In the German film Goodbye Lenin, a loyal supporter of East Germany’s Stalinist regime goes into a coma before the fall of the Berlin Wall and when she comes round, her son goes to extraordinary lengths to pretend that nothing has changed. In the story of the British Labour Party since 2015, a minor left politician with Stalinist leanings is plucked by fate to become leader and is surrounded by supporters who confirm his belief that the Bennite politics he has embraced since the 1970s can be an election winner in the 2010s, becoming a catalyst for the hopes of a new socialist generation. He and they lived in their bubble for four and a half years. But now it has well and truly burst.
The contradictions of the emerging Corbyn project were apparent when he was elected. He was a socialist influenced by the far left, but like his mentor Tony Benn had no Marxist intellectual formation and was prone to present the evils of capitalism in a conspiratorial and moralising way. He was a man of peace, committed strongly to the Irish and Palestinian causes, but had aligned himself with the militarised wings of these struggles, the Provisional IRA and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (he claimed that he had talked to the IRA’s political wing Sinn Fein to promote ‘dialogue’, but was known as a long-time supporter of their armed struggle). He was an anti-imperialist who was hyper-sensitive to the dangers of US power, but minimised those of Putin’s Russia and the Assad regime in Syria. He was an anti-racist who found it difficult to recognise antisemitism in some of the pro-Palestinian figures he campaigned alongside. He was a man with an attractive ecumenical style, but who operated in narrow political circles.
In 2015 it was possible to believe that Corbyn was the man of the hour, largely because there was no credible alternative. Tony Blair’s phenomenally successful ‘New Labour’ project had run into the sand after his disastrous embrace of the Iraq War in 2003, and expired under the less inspiring leadership of Gordon Brown in 2010. Ed Miliband’s attempt to steer Labour moderately leftwards had been defeated in 2015. The other candidates for Labour’s leadership, the “Brownites’ Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper and the ‘Blairite’ Liz Kendall, offered no answers to the obvious exhaustion of New Labour.
It was possible to hope that, with leadership thrust upon him, Corbyn might rise to the demands of the hour and offer an open, inclusive approach to the party and the wider socialist, liberal and Green left. He did not. Meanwhile the centre-right of the Labour Party, supported by the Tories and the tabloid press, quickly demonised his leadership, beginning the process of embedding a negative image of Corbyn which would be all too fully exploited in the 2019 election. Corbyn’s baggage, together with his compromised approach to the ‘antisemitism’ crisis which arose in the party under his leadership, gave them ample material, but it was his failures in addressing the existential national crisis of Brexit which fundamentally sealed the fate of the Corbyn project.
Labour, the UK constitution, Scotland and Brexit
When Corbyn was elected, the UK had just gone through the Scottish independence referendum of September 2014, in which Labour had fought alongside the Conservatives to defeat independence by 55:45 per cent. However Labour uniquely paid the price of this success: the Scottish National Party destroyed Labour’s support in Scotland, while David Cameron’s Tories weaponised southern English fear of Scottish independence to achieve an unexpected majority by almost eliminating their erstwhile coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. Cameron was, moreover, committed to holding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, to which he had rashly agreed in 2013, and which his majority now obliged him to hold.
Neither Corbyn nor the other 2015 candidates seriously addressed either the Scottish or EU challenges in the leadership election, in which the debate focused on socio-economic issues and Iraq. Indeed they all, together with most of the parliamentary Labour party, shared a deep blindness to the remaining deep constitutional challenges of the UK’s flawed democracy.
Blair’s government, to its credit, had addressed two fundamental constitutional issues, the Northern Ireland crisis (with the 1999 ‘Good Friday’ agreement) and Scottish and Welsh devolution, while tinkering with the anachronistic second chamber, the House of Lords (restricting but not removing the representation of hereditary peers), and introducing forms of Proportional Representation in Scottish, Welsh and European elections and in Scottish local government.
