It is difficult to imagine that when most of Corbyn’s front bench walked out en masse, following the EU Referendum, they ever thought he would return with an unshakeable and unprecedented mandate. Not only did his majority increase from 60% to 62% with a higher turnout, but it did so after an alleged disastrous initial attempt at leadership.
How can an attempt to dislodge the Labour leader fail so hopelessly and what does the future hold for Labour?
Let us begin with Corbyn’s failings. He failed to unite the party, was inflexible in his policy positions, made grave errors and missed opportunities to hold Cameron to account, did not show commitment to becoming electable as Prime Minister, was lack lustre when it came to national security and defence seeming to put anti-war principles ahead of national interest and worst of all betrayed near indifference and apathy in the campaign to remain within the EU. The inspiration and passion that he awoke amongst the nation in his bid to win the leadership in 2015 was not even present in part to stop Brexit. His official position was to remain in the EU as was his party’s. This should have compelled him to show his commitment to fulfil his job brief as Labour leader and advance at full steam to convince the nation to remain.
Ultimately Corbyn’s Achilles heel has been his inability to separate the man he needs to be lead his frontbench, party and country from the man he has always been, on the back benches having little power but absolute freedom to enjoy his individual views.
Despite this and his party turning against him, the reasons that he has risen from the ashes are the same for which he was originally elected. Corbyn represents a growing trend of highly relatable politicians and leadership contenders, who make politics very personal and speak to everyday problems and grievances of ordinary people. People who increasingly feel ignored and taken for granted. Sanders had a similar appeal and Farage and Trump, albeit on the right, surprisingly respond to the same need.
The young relate to Corbyn’s socialism, the old relate to him because of his warmth and homeliness, workers relate to him because of his devotion to the trade unions, the politically disaffected relate to him due to his genuineness and honesty. He appeals to all of us who crave a break from slick polished career politicians from privileged backgrounds for whom politics is just a game of power, influence and acquiring the highest public office. Corbyn has and continues to deal in that most precious of commodities, which is a heartfelt promise of hope, change and a brighter, better and fairer future.
These dynamics have endeared him to his supporters and gained him yet more, especially in light of media onslaughts as well as those from colleagues. This so, even in the face of his most abject failings and shortcomings because simply, people trust and like him. In many ways, he is then an anti-thesis to a typical leader’s persona, exemplified by Cameron. A man who exuded such dry professionalism, formality and commitment to the technical aspects of his job, that he was judged on the merit of each decision he made and criticised upon every slip up. Such is the fate of all Prime Ministers, defined by failings near the end of their careers. Tony Blair by Iraq and Cameron by the EU. Corbyn’s supporters remain unfazed by his failings let alone allow them to inflict his downfall.
This is perhaps what the Parliamentary Labour Party has failed to realise or wilfully ignored. Either way, their attempts to replace Corbyn have only showed sourness and not a convincing strategy for replacing him. It appears that it was hoped that the en masse resignations would just compel him to resign out of pure shame and hope that a serious contender would emerge. But those with the greatest clout were nowhere to be seen.
Hilary Benn should have been top of that list given that he had tried to work with Corbyn and in the end been frustrated into resigning. Reconciling with him was a metaphor for Corbyn’s ability to unite the party, at which he failed abysmally. Benn’s Syria speech roused colleagues, the nation and even the Conservatives. What of Chuka Umunna, the rising star who passed the opportunity once and then again. Yvette Cooper would perhaps also cite that she had already lost once to Corbyn. How could a party so conclusively and near unanimously show its loss of confidence in its leader, yet those who spearhead that movement choose not to advance their candidacies, leaving wildcard Owen Smith as the alternative candidate? It may be Corbyn’s failures were enough for the party to move against him, but his appeal and constituency within grass roots Labour was too great a political risk for individual prominent figures.
Corbyn stands at a monumental crossroads. He could view his second election triumph as vindication for his style and policies and give yet greater attention to his inner clique of advisors and continue to attempt to put ‘friends’ in key positions and attempt to alter the Labour party to suit his own political views giving socialists influential positions. If he continues in an adversarial manner further entrenching the internal Labour cold war, at best he will waste time and harm Labour in the long run as an ineffective yet undislodgable Labour leader and at worst cause a split.
He must embrace all parts of the Labour party and expand his set of advisers to include and represent various factions. If he truly believes in a consensual and democratic leadership style, then consultation and policy formation must go beyond those on the same page as him. Keeping cronies close to him only harms him further and creates a self-affirming bubble. Consensual leadership necessitates representing agreed positions with full vigour and force despite one’s own convictions; something that Corbyn has until now found impossible.
His potential remains untapped and immense, but he must realise if he is committed to the betterment of the nation and our problems practically and pragmatically, he must be willing to change into the man that will lead a nation. There is some evidence of that in his tone following the election victory and something as mundane as Cameron’s dig at him for not wearing a proper suit and doing up his tie. That was not meant as sincere advice, but rather intended to embarrass, bully and hurt his feelings. However in actually doing exactly that, he showed he could take and improve as a result of criticism, no matter how public and derogatory from his arch-opponent. Corbyn now must adopt a similar attitude towards internal opponents. Of the utmost importance is whether he is capable of negotiating his principles and making compromises to win over his party and the nation while striving for a future, where some of his aims are realised rather than none.