No one expected Jeremy Corbyn to become leader of the Labour Party when he narrowly scraped onto the list of nominees. Diane Abbott - the previous left-wing candidate to stand for Labour leader - came last, with only 6% of the vote. It was expected that Corbyn would only do slightly better. A year later, Labour is on course for electoral disaster: the Tories’ poll lead is far greater than it was at any point under Ed Miliband's leadership. However, Corbyn remains popular amongst his fans and party members. This defies political logic and has caused some consternation.
There have been articles claiming Corbyn followers are paranoid or a cult. Uncritical support for your own side and disregard for anyone else's opinion is fine when discussing football, but not when it isolates Labour Party members from electoral reality. So what is going on here? Has the Labour Party gone mad?
There is definitely delusional and cult-like behaviour from Corbyn supporters on Facebook and Twitter. I have been told, repeatedly, by Corbyn supporters that he would win a general election or that the only obstacles to him winning is the opposition of the PLP. This is simply not true. Many people inspired by Corbyn are unwilling to accept how deeply unpopular he is and how badly Labour is going to be crushed by the Tories at the next election.
There are many people who are inspired by Corbyn, his long history opposing the Tories and the fact that he is different from most politicians. People who have complained for years that they do not see a difference between Labour and the Tories are drawn to Corbyn. Many of these people are disenfranchised by politics or have been supporters of fringe left wing parties. These voters are inspired by Corbyn personally not necessarily his policies. It is these people who are most vocal in their support for Corbyn and these who are the most convinced that he can win a general election. However these people are not the majority of the Labour Party.
Last year, Corbyn won the support of the majority of existing Labour Party members (his election as leader did not depend on the new registered supporters), and he still has wide support amongst long-standing party members. I do not think that the Labour Party has gone insane or has been taken over by Trotskyists. Realistically, I doubt that there are 180,000 Trotskyists in all of Britain, yet that many people have joined the Labour Party recently. Not everyone who supports Corbyn is delusional about his chances of becoming Prime Minister. Many Labour members are aware of the danger facing the party, but continue to support Corbyn. Why do people who care about how electable Labour is support Corbyn?
Corbyn did not become Labour leader because of a sudden enthusiasm for Socialism. It was a shock when Labour lost the 2015 election, and the party was unwilling to examine why it lost. Miliband's soft left, liberal vision of Britain was rejected by voters, despite a Tory government that had brought rising child poverty, rising cost of living and stagnant wage growth, and had returned the country to a recession. The Labour Party did not want to do the hard work to find a vision for liberalism that would appeal to enough voters. How does Labour find a policy platform that appeals to both middle-class voters in the south-east and working-class voters in the former industrial north? This is not easy, and the party decided not to do the hard work of questioning itself and why it had become so unpopular.
As Martin Robbins said in the article cited above: “Unable to accept that Labour had simply lost arguments over austerity, immigration and the economy, people began constructing their own reality”. Corbyn became party leader because Labour had lost faith in the soft left of Miliband and Brown, and was unwilling to find a way to make the policies of the soft left work. A new direction was called for.
Lots of Labour Party members were worried about rightward drift in the party, now that the soft left consensus had gone. Party members (who are mainly metropolitan liberals) did not want a Labour Party that was critical of benefits claimants and immigrants, whilst encouraging neoliberal, anything-goes capitalism. However, it looked like that was the party they would get, when Andy Burnham said Labour must distance itself from “people who want something for nothing”.
People who find discussion of immigration inherently uncomfortable do not want to hear the rhetoric of UKIP coming from their leaders. Many Labour member disliked Miliband’s attempts to address voters’ concerns over immigration - I even met people who voted Green in 2015 because of it. Labour Party members were willing to hold their noses and vote for Blair, but not for a party that was anti-immigration and anti-benefits, which is what Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall were offering to different degrees.
There are many good reasons to oppose this rightward drift within Labour. Using the rhetoric of anti-immigration at best serves the Tories (who are always viewed as better on immigration than Labour), and at worst plays into the hands of the far right. In this new age of political chaos and uncertainty, reheated neoliberalism will not win Labour an election. No one was convinced of the ability of Burnham, Cooper or Kendall to win a general election. Labour Party members had good reasons for voting for Corbyn, even though his leadership is doing serious damage to the party.
The continuing high level of support for Corbyn is not the product of widespread delusions or cult-like thinking within the Labour Party - although this is certainly present in some of Corbyn's more ardent supporters. Middle-class metropolitan liberals have rallied to Corbyn because there is a real fear that after the Brexit vote aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric could become Labour Party policy.
Owen Smith has done much to encourage this fear. His statements on immigration make Labour Party members uneasy. He has done more than Corbyn himself to perpetuate the suspicion of many metropolitan liberals that a vote for anyone other than Corbyn is a vote for an anti-immigration, anti-benefits, neoliberal Labour Party. The average Labour Party member is not as left wing as Corbyn, but they are sufficiently left wing not to want a neoliberal, anti-immigration Labour Party.
Personally, I do not want a Labour Party that adopts the language of anti-immigration and the policies of letting business do whatever it wants, because this is somehow in our best interest - the 2008 financial crisis shows that this idea is moronic. The problem is that Labour is heading for a crushing defeat under Corbyn. Some vocal Corbyn supporters are in denial about this, but most are fully aware of it. They refuse to compromise, and these middle-class metropolitan liberals are not the ones who will suffer under years of Tory rule. They will get the party they want but it will lose badly. I do not see how the cause of being against the scapegoating of immigrants and those on benefits is served by the complete destruction of the Labour Party.
Corbyn will not be beaten in a leadership election until the PLP realise that the members do not want a neoliberal, anti-benefits, anti-immigration Labour Party. A compromise for party unity would have to involve the new leader accepting this, in order to convince those who are going to give up their evenings and weekend to make him or her Prime Minster that they share common values. The Labour activists will not work hard persuading the country to embrace anti-immigration rhetoric that they do not believe in or think is actively poisonous.
As the factions within Labour become more pronounced, I do not see a compromise happening. That leaves only the looming certainty of electoral defeat, possibility in the next several general elections. Personally, I do not want a Labour Party that cynically exploits the public’s fear of immigration for power. I also do not want a Labour Party that is heavily defeated in elections and unable to offer meaningful opposition in parliament. This leaves me at an impasse from which I have no idea how to proceed.
It is worth remembering that those who support Corbyn do so not because of the delusion that he will become Prime Minister, but because there is no alternative that they can accept. It also worth remembering how bad Labour's current polling is, and how bad for country a crushing defeat for Labour would be.