However Blair had reformed only the periphery of the UK’s constitution, not only leaving the Lords fundamentally unreformed, but also reneging on Labour’s 1997 election pledge to hold a referendum on PR for the House of Commons, proposals for which had been produced by a Labour-commissioned report chaired by Roy Jenkins. At the same time, New Labour cosied up to, rather than challenging, the other fundamental pillar of Britain’s compromised democracy, the sensational, overwhelmingly right-wing tabloid press owned by Murdoch and other oligarchs.
Labour ignored the PR challenge even when the 2005 election showed its support shrinking to 35 per cent, a level which suggested it was highly vulnerable to Tory resurgence and might soon need Liberal Democrat support to continue in government. When that happened in 2010, the momentum was with Cameron and the Lib Dems sold him their support for something far short of PR, a referendum on the Alternative Vote (which the Tories in turn would actively oppose).
Corbyn and the 2016 EU referendum
Corbyn, like much of the Labour Party, had less interest than Blair in constitutional reform. Yet Scottish nationalism was a fundamental obstacle to his chances of winning power, and Brexit was the defining challenge of his time. Corbyn evaded it as far as possible, but as we now know, it destroyed him in 2019.
One of Ed Miliband’s best decisions had been to refuse to commit Labour to an EU referendum. However after his defeat, the party rolled over and supported Cameron’s bill to hold the vote, introduced before the 2015 leadership election but only finally approved after Corbyn had won. Crucially, Labour did not try to insist on any ‘supermajority’ clause, such as the requirement that 40 per cent of registered electors should support change, which had been imposed in the 1979 Scottish devolution referendum (if this had been introduced, Brexit would have failed, since like devolution it was supported by only 37 per cent of electors).
Corbyn like many Labour MPs on all sides regarded the referendum as unnecessary but inevitable. When it took place in 2016, Labour did not participate in a joint ‘In’ campaign (as it had for ‘No’ to Scottish independence), because of its fear of being tarnished by association with the Tories. Instead, a dedicated but ineffectual Labour pro-EU campaign was led by the former Cabinet minister Alan Johnson, while the cross-party Stronger In was dominated by Cameron. Together pro- and anti-EU Tories claimed almost three quarters of all TV coverage.
Historically Corbyn had been a supporter of what came to be called ‘Lexit’, the left-wing case for exiting the EU in order to have fuller freedom to introduce socialism in the UK. In particular, he believed that the EU’s ‘state aid’ rules restricted a future Labour government. However by 2016 Labour was an overwhelmingly pro-EU party; almost all of its MPs and two-thirds of both Labour members and voters supported Remain.
Corbyn squared this circle by minimal engagement with the referendum: he left the campaign to Johnson and Party HQ, even going abroad on holiday for a week (!) and when he returned speaking to Labour meetings, avoiding interviews with terrestrial TV and the main debates (his only full interview was on Sky; apart from that he appeared on a show where he gave the EU a lukewarm ‘7 out of 10’). In short, the Corbyn strategy was not to invest in the referendum, let Cameron take the blame from Leave voters if (as expected) Brexit was defeated, and if by some chance it won, to fight for a ‘socialist Brexit’ afterwards.
What Corbyn and his circle obviously did not foresee was that the official Vote Leave campaign, led by Boris Johnson and directed by Dominic Cummings, would (like Leave.EU, the secondary Nigel Farage-Arron Banks campaign) major on massive, lurid anti-immigration propaganda in order to turn out racist voters. Someone in Corbyn’s team must have watched the disgraceful racist TV election broadcast which was put out repeatedly over a month, or seen some of the 1.5 billion targeted Facebook ads. But the ‘great anti-racist’ held to his strategy and did not respond to this racist campaign until, finally, Jo Cox was murdered. Only then did he make an oblique reference to the ‘well of hatred’ which had killed her.
