19 December 2019
By J R Thomas
“Ah, Jeremy, come in, just… ah… close the door. Look, these things are never easy, I’ll get straight to the point. Your job, well, we need somebody younger. I won’t embarrass you by running through your time here, hahaaa, your successes here I mean. But … oh dear… Look, we are going to have to let you go. I guess that won’t come as a great surprise to you.
Oh, really? OK, right. Anyway, thanks and… best wishes and all that. I am afraid it will just be the statutory package, but you can stay on for five years as a member of the Social and Sports Club. We knew you wouldn’t want any fuss, party or anything, but we have got you this for the allotment, a nice old fashioned shovel, useful, eh? Thanks again. Could you just ask Diana to step in… er, oh, he’s gone.”
But we have come today to praise Mr Corbyn, not to bury him. Unlike his dramatically departed counterpart at the LibDems, Ms Swinson, hopelessly out of her depth, immodest, and lacking senior support to overcome her inexperience, Jeremy has not done a bad job, given the hand of cards he was dealt four years ago. And we are not being sarcastic or looking at things from a Tory point of view, though the Conservatives should appreciate how fortunate they were that Labour got in such a pickle just when Boris needed them to. Unlike 2017, when Mrs May self-pickled and Mr Corbyn almost became the most left wing premier ever to enter 10 Downing Street. For that alone a small red statue should be placed in the foyer of Labour Party headquarters.
Mr Corbyn has one more service to do for the Labour movement (“this great movement of ours”); he must take the blame for everything wrong – past, present and future – for the next five years. That process is already well under way and it will be painful for him. But he should reflect the verdict of history may well judge him with greater warmth.
You might be choking into the quinoa porridge by this point but consider. First, and foremost, Jeremy has held true to his principles throughout his leadership. Not just those socialist ones which he learned so long ago, which he and his shadow cabinet team have made the core of two manifestos, but also in his conduct in office. In 2015 he said in a Guardian interview: “I don’t do personal, I don’t do reaction, I don’t do abuse. Life is too short and it devalues the democratic process…” He hasn’t; in a campaign in which some pretty bitter mud has been flung at him from his opponents, Corbyn has maintained a proper standard of debate and response. It is almost remarkable. And it should not be overlooked; after a pretty tawdry election campaign, which many commentators – and the voters – have condemned, he is somewhat of a shining example as to how politicians should behave. In this context you may be saying “But what about his havering and trimming on Brexit?” But surely his position was clear; he was always a Leaver; his party organisation was for Remaining. In that context he maintained his personal position, albeit quietly so, but said that he would ask the public for their opinion one more time, on such new deal as might be negotiable. He declined to be drawn as to which way he would then campaign or vote, reasonably so given his first instincts would always be against any continuing Euro entanglement.
Now, more breakfast coughing in many a household. Boris may have won the battle, resoundingly, but to a large extent Jeremy and Momentum are winning the war. Conservatism has been dragged far to the interventionist left, to borrow and spend, a high tax, high regulation regime, to throw yet more money at an unreformed NHS. The battle of ideas is a comfortable win for the Corbyn Labour party, underpinned by Conservative stealing of Labour principles – which is no Tory victory at all and merely demonstrates the arid emptiness which Conservative philosophy and thinking has become. Opinion polls suggest the voters would like more leftie ideas – tax the rich, tax corporates especially overseas ones; public utilities back in government hands, along with the railways. (Going off at a tangent, are the public indeed stupid, as Ms Thornberry may or may not have suggested? Do they seriously not remember how awful the railways were pre-privatisation and the arrogance and complacency of nationalised utilities? But Mr Corbyn has persuaded them otherwise and that is a victory, of sorts). Mrs Thatcher won in 1979 after four years developing a set of ideas based on a coherent libertarian philosophy and delivering a vision based on them to her colleagues and to the voters. Mr Corbyn has only a battered book of old and rather frayed ideas, but he has gone a long way to persuade the public that they are worth trying again.
We cannot though ignore the rampaging elephant in the room. It is an issue which probably did not cost Labour victory, but certainly caused immense damage to the party’s reputation, and even more to that of its leader. Anti-Semitism. Is Mr Corbyn anti-Semitic? Outside his inner circle, nobody can be sure what might lurk in the inner recesses of his mind, but the answer is almost certainly “no”. Far from it, indeed. But he is openly pro-Palestinian and does not like the Israeli government. Those positions are not racialist and are widely held. Jezza though has gone further than many pro-Palestinians in support of that cause; ideal for one with such affinities with any leftist anti-establishment or revolutionary cause. In that he has kept dubious company, not always enquired as closely as he might into the nature of those rallies and gatherings he added his presence to, and generally allowed his name to be misused and his reputation to be damaged. On top of that, he has not dealt with anti-Semites in his party nearly as quickly and as vigorously as he should. That has been a gift to his political opponents and to the rightist leaning press, one he did not need to give. It is a puzzle as to why this seeming blind spot developed and mutated into such a damaging issue; especially as we would argue that he is a consummate politician and a man of decent instincts. When he moved it was far too little, far too late. We will not further debate it here, but it certainly will be one for future political historians.
That distracts from, indeed has damaged his greatest achievement. He has held the Labour Party together in spite of extraordinary stresses from right and left, from Leave and Remain; he has rebuilt it as a mass popular organisation with an enormous membership. Given how leftist the party hierarchy has become, he has lost surprisingly few M.P’s of the Blairist tendency (though some have been forced out locally). The Remain/Leave stress in the end could not be overcome at the polls, but he prevented it for four years from blowing up the parliamentary party. That was quite an achievement. The Labour Party remains a strong and coherent campaigning force, with a vast membership, in control of the agenda of ideas of British politics. The history of Labour will show Jeremy as a stronger and more successful leader than the media might currently allow. Perhaps the membership might add a new bicycle to that leaving gift shovel.