Gordon Brown is not held responsible for David Cameron. Hilary Clinton is not held responsible for Donald Trump. So why is Jeremy Corbyn held responsible, by some, for Boris Johnson?
Making Corbyn responsible for Johnson’s victory as well as any and all actions of Johnson’s government is part of a wider attempt to delegitimise Corbyn and the entire Labour Left that started as soon as Corbyn became the leader of the Labour Party and will continue long after he leaves that office.
It is not enough for some of Corbyn’s critics to say he or anyone on the Left should not be in power or have influence, they go further and say they should not be allowed power or influence, even if they win elections. It’s fundamentally undemocratic.
With Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s absence from flood-hit areas in February 2019, Jeremy Corbyn, out-going leader of the Labour Party, asked the not-unreasonable question, “Where is Boris Johnson?” George Osborne, Former Chancellor, Editor of the London Evening Standard and the man who unleashed the savagery of Austerity on Britain, replied on Twitter, “In Downing Street, where you put him.”
This idea is gaining strength from random comedians and celebrities to pundits and politicians.
These critics argue that Corbyn, who stood as the principal alternative candidate for Prime Minister against Johnson, who argued against Johnson’s policies, and campaigned for Johnson to not win the election is responsible for Johnson’s victory and all of his subsequent actions in office. It’s supposedly not the people who voted Tory or actively campaigned for Johnson. Not people like Osborne, the editors of billionaire-owned newspapers, who many would argue are a part of the Tory propaganda machine, giving favourable coverage and an easy ride to Johnson and the Conservatives but were biased and indeed just lied about Corbyn and the Labour Party, undertaking a years-long smear campaign against Corbyn.
Apparently, not even Boris Johnson is to blame for Boris Johnson, so eager and determined are Corbyn’s critics to blame the Labour leader.
Even more interesting, is that such blame is only ever attributed to the people on the Left. While Corbyn is maligned, not so for Gordon Brown, who lost the 2010 general election or Ed Milliband who lost the 2015 general election. They lost, they are criticised, they are found wanting, but they are not blamed for their opponent winning, and that opponent’s actions in office.
Neither are Corbyn’s critics in the Labour Party awarded any responsibility for Johnson’s victory despite a refusal to accept that Corbyn overwhelmingly won two leadership elections and instead actively campaigning to undermine him and Labour’s elections hopes. Many MPs resigned from the shadow cabinet, some more than once, or refused to work with Corbyn at all. Criticism was constant and at times vicious. Anything and everything was used to bash Corbyn, no attack was beyond the pale.
Corbyn was not seen by his opponents, both in and out of the Labour party, as a legitimate leader. Will these same critics call for unity and condemn any dissent as undemocratic if Keir Starmer is elected leader Labour Party in April? Of course they will.
Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party in an unexpected victory in 2015, winning in a landslide. While Corbyn inspired thousands to join the Labour Party, he decisively won in a landslide victory with both new and existing members voting for him. The Labour Party had decided to make a decisive break with the politics of centrism.
Aside from disasters such as the Iraq War, there was too much regret for Labour’s failure in office to implement a more wide-ranging progressive agenda. Margaret Thatcher is claimed to have said her biggest achievement was, “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.” The Labour Party had accepted too much of the Conservative agenda. New Labour had refused to challenge the Thatcherite neo-liberal consensus.
However, there were some achievements between 1997 and 2010. But Labour’s timidity and failure after 2010 to adequately oppose a brutal assault on millions in the form of Austerity was the final straw that drove the Labour Party membership towards Corbynism. Economically unnecessary, Austerity was all about the Tory Party’s political positioning to blame the recession on Labour and use that recession as an excuse for an ideologically-driven shrinking of the state. Poverty and homelessness both shot up. Thousands died because of Austerity. A recent study showed life expectancy in Britain has stalled for the first time in a century and even decreased for the less well-off.
A vote in 2015 on the Tories’ welfare bill held just a few months before the leadership election exemplified the problem. When faced with proposed cuts to child-tax credits, cuts to housing benefit, the existence of child poverty targets and more besides, 184 Labour MPs abstained and did not vote against them, including Burnham, Cooper and Kendal, Corbyn’s opponents. Corbyn and just 47 other Labour MPs voted against the bill.
After Corbyn’s victory, the Right of the Labour Party and their allies in the press, some in a temporary partnership of convenience, plotted to undermine Corbyn and remove him from office. This culminated in the so-called Chicken Coup of 2016. In a coordinated attempt to increase the pressure on Corbyn shadow minister after shadow minister resigned one after another, on the hour every hour. Corbyn wouldn’t budge. His supporters said that he showed leadership, that he refused to allow the clear will of the 500,000 strong membership of the party to be ignored.
Finally, a motion of no confidence was signed by 172 Labour MPs and a second leadership election took place with Owen Smith backed to defeat Corbyn. Corbyn won with an increased share of the vote. It wasn’t just the refusal to accept that they had lost the leadership election of 2015 that was surprising, it was they had so little to offer as an alternative in the 2016 leadership contest apart from Owen Smith and a bunch of cliches.
While most of Corbyn’s critics finally realised the futility of another leadership contest, many would never accept his victory or legitimacy.
In 2017 Corbyn surprised all and gained seats in the general election. Who knows what could have happened if Labour had united. If Labour had gained just another 10 seats from the Tory Party, it’s hard to see how Theresa May could have stayed in power.
Of course, Corbyn is held responsible by critics for THEM not accepting his victory or legitimacy. It’s his fault, they say, that they themselves won’t work for a Labour victory. The Left of the Labour Party has accepted leader after leader that they did not vote for and that they disagreed with. As democrats, they accepted the legitimacy of the victor. That the Left accepts the legitimacy of a Centrist leader, has led some to claim that such a Centrist leader has some gift at being able to unify his opponents behind him, rather than it being due to his opponents just being democrats. It’s a perverse but apparently persuasive argument.
The constant attacks between 2017 and 2019 as well as Corbyn and the