The summer of 2015 seems like a lifetime ago. Few readers of this website would have started university or even their further education studies like A-levels. Prime Minister David Cameron reigned supreme after surprisingly winning an overall majority at the 2015 General Election. The Labour Party, meanwhile, were wearisome after another election defeat. Ed Milib
and had resigned as Labour leader after losing an election many thought he could win. As a party, Labour was in a state of turmoil.
Despite all the transformations in British and global politics over the last five years, some things don’t change. The Labour Party is now in a similar, even worse, position. After losing their fourth election, Jeremy Corbyn was officially replaced as Labour leader on 4th April. Why has his time in office ended this way? It was in that summer of 2015 that he inspired thousands of individuals to join the Labour Party as registered supporters and vote for his message. It’s hard to believe but in 2015, he won the leadership election with a landslide 59% in the first round. However, Mr Corbyn will go down in history as one of the worst Labour leaders of all time.
Any success that Mr Corbyn has enjoyed has often not been because of his own personal merits, but, rather, the failure of his opponents. In 2015, he enjoyed success in the Labour leadership election because of the uninspiring and frankly dull campaigns from his three opponents. All of them seemed to be offering similar messages which didn’t resonate with the membership. It is not surprising, therefore, that voters would choose someone offering a different perspective to the status quo. Similarly, in 2016, Jeremy Corbyn was successfully re-elected because of the failure of his challenger, Owen Smith, to convince members why a leadership change was needed. While his policies differed from previous Labour leaders, his internal success was only down to the failures of his opponents.
Mr Corbyn’s failure is most obvious in electoral terms. He will be remembered for not only leading Labour to a third and fourth election defeat but reducing Labour to their lowest number of seats since 1935. Given, according to Lyndon B. Johnson, the first rule of politics is knowing how to count, Jeremy Corbyn can only be judged to have completely failed. To form the government, a party must be able to pass laws by having a majority of MPs; Labour is now so far away from office that this doesn’t seem likely for another decade. Corbyn's supporters often use the 2017 election to point to his success. It is true; Corbyn performed far better than expected, winning 40% of the vote and gaining 30 seats. But that is only because expectations were so low. Theresa May was expected to win a landslide majority, because of her lead in opinion polls. Following her disastrous campaign, voters felt comfortable casting a ballot for Labour to prevent her large majority. Despite this, Labour were still over 50 seats behind the Conservatives. They still lost the election.
What is Jeremy Corbyn's ideology? It is one of the more interesting parts of his political profile and vision for the world. His ideology is one of the few areas that can be deemed to have been successful. As a socialist, he has always believed in the power of the state as a force for good in shaping change and improving lives. While he is a social liberal, his economic views reflect those of Labour governments from the 1960s and 1970s which were defined by state investment. While maintaining New Labour's social liberalism, Corbyn’s Labour departed in economic terms through their scepticism towards businesses and preference for the state.
Intriguingly, one could argue parts of this ideology are reflected in the premiership of Boris Johnson. His election campaign was defined by greater state investment in the NHS and police, even though much of the spending would return funding to its 2010, pre-austerity levels. Boris Johnson is also a social liberal as one of the first Conservatives to support gay marriage. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has borrowed hundreds of billions to support businesses and pay the wages of citizens during this uncertain time. Ideologically, Boris Johnson recently argued there ‘was’ such a thing as society, directly contradicting the famous quote of former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Corbyn would endorse all of these pledges.
However, this national move to the left, especially on economic matters, is not because of Jeremy Corbyn. While some Tories may have been spooked by his better than expected 2017 election result, their economic shift was based on attracting new, former Labour voters. These individuals, especially in the north, were likely to have voted leave and supported the return of national government as a mechanism to improve their lives. Boris Johnson’s party targeted their election campaign accordingly and won a hugely impressive result. While the era of the big state has returned, not least to deal with the current pandemic, Mr Corbyn shouldn’t view this as a vindication of his policies. It is something that took place, despite, not because, of his leadership.
An effective leader must be both authoritative and able to delegate effectively. As a prospective Prime Minister, Jeremy Corbyn failed to appear credible and decisive on the world stage. Whatever one’s opinion of Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair, there is no doubt they were commanding figures when representing the UK internationally. While I admired how Jeremy Corbyn tried to go beyond the Presidential, media obsessed politician, it didn’t compensate for his failure to provide commanding leadership. This was most notable within his party. If a leader can’t manage their own party, they can hardly be trusted to effectively run the country. Most notably, this occurred with anti-Semitism, a stain on Corbyn’s period of leadership. While it is obviously tricky to keep track of over half a million members, individuals who had clearly made anti-Semitic comments should have been dealt with in a far swifter manner. Indeed, Corbyn’s Labour showed they could do this regarding former Labour adviser Alastair Campbell, who was immediately expelled after voting for the Liberal Democrats in the 2019 European elections. If Campbell could be dealt with this swiftly, why couldn’t other party members?
Elements of Jeremy Corbyn's agenda were clearly radical. Corbyn’s challenged the hegemony of free market economics, which has been dominant since Margaret Thatcher. Proposals like extended broadband connection, recognising the monopoly of a privatised rail force and the merits of government investment added to the debate and were welcome ideas. However, in many respects, Corbyn's agenda was far from radical. Instead of respecting the 2016 referendum result and embracing the opportunities for the left outside the EU, Corbyn supported a second referendum in all circumstances, which was obviously rejected by the electorate. On many domestic policy matters, Corbyn failed to extend the debate beyond providing more money and didn’t offer new policy initiatives.
For any new proposals, the volume was excessive and reduced Labour’s economic credibility. Whether it was helping WASPI women after releasing their manifesto or advocating a four day week, the policies were not explained in a coherent manner. Corbyn assumed that voters would want large spending promises with little idea of how they were funded. It is no wonder that voters decisively rejected the party. Corbyn has been used to failure throughout his decades in politics. Instead of fighting for change from the front benches, he has preferred to sit on the sidelines and attend protests. Often, like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament or the march against the Iraq War, they have failed to alter anything.
Maybe the last compliment of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is his alleged ability and record of inspiring youth engagement in politics. Attracting people from across the generations is crucial for any party’s long term success. However, the extent to which young people support Labour has been exaggerated. While young voters were crucial to Labour winning and holding seats like Canterbury and Warwick and Leamington, there is no evidence Corbyn has inspired a new generation into the political sphere. Labour membership has gone down during Corbyn’s leadership suggesting new young people aren't joining. The ‘Labour Live' event held by the party in 2018 failed to match expectations and meant the party had to give tickets away for free to try and attract support. And in the 2019 election, turnout dropped by 1.5%. This hardly endorses a surge of new young people being won around. Maybe this could have been done by a different leader, but Mr Corbyn will have to accept that he has failed in this task.
What is the judge of a successful leader? Ideologically, they should have policies that will deliver a good quality of life for individuals. These should be coherent, financially affordable and justifiable. Of course, what the specific policies depends on one’s ideology. As a leader, they must be willing to command authority with their new vision, even if the members initially disagree. Indeed, leadership is about winning voters around to your vision. Politics is remarkably simple. To implement your ideas, you have to win an election with enough seats to pass legislation. In order to win, Corbyn needed to convince Conservative voters he was a credible candidate with realistic policies for the nation. Instead, Labour supporters swung behind the Conservatives to guarantee them a fourth, and maybe fifth, term in office. Corbyn’s vision and manifesto may be taken forward by the next leader, but he will become a marginalised figure once again. Whatever his merits, as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn can only be remembered as someone who failed not once, not twice, but repeatedly throughout his time in office.