Jeremy Corbyn was destined to lead the Labour Party to a catastrophic defeat. It just took a little longer than I expected. If he believed that the British would vote for the most radical socialist manifesto in our history, he was sadly deluded. The party has learnt nothing from past defeats: the more it moves to the left, the more people are alienated.
Corbyn and the Corbynites have spoken often of their admiration for the transformative Labour government of Clement Attlee, which won a landslide victory in 1945, created the National Health Service and laid the foundations of the welfare state. But, unlike Corbyn, Attlee was a progressive and a patriot, Winston Churchill’s deputy in a government of national unity, and his economic programme grew out of the wartime command economy.
Above all, Attlee had a story to tell the British people about who they were and what was required of them — common purpose, reciprocal obligations and so on — to build the “New Jerusalem”. Corbyn, who drags his anti-patriotic past behind him like a ball and chain, had no such national story to tell. He gave every impression of despising the institutions of the British state. And when interviewed by the BBC’s Andrew Neil during the election campaign, in a humiliating encounter, he did not even understand his own tax policies.
The party has learnt nothing from past defeats: the more it moves to the left, the more people are alienated.
During the 2017 general election campaign, I wrote that Labour would not win again until it stopped choosing leaders — Ed Miliband, Corbyn — “whose severance from the common culture … is absolute”.
Whenever I spoke to Miliband and Corbyn, I was struck by their similarity. For a start, they spoke in platitudes and were morally sanctimonious. They had little sense of what George Orwell called “the social atmosphere” of the country they aspired to lead. They were ashamed of Tony Blair’s New Labour, which won three consecutive general elections with crushing majorities, and they were convinced that the British people wanted socialism, here and now. And they appealed to people’s altruism but never to their sense of aspiration.
Miliband and Corbyn are well-born London liberals without much experience of the frustrations and struggles of daily life in the small cities and faraway towns. Miliband once told me that Nigel Farage’s Ukip was a greater threat to the Tories than to Labour. He was wrong.
He also expressed bewilderment when I wrote a leader in the New Statesman warning that Labour would lose the 2011 Scottish parliament elections, clearing a path for an independence referendum, as indeed happened. In 2015, Miliband’s Labour went into the general election holding 41 of the 59 Scottish Westminster seats; it ended up with one. There would be no way back.
Corbyn and Miliband were ashamed of Tony Blair’s New Labour, which won three consecutive general elections with crushing majorities, and they were convinced that the British people wanted socialism, here and now.
When thinking about what had gone wrong for Labour, I often returned to Orwell’s essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, published in 1941 during the German bombing raids on London. Orwell was contemptuous of revolutionaries and left-wing orthodoxy-sniffers, whom he called “cranks”. But he admired the patriotism of ordinary men and women.
“One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty,” he wrote. “In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilisation it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it.”
For Orwell, the nation was “bound together by an invisible chain. At any normal time, the ruling class will rob, mismanage, sabotage, lead us into the muck; but let popular opinion really make itself heard, let them get a tug from below that they cannot avoid feeling, and it is difficult for them not to respond.”
In the party’s Brexit-supporting English heartlands on December 12 former Labour voters had an emphatic message for Corbyn: “Enough! No more!” This was more than an Orwellian tug from below: this was the complete rejection of a party that once purported to represent the labour interest but had been captured by ideologues, anti-semites and cold-eyed sectarians.
Orwell was contemptuous of revolutionaries and left-wing orthodoxy-sniffers, whom he called “cranks.” But he admired the patriotism of ordinary men and women.
Labour was once an uneasy coalition of the organised working class and the Fabian intellectual. But today the coalition is broken. What unites a Brexit-supporting working-class voter in Workington and a liberal bourgeois voter in Islington? One wants tight controls on immigration while the other favours open borders and free movement. One wants to leave the European Union and the other wants to remain. One yearns for greater social cohesion while the other embraces racial, sexual and gender diversity.
The collapse of Labour is both a parable of what can go wrong when a party rejects pragmatism for ideological purity and a tragedy. It’s a tragedy because a great social democratic party, once hegemonic in Scotland and the north of England, is now little more than a rotten shell.
Its shadow cabinet is surely the least distinguished in postwar history. Some of its most prominent advocates, such as Richard Burgon, the ubiquitous MP for Leeds East, show no contrition or humility for what has happened. And the leadership blames Brexit and the media for its overwhelming defeat rather than its own failings.
Could it ever have been different under Jeremy Corbyn?
When he ran for the leadership during the heady summer of 2015, there’s no doubt that he unlocked something long repressed on the left.
Here was a potential leader of principle and stubborn determination who, emerging from the radical fringes of the parliamentary party, rejected the presiding economic and political orthodoxies of the age.
He unequivocally opposed austerity. He inspired a debt-burdened generation who were yearning for a leader to challenge what the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism”, the sense that “not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system … it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”.
This was the complete rejection of a party that once purported to represent the labour interest but had been captured by ideologues, anti-semites and cold-eyed sectarians.
Corbyn inspired a movement, Corbynism, that had its own vanguard, Momentum, Alan Johnson’s “party within a party”, and an online army of campaigners and agitators. Membership of the Labour Party surged to 560,000 before dropping back. In the end the left took control of the party but was rejected by the country.
The New Statesman, a magazine of the left though not dogmatically on the left, is expected to endorse the Labour Party. But as editor I had other ideas. My politics are sceptical and I value independence of thought, the spirit of criticism and a willingness to debate. I also value human decency. And I believed Corbyn was unfit to be prime minister because of his indulgence of, and reluctance to apologise for, anti-semitism in Labour, his refusal to take a stance on Brexit and his toxic associations with extremists over several decades.
That Labour should be led by such a man was unconscionable and we said so in our pre-election editorial.
It gives me no pleasure to have been proved right about Corbyn’s Labour. And now the hollowed-out party must grapple with the bitter truth that it has created the conditions for another long period of Conservative rule, when the circumstances for a revival of the left could not have been more propitious.
This is a new political era — Boris Johnson (or at least Dominic Cummings) seems to understand this — and the state is returning to its primary function, which is the provision of security, as the political philosopher John Gray has written. By winning so many seats in Labour’s long-neglected heartlands, Johnson has an opportunity to create a new political settlement, but, through necessity, the Conservatives will have to become a very different party from the one that David Cameron led.
I’ve long believed that the unoccupied space in British politics has been to move left on the economy and right on culture. Or as Paul Collier, an Oxford economist and author of The Future of Capitalism, put it to me last year: “Move left on the economy and talk the language of belonging. You’ve got to learn from context and work out what’s best in the context.”
Corbyn was incapable of learning from context. He is an inflexible ideologue. But if Labour is to win again — and it looks set to be out of power for at least another decade, after which the United Kingdom may not even exist — it will have to rediscover the value of the common good, of shared belonging, and understand that moderation is desirable, especially in this age of extremes.
The alternative is what we witnessed in this election: a national party set on a course of self-destruction. And the truth of the matter is that the working-class voters in the party’s old heartlands did not leave Labour: Labour left them behind long ago. But this time popular opinion really did make itself heard, with lethal consequences for Jeremy Corbyn.
Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman