2020 Politician of the Year (decomposing)

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour MP who is opposed to everything
John Rentoul, Independent on Sunday, 20 March 2011

It’s been a good year for Jeremy Corbyn. On 22 April 2020, eighteen days after the end of his time as leader of the Labour Party, he was safely ensconced in his comfort zone: on the backbenches of the House of Commons, railing against the government of the day.

There were suggestions that during a pandemic that was disproportionately killing the elderly, a politician a month away from his seventy-first birthday ought to have set a different example, by staying at home. Some suspected his presence at the first Prime Minister’s Questions with Keir Starmer as Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition was less a show of solidarity with his successor and more an act of vanity. A few joked that Corbyn still thought he was in charge.

For his online cheerleaders (by April there could be no other kind), that wasn’t a joke. As the Canary put it on the day: ‘while he’s now on the backbenches again after almost five years on the front line, he’s still very much leading’. They bolstered their case with recent Tweets from a few adoring supporters and from the ‘Absolute Boy’ himself, before warning that ‘if Corbyn’s opponents thought he’d just disappear once he was no longer Labour leader, they misunderstood who he is’.

Indeed. Surely no one, least of all Corbyn, spent the last days of his leadership contemplating his taking the Manor of Northstead or the Chiltern Hundreds – the legal fictions by which Members of Parliament get around the problem that they are prohibited from resigning.* Corbyn spent thirty-two years as an obscure, campaigning backbencher before winning the Labour leadership in 2015, and after his embattled and inglorious time in office it’s no surprise he’s chosen to lick his wounds in the one job he ever truly loved.

And now he doesn’t need to do it in obscurity, as the Canary’s hagiography shows. Corbyn began 2020 with the largest social media following of any British politician, and he ends it unchallenged, with 2.4 million Twitter followers and a Facebook presence second only to that of Boris Johnson. He also benefits from a network of media amplifiers who are likely to prove one of his leadership’s more enduring legacies.

Less than a week after Corbyn returned to the backbenches, he was to be heard speaking to trusty outrider Liam Young in a long valedictory interview for the just launched left-wing platform the Benn Society. Two days later he popped up in conversation with recently defenestrated MP Laura Pidcock, on Pidcast. And in August, former economist Grace Blakeley joined the list of those who have huddled at the ex-leader’s knee to thrill at tales of dead socialists who similarly spent their Commons careers opposing. Surely listeners of Tribune Radio would have needed hearts of stone not to snort at his anecdote about Joan Maynard? As ‘Stalin’s Granny’ advised the newly elected MP for Islington North: ‘If both frontbenches are agreed, it’s probably bad news for the workers. And if a minister ever gets up and says they’re going to have to take some tough choices … it’s a disaster for the working class’.

Corbynmania didn’t create the leading figures of the new Left media. Polemicist Owen Jones’s best days pre-date his abandonment of #criticalfriendship under Corbyn. He made his name with his 2011 book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class and as a columnist at the Independent, where he filled a Johann Hari-shaped hole as the paper’s voice of the young Left. Novara Media also has its origins in the early years of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, with the arrival of founders James Butler and Aaron Bastani on Resonance FM in 2011 (they met protesting that government’s increase in student tuition fees). And Blakeley’s podcast owes its existence to the relaunch of Tribune by American socialist Bhaskar Sunkara, who started the US magazine Jacobin in 2010, at the tender age of twenty-one.

The common spirit animating the young activist-journalists who cleaved to Corbyn from 2015 was opposition to the politics bequeathed by George Bush and Tony Blair. Their formative political experiences came before Corbyn, but until his run at the Labour leadership they had little hope of gaining the kind of media exposure the patronage of a mainstream political party bestows. No doubt they groaned inwardly at Corbyn’s ineptitude and rolled their eyes at his bromides, but they stuck with him because it was plain to see that his becoming Labour leader had gifted the Left a short-cut to power – even if it was only power within the Labour Party.

That many have continued to defend him since Labour’s election defeat last year is unsurprising. It’s not just that Corbyn was their ticket to appearances on Sky News and the BBC’s Politics Live, or that in most respects they agreed with him. They also grasp what so many Corbynsceptics still fail to see: it wasn’t socialism that attracted hundreds of thousands of people to Corbynism, it was the curious incident of Corbyn himself. Corbyn remains the British Left’s most precious asset.

When it became clear that Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership campaign had failed to bottle his magic, some speculated about who would inherit the mantle of leader of the Left in the coming Starmer era. In February, Steven Fielding argued in the Spectator that this was the real goal of Richard Burgon’s tilt at the deputy leadership. Others looked to John McDonnell to provide a more intellectual standard-bearer. During the publicity campaign for This Land: The Story of a Movement, his book about Corbynism’s failure, Owen Jones revealed to the New Statesman’s George Eaton that: ‘I asked him [McDonnell] to stand for Labour leader after the 2019 election, I texted him in the early hours, begging him to stand. He didn’t reply to that text.’

McDonnell might well have given Starmer a run for his money. But he has not emerged as the leader of the Left. Neither has Long-Bailey, nor Burgon. It was always all about Corbyn. It remains all about Corbyn.

On the face of it, Corbyn’s year took a turn for the worse in September with the publication of both Jones’s book and Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire. Although the former is more sympathetic to the Corbyn ‘Project’, both accounts take a similar view of the weaknesses of his leadership.

To paraphrase Corbyn himself, he was present but not involved. On the biggest political issue of the time, Brexit, he was uninterested. In the face of opposition from his own party or hostility from the media, he preferred avoidance, delegating confrontation to his underlings. Where he should have offered leadership, he often left a vacuum. And so great was his absence that he appears to have escaped the blame even for that – from the coverage of those first drafts of history, you would be forgiven for the thinking the true culprits were his so-called chief of staff Karie Murphy, or his director of strategy and communications Seamus Milne, or opponents such as Tom Watson and Chris Leslie.

Maybe it’s because we can’t credit him with the wit to be truly culpable, but Corbyn has an uncanny ability to emerge looking like the victim. As Lion & Unicorn joked during his first leadership campaign, there’s always been something of Jerzy Kosiński’s Chance the Gardener about Corbynmania. But there’s also the sense that Corbyn sees himself, like Lear, as more ‘sinned against than sinning’.

Rarely has this been clearer than during the events that followed the publication, on 29 October, of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s investigation into antisemitic racism in the Party, which found Labour guilty of ‘unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination’ during his leadership.

It would be wrong to claim that Labour antisemitism was a product of Corbynism. And so too to say that it didn’t worsen on his watch, or that he wasn’t personally culpable for how poorly it was handled. To take up just one failing, that extraordinary social media presence was so rarely used to name and shame – ‘call out’, if you like – examples of antisemitic racism among Labour supporters.

It would also be wrong to suggest that Corbyn deserved anything other than condemnation for how he chose to respond to the EHRC’s findings. In his claim, on the day of the report’s release, that Labour’s antisemitism problem had been ‘dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media’, he added credence to the excuse that it was all a media smear intended to undermine his leadership. Regardless of the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of the subsequent decision to suspend him from the Party, there can be no doubt that Corbyn’s response led to further hurt and anger among British Jews and again brought Labour into disrepute.

The curiously swift decision to lift the suspension by the Party’s National Executive Committee, followed by Starmer’s refusal to restore the whip to him in the Commons, may have left the Party’s disciplinary processes looking unfit for purpose, but that was already the point. Not suspending Corbyn, or later returning the whip, would have given the impression that the new leadership was falling back on the old ruse of making the process the principle.

And at first, there were signs that some on the Left also understood how harmful Corbyn’s response had been. In the week following his suspension, the Socialist Campaign Group put out a statement calling for his readmission. But of the thirty-three SCG MPs who aren’t Jeremy Corbyn, sixteen failed to put their names to it. One of the missing, ‘Baby of the House’ Nadia Whittome, had previously sent Corbyn a personal message ‘making clear that I cannot agree with his statement’ (although she later claimed to ‘absolutely support the spirit’ of the SCG’s demand). Another, the Corbyn-era frontbencher Clive Lewis, had quote-Tweeted the journalist Rachel Shabi: ‘It’s beyond frustrating to see Labour yet again descend into factionalism over this issue and thus torpedo the EHRC report. Corbyn’s statement yesterday was ill-advised, to put it mildly – and the party response to it equally so.’

But by 18 November, when the SCG issued another cry of protest, this time at Starmer’s refusal to restore the whip, only five MPs were missing from the list. Here, perhaps, was an easier cause – Corbyn had now been disciplined by the NEC and the new leader was unjustly prolonging the dispute – but there was the suspicion of reeds shaken by the wind. Because immediately after the suspension, online Corbynism had donned its muscle vest.

There were allegations that Starmer and new general secretary David Evans were pursuing a ‘purge’ of the Left. Some speculated that the new leadership had seen the text of Corbyn’s statement beforehand and that the former leader had been allowed to put it out as a trap. Others looked for evidence that Starmer had been involved in the decision, claiming that he too was guilty of ‘political interference in the handling of antisemitism complaints’. Many defended Corbyn’s response as merely a statement of ‘fact’. Meanwhile, left-wing MPs not seen rushing to his defence were derided.

The Corbynite pressure group Momentum claimed this ‘attack on Corbyn is an attack on the socialist ideals that motivate Labour Party members’ and began promoting motions of solidarity for activists to push in their constituency parties. In response, David Evans emailed local party chairs and secretaries to warn them against discussions ‘in relation to any aspect of individual disciplinary cases’, with a threat of further suspensions for those who failed to toe the line: Labour ‘will not hesitate to take appropriate action – including against individual members – where our rules and guidance are not adhered to’.

Much of new Left media, including the Canary, Novara Media and Tribune, were talking of a ‘factional crackdown’, but the overwhelming impression was of a martyrdom. When the apostate Starmer chose not to restore the whip, consigning his predecessor to the parliamentary wilderness, the image was all but complete.

As the motions of solidarity and resulting suspensions continued, it seemed there was no strategy to protect the Left’s gains since 2015 beyond protecting Corbyn himself. Any early unease about his response to the EHRC report – another old, white, privately-educated politician showing a tin ear for racism – was quickly passed over, and with it the thought that the unity of the Left and his own reputation might both be better served by contrition. Neither was the tactical wisdom of urging left-wing CLP officers to risk their own suspension much considered.

Above all, the question of what the Left’s goals should be under Starmer continued to go unasked. How using its remaining political capital to defend Corbyn will safeguard policies such as the Green New Deal, inclusive ownership funds, or public ownership of rail, mail, water and energy – let alone broadband – remains at best unclear. Once again, it’s not really about the ‘ishoos’, just the ‘pershunalities’, with the Left repeating its playbook from the twilight years of Bennism and ‘lashing out like a dying crocodile’.

If those Corbyn-supporters growling about witch hunts and crackdowns are correct, then their response to his suspension has surely been a gift to their enemies. With the Left’s power on the NEC diminished, the Labour Right has a much freer hand to expel his most outspoken defenders. And even without Covid-19 dominating airtime, victims of the purge were never going to find a sympathetic hearing in the mainstream media where the bulk of Labour members still find their news – there’s scant likelihood of Corbyn’s suspension becoming the wedge issue that splits the membership from his successor.

Not that there’s any need to paint Starmer as a Blairite in Soft-Left clothing to see the events of the past two months as a boon to the new leader. That Corbyn would make a speech, appear at a protest, or defend a mural that would return Labour’s antisemitism problem to the headlines was inevitable. As the Canary warned, he has no intention of being one of those former leaders who steps back from public life to give their successor a clear run. To quote his mentor, Corbyn resigned the Labour leadership because he wanted ‘more time to devote to politics and more freedom to do so’.

Had his statement on the EHRC report been more contrite, there would have been something else. No doubt his new Project for Peace and Justice will provide ample opportunities to raise new complaints against him, perhaps as soon as its first ‘global conference’ on 17 January. Better that Starmer confront his Corbyn problem early than do so mid-term, with the Tories beginning to regroup after the worst of the pandemic and the passing of Boris Johnson’s trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union.

Corbyn’s support within Labour will ebb. Die-hard Corbyn activists will leave or be expelled. Other members will tire of him continuing to make bad news for the Party. Left-wing union leaders will turn their attention to influencing policy and personnel. Quite likely the fissures within the Socialist Campaign Group will widen to the point of a split, with a more youthful and diverse group of left-wing MPs forging a less antagonistic relationship with Labour’s new leadership. Labour will move on from Corbyn.

But whether or not he regains the whip, or faces further disciplinary action from the new independent complaints process Labour has promised the EHRC, Corbyn will remain the de facto leader of the Left. That was assured as soon as it became clear that neither Rebecca Long-Bailey nor Richard Burgon would become leader or deputy leader – and possibly not even that would have displaced him, anyway. Despite stepping down at the 2001 election, Tony Benn held the position until his death in 2014.

The Left could wish for a better figurehead as it returns to the political fringes, but it made its bed in 2015 and then proceeded to plump the pillows in 2016. As a once critical friend of Corbynism put it:

What will you say when you see the exit poll at the next general election and Labour is set to be wiped out as a political force? What will you say when , whenever you mention anything vaguely left-wing, you’re mocked for the rest of your life, a throwback to the discredited Labour era of the 2010s?

Like so many of us, he was shouting into the wind. It was always all about Corbyn. It remains all about Corbyn. And for that, the ex-leader of the Labour Party joins Shami Chakrabarti – whose own reputation he was so instrumental in soiling – as only the second winner of Lion & Unicorn’s award for Politician of the Year (decomposing).

*The prohibition on MPs resigning dates back to 1624, but it took over a century for a loophole to be found. From 1680, MPs accepting paid offices from the Crown without the leave of the House of Commons could be expelled (the Civil War and the Restoration had made members somewhat wary of royal patronage in their ranks). Thus the trick for an MP looking to relinquish their duties was to seek just such an appointment. It was first used in 1750 by John Pitt, who wished to stand for election to a different seat and so petitioned the prime minister for ‘a new mark of his Majesty’s favour’. He was appointed Crown Steward and Bailiff of the three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham.

Even then the post was no more than a sinecure, and today the Chiltern Hundreds and the Manor of Northstead – the only ‘offices of profit under the Crown’ still used to facilitate resignations – are neither paid nor honours. But the lists of stewards make for interesting reading, not least because they show which party leaders chose not to serve a full parliamentary term after defeat in a general election. They also feature Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, who still had to be legally removed from the Commons despite never having taken their seats. Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn is mulling the Manor of Northstead after all. 

also decomposing:


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