Corbyn also took no action against Labour MPs who supported Vote Leave, like its co-convenor Gisela Stuart (who would support the Tories in 2019) and John Mann (later Corbyn’s scourge over antisemitism, who has taken a peerage from Johnson), despite this record of racism, or against Kate Hoey who worked closely with Farage, promoter of the notorious Breaking Point poster.
From the referendum to the 2019 election
This racism of the Leave campaigns, reflected in surveys which showed opposition to immigration as a major driver of the 52 per cent Brexit vote, proved to have a fundamental effect on the Brexit process. As the few Leavers to seriously address the process of leaving had argued, the only credible way to deliver Brexit quickly was to adapt an off-the-shelf solution, modelled for example on the Norwegian relationship with the EU including Single Market membership. This idea had been endorsed by various Leave leaders at different points and it continued the traditional Tory Eurosceptic position of supporting economic union while opposing political union.
However the new Tory leader, Theresa May, author of the ‘hostile environment’ which aimed to deliver Cameron’s annual immigration target of ‘tens of thousands’, rejected this because it would have entailed accepting freedom of movement, which had come to represent unrestricted immigration. Like May, who had also been a nominal Remainer, Corbyn capitulated not only to Brexit but to the demand to end freedom of movement, which was also made by more centrist Labour figures like Miliband.
Corbyn’s first reaction to the referendum result was to call for the triggering of Article 50 to launch the formal two-year withdrawal process; May delayed some months, and Corbyn then led the majority of Labour MPs into voting for this. However her decision to do so before achieving outline agreement with the EU has been widely criticised as a fundamental mistake which boxed the UK into a tight deadline.
May, Corbyn and their teams were united in wholly failing to understand the complexity of the Brexit challenge. She embarked on tortuous negotiations with the EU, but in June 2017 tried to exploit her apparent popularity to achieve a larger majority which would have enabled her to ignore the hard-Brexit right of her party and more easily come to a deal with the EU. The 2017 election proved, of course, the beginning of her downfall and the highpoint of the Corbyn project, as a combination of the popularity of his socio-economic policies and tactical Remainer support propelled Labour’s vote to 40 per cent only just behind the Tories’.
In this context, May and the EU produced the December 2017 proposals including the Irish ‘backstop’ which was needed because the UK proposed to leave the Single Market and the EU’s customs union. This was anathema to the hard-right Tory Brexiters in the European Research Group, who were joined in their opposition in 2018 by the opportunistic Johnson. The epic 18-month parliamentary struggles over Brexit began, and among the electorate, research showed Leave and Remain identities hardening and overtaking party loyalties.
Yet Corbyn believed that since his triangulation had worked in 2017, it would continue to work, so his responses to this drawn-out crisis increasingly satisfied no one. Within the party, even Momentum started to revolt, and Corbyn was very slowly dragged to supporting a second referendum on Brexit while maintaining the fiction of a ‘jobs-first’ Labour Brexit different from the Tory offer.
In Parliament itself, Labour provided the numbers for the opposition to May and, in the end, Johnson, and by summer 2019 finally engaged in the limited cooperation with the SNP, Liberal Democrats and ex-Tory and ex-Labour independents which frustrated Johnson’s greatest affronts to parliamentary authority. But in the end, none of them was prepared to use their combined majority over Johnson to create even an interim government to force through a confirmatory referendum on a Brexit deal. Corbyn is by no means alone in the responsibility for this, which is shared by all the opposition groups. But it is striking that he was happy to vote for an election he was almost certain to lose, condemning the country to Brexit and five years of a Johnson ‘elective dictatorship’, rather than compromise.
Preliminary research on the 2019 election has shown that while Labour’s manifesto support for a new referendum held on to enough Remain voters to prevent a complete wipe-out, it still alienated more Remainers than Leavers (there were many more Remainers in Labour’s electorate to start with) and the combined desertions lost a huge number of ‘Leave’ as well as ‘Remain’ seats (because both groups of dissatisfied abandoned the party in both types of seat).
