Jeremy Corbyn and the Problem With ‘Electability’

Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure since last September as leader of the Labour Party has been bumpy, to say the least: The party now has the worst poll ratings in its history. Labour’s parliamentary members have complained that Mr. Corbyn cannot manage them. And his tenure has been troubled by poor decisions — he chose, for example, to go to a Cuba solidarity event on the same day that Theresa May, the new prime minister, announced the formation of her cabinet, leaving the opposition with no public response. Mr. Corbyn was widely considered a lackluster campaigner in the effort to persuade British voters that their country should remain in the European Union.

These issues, as well as Mr. Corbyn’s positions far to the left of most of the party’s members of Parliament, led to a vote of no-confidence by the party’s House of Commons delegation in June. Tradition dictated that Mr. Corbyn should step down. He refused, setting off a crisis within the party and another vote, with Mr. Corbyn vying with Owen Smith, another Labour member of Parliament, for the leadership.

You might expect rank-and-file Labour Party members to be angry about all of this, and to respond by getting rid of Mr. Corbyn. Instead, they are ready to re-elect him. He seems likely to win by an even bigger margin than he did in 2015.

Is the Labour Party engaging in an act of collective madness? How else to explain a rush to support a guy who can’t manage his own party, much less win a general election? To understand Mr. Corbyn’s remarkable support, you need to know the party’s recent history. What we are seeing now is a corrective to what happened during the years when Tony Blair rebranded the party as “New Labour.”

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, during a debate in Glasgow in August. Robert Perry/European Pressphoto Agency
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, during a debate in Glasgow in August. Robert Perry/European Pressphoto Agency

Under Mr. Blair, the party became professionalized. Activists, previously an important part of Labour’s organization, were reduced to foot soldiers with little influence on policy. Trade unions were marginalized. Members of Parliament were rewarded for obedience rather than talent.

New Labour won three elections, but its focus on spin and brand management alienated the traditional base. The leadership ignored grass-roots supporters — the people who go to local Labour Party meetings, who canvass on its behalf, who attend party conferences.

In addition to pushing the activists to the side, Mr. Blair made the party more conservative. It’s true that Mr. Blair fulfilled some progressive agenda items as prime minister, from expanding L.G.B.T. rights to introducing a minimum wage, but at the same time the party abandoned its traditional socialist values.

One of Mr. Blair’s first acts as prime minister was to introduce university tuition fees, leading to widespread student protests. His support for the Iraq war was similarly loathed by the party’s base. So was his attitude toward capitalism in a party with deep socialist roots. In 1998, his political mentor, Peter Mandelson, declared that he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.”

Mr. Corbyn wants to reverse many of these positions. He vehemently opposes foreign military intervention and says he wants to rein in income inequality. He has even said he would renationalize industries. He also wants to give party members power to help shape policy, and to elect his top team.

For most rank-and-file members, the no-confidence vote was not just a vote against Mr. Corbyn, but against this ideological sea change, an impression reinforced by the presence of Mr. Blair’s allies at the forefront of the attempts to unseat Mr. Corbyn. During the leadership campaign in 2015, Mr. Blair himself excoriated Mr. Corbyn and his supporters. In July 2015, he told Labour members that voting for Mr. Corbyn could lead to “annihilation” and said, “If your heart’s with Jeremy Corbyn, get a transplant.”

Thus, many Labour members have viewed challenges to the Corbyn leadership not as about competence, but as about ensuring the left does not gain a significant foothold in the party.

Many of Mr. Corbyn’s opponents are tearing their hair out because his supporters are sticking by him even though everyone seems to believe he is unelectable. But the concept of “electability” is fraught within the party. Members of Parliament and commentators hostile to Mr. Corbyn argue that winning elections should be the Labour Party’s primary goal. And to win elections, they say, the party must support policies that the party’s base opposes, like cutting welfare.

But the issue is not that the Labour base would rather lose elections and remain left-wing; it’s that capitulating to British voters’ more right-wing inclinations does not seem to have worked for the party. In the 2015 general election, Labour’s candidate for prime minister was Ed Miliband, a social democrat who promised “controls on immigration,” and to establish stricter welfare policies. He still lost.

So even when Labour had a moderate, allegedly electable candidate, Britain still ended up with a Conservative government. Rank-and-file members therefore started to see the electability question as a cover for moving the party to the right. Mr. Blair embodied their worst fears when, in a 2015 speech on Labour’s future, he said: “I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”

The Labour Party has always been an uneasy coalition, and its internal factions are much more varied than simply Blairites and Corbynites. But the attempts to get rid of Mr. Corbyn have pushed Labour’s biggest ideological clash to center stage: on one side, proponents of a professionalized, media-friendly party whose role is to win elections so it can make modest social reforms; on the other, supporters of a social movement that aims to change society starting with the grass roots — but for whom winning parliamentary power is not a goal to be pursued at any cost.

Since New Labour’s first election victory in 1997, the British left has found itself virtually excommunicated from politics. These people are not stupid or crazy. In Mr. Corbyn, they have identified an opportunity to reinsert themselves into public life and to return the Labour Party to its socialist values. They recognize this may be the only chance they have. It’s entirely reasonable that they are taking it.

Ellie Mae O’Hagan is a freelance journalist based in London.

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