressive Alliance from ever succeeding.
Corbyn, in the belief that Labour alone will vanquish the Conservatives at the next election, has ruled out making any electoral pact despite mounting evidence that Britain’s largest leftist party is under his leadership fast losing support. At a recent by-election, in a test run for the Progressive Alliance, every party of a liberal bent except for Labour agreed to step aside to give the Lib Dem candidate Sarah Olney a chance at beating the Tory and UKIP-backed Zac Goldsmith. Olney won by a hair; Labour candidate Christian Wolmar didn’t even win enough votes to claim back the party’s £500 deposit. At another recent by-election in Sleaford, the Labour candidate went from second place in the 2015 general election to fourth in 2016.
Labour is objectively in freefall, but Jeremy Corbyn still appears unwilling to accept the reality that alone his party will never defeat Theresa May’s backward-looking Conservatives. Corbyn seems to believe the UK is still torn between two parties, Labour and the Conservatives, when in reality the Tories firmly lead while five separate liberal parties jostle for scraps of territory, destined to forever spoil one another’s vote. Earlier in the year, when a bill to introduce Proportional Representation to the UK was put before MPs, Corbyn whipped Labour into abstaining. No one really knows why a supposedly progressive politician would be against the idea of introducing fairer elections, but minus any word from his camp, Corbyn’s attitude appears to be this: it’s either Labour to beat the Tories, or no one at all.
This isn’t any new kind of politics. It’s the old politics, built on compromise and betrayal, albeit handled with an added clumsiness. Despite pressure from his own MPs—even those sympathetic to his cause who are simply frustrated with his lack of leadership—and despite polls showing Labour under him hemorrhaging votes, Corbyn refuses to relinquish his new power after years of working in obscurity. At the beginning of this month, with polls showing he was due to be heavily defeated nationally should he have chosen to run for a second term, France’s current president Francois Hollande the decision not to stand for re-election. Hollande gave not wanting to cause the “break-up of the left” in France as his reason. Jeremy Corbyn, aware of his own poor rating nationally, is adamant that he is going nowhere.
Guided by Sanders and the ever more popular progressive movement, America’s main opposition party might just be saved, and ready to take over in 2020. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the British equivalent doesn’t look to have quite so rosy a future. Only now are Corbyn and team attempting to formulate a strong message for this ‘new’ Labour, having finally come up with a plan and a media strategy 16 months and two leadership votes in. Perhaps this is where it all starts going right for Jeremy Corbyn. This past year-and-a-half says we shouldn’t hold our breath.