The outgoing Labour leader brought his party to ruin, and now wants to claim vindication.
If a party elects a new leader, without an event to announce the winner, will its outcome make a sound? On Saturday, the British Labour Party will find out. Campaigning to replace Jeremy Corbyn began back on Jan. 7, with ballots sent out to Labour members via mail on Feb. 21. A week later came the first documented case of coronavirus transmission in the U.K., and on March 12, the party canceled plans to hold a convention to unveil its new leader—the front-runner is the current Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer.
If the next leader is destined to begin their tenure in obscurity, Corbyn will go out in a blaze of ignominy. After Labour’s historic defeat in last December’s general election, he now claims the moral victory. The coronavirus outbreak and the British government’s response to it—which has included wage guarantees for furloughed workers and quasi-renationalization of the railways—has vindicated his brand of far-left politics, he told. “I didn’t think that it would take only three months for me to be proved absolutely right,” he said with his usual modesty and grace. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party holds a 26-point lead in public polling.
As he inelegantly heads toward the door marked exit, Corbyn would like his time as Labour leader to be remembered as follows: In September 2015, he came out of nowhere to win his party’s leadership in a contest that witnessed a surge in support. Labour had 550,000 members by September 2016, making it the largest political party in Europe. That enthusiasm translated into the creation of the Momentum faction, whose young cadres were mobilized to campaign for Corbyn up and down Britain. In the 2017 general election—an unusual contest unsettled by the chaos of Brexit—Labour won 30 seats and increased its vote share by almost 10 points. Another future, supposedly, was possible.
In December 2019, however, Corbyn announced his intention to resign, having led Labour to its worst result since 1935: a loss of 60 seats and almost 8 points, demonstrating that 2017 was indeed an aberration and a mirage. Those for whom Labour was formed in 1900 in order to represent—working people—turned their backs on the party en masse, as the Conservatives flipped parliamentary seats Labour had held for decades in the postindustrial English north, Midlands, and in Wales.
Rarely has Labour seemed as detached from and irrelevant to the lives of working people as it does now. Postelection polling showed that Johnson’s Conservatives beat Corbyn’s Labour by a staggering 16 points among skilled workers and 13 points among unskilled workers and the unemployed. Corbyn’s outriders in the British media claimed—more or less raising the white flag of surrender—that it was a myth Labour had lost workers’ support, arguing that, economically speaking, young university graduates living in Britain’s cities constituted a new working class. Perhaps casting aside lifelong Labour voters in favor of those who don’t vote at all wasn’t a winning electoral strategy.
Part of the problem was that Corbyn’s particular brand of left-wing politics made for a grab-bag electoral program chock-full of goodies and promises like free high-speed internet access for all that voters found unbelievable. It didn’t help either that Corbyn’s leadership team scorned traditional TV and print media as hostile, favoring social media, sympathetic commentators, and tendential fake news sites as their outlets of choice, forgetting which of these is actually read by those Labour needed to reach.
On Brexit—the defining political question of Corbyn’s tenure—the supposedly brave leader of conviction opted for fudge, muddle, and a dose of whiplash. A euroskeptic of long standing, scornful of the EU as a capitalist club, Corbyn meekly campaigned for the Remain option in the runup to the 2016 referendum, rating the EU a “seven out of 10” in a notorious television interview. Thereafter, he ordered Labour parliamentarians to vote for triggering the beginning of the withdrawal process in January 2017 before having them reject then–Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal multiple times. By the time Labour did have a coherent Brexit policy in November 2019, it was too little, too late.
The Brexit debacle was embarrassing, but the party’s long and unresolved anti-Semitism crisis was unforgivable. Whether Corbyn himself is or is not an anti-Semite is a question that will never be definitively answered. But it is certainly fair to say that Corbyn spent his decadeslong political career engaged in and around anti-Semitic politics, associating with terrorists, blood libel promoters, and Holocaust deniers. When he became Labour leader, he brought that politics from the party’s fringes to its center. “The Labour Party is no longer a safe space for Jewish people,” the Jewish Labour Movement had concluded by December 2019, adding the party “suffers from endemic, institutional anti-Semitism.”
Corbyn was a rotting albatross around the neck of the Labour Party. It was he, above all other factors, who drove Labour voters away from the party and into the expectant arms of the Tories. When it came down to it, the polling guru Michael Ashcroft found in his postelection focus groups, voters did not want Corbyn to become Britain’s prime minister. “Nothing about him says ‘leader,’ ” one ex-Labour voter told Ashcroft. “He wasn’t someone I would trust my country to be run by,” said another. And of voting Conservative, one voter said, “It was easy. You’d just have to see Corbyn on television, you’d say ‘No!’ ”
In 1995, the BBC produced a four-part documentary series about the Labour Party called The Wilderness Years, which is well worth rewatching during our coronavirus quarantines. At the time the program aired, the party had been out of power since 1979, having spent the 1980s pushed and pulled between left and right, fighting with itself as opposed to the Thatcher regime, saddled with an agenda that was, in the words of ex-Labour leader Neil Kinnock, “outdated, misplaced, [and] irrelevant to the real needs” of working people.
Well, here we are again. Since 2010, Labour has lost four general elections in a row, and its new leader will take over a party that is a shadow of its former self, wandering again in the wilderness of opposition. Having been captured and hollowed out by the hard left, far from being in a position to regain power in the immediate future, a weak, broken-down, and divided Labour Party finds itself further away from capturing Downing Street than it has been in decades. Corbyn believes he has been vindicated when the record shows he has been humiliated.