The other thing which is striking from the recent election is that Corbyn and Labour largely avoided answering the compelling Tory message ‘Get Brexit Done’, offered no equally direct message of its own, and largely left the field free for Johnson’s dishonest propaganda on Brexit. Many Labour candidates – even while asking Remain voters to vote tactically for them – used a standard election address which did not even mention Brexit. Moreover as the Tories, under Cummings’ influence, once again ramped up lurid propaganda on immigration and attacked EU citizens as ‘foreigners’ in the final weeks of the campaign, Corbyn once again failed to respond.
Why Labour lost – not ‘Corbyn’ or ‘Brexit’, but ‘Corbyn’s evasion of Brexit’
It is clear, then, that Labour did not lose ‘because of Brexit’ in the sense that it abandoned its Leave voters. If it had not moved as far as did towards Remain, it would have lost even more badly. Equally, it did not lose ‘because of Corbyn’ in the sense that his personal and political failings, real and demonised, independent of Brexit, were the dominant factor. Labour lost primarily because it had no coherent answer to Brexit and Corbyn manifestly was not a leader with credibility on the issue.
These failings, moreover, go back over four years. They are not Corbyn’s alone, or even just those of his team or faction, but embrace a large part of the Labour parliamentary party including many who oppose him. But they centre on Corbyn.
We can imagine that a different Labour leader might have seriously fought to remain in the EU. The 52:48 margin in the 2016 referendum might even have been reversed. Even if had not been, a strong principled opposition from Labour’s leader to Leave’s racism – such as Sadiq Khan expressed when he charged Johnson with ‘Project Hate’ – could have changed the subsequent dynamics. The Labour leader could have defended remaining in the Single Market, with continuing freedom of movement.
Corbyn and antisemitism
The central charge against Corbyn must surely be that, throughout this whole sorry period, he and his circle evaded Brexit and – when they could not – capitulated to it and its core racist dynamic. A connection is not often made between Corbyn’s posiitons on Brexit and on antisemitism, which is central to most accusations made against his personal political position. But essentially there is much similarity. Just as Corbyn has not called out Brexit racism because of his own sympathy with the project, so he has been slow to call out antisemitism because of his sympathy for Palestinian opposition to Israel.
It is not that Corbyn is a racist or an antisemite; but because of his political positions, neither is he the fearless, consistent anti-racist he claims to be. Everyone in Labour and the liberal left opposed apartheid in the 1970s: you don’t get to be a great anti-racist by taking the easy calls, but by challenging those which arise around positions you sympathise with.
The Labour antisemitism issue is a minefield which there is not space to fully unravel in this article. I understand where Corbyn and his supporters are coming from: pro-Israelis have long tried to define antisemitism in a way which encompasses radical criticism of Israel, proposing that anti-Zionism constitutes a ‘new antisemitism’. In some cases, people who were clearly not antisemitic have been accused of antisemitism.
At the same time, however, opposition to Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians has increasingly been accompanied, in some quarters, by classical ‘old’ antisemitic sentiment. It is always a danger of national conflicts that the other side are racialised – something we can see, indeed, in the racism of many Israeli politicians towards Palestinians.
It was probably inevitable that as opposition from Israel went from being a fairly marginal, specialist campaign to a mainstream position in a major political party, it would attract supporters who were less discriminating in their criticisms of the Jewish state and liable to express their opposition in antisemitic terms. In the fetid world of Facebook and Twitter, this kind of sentiment has ballooned.
Corbyn’s problem has been that he has often not seen, wanted to see, or sufficiently quickly deal with, demonstrably objectionable material. His supporters in the party machine have sometimes tried, whistleblower evidence suggests, to block effective action. Most importantly, Corbyn himself has never tried to coherently and systematically lay out a principled position on Israel and Palestine which would reassure the majority of British Jews who have turned against him. Instead, as with Brexit, Corbyn has evaded the challenge, opened himself to the charge of tolerating racism, and confirmed the suspicions of his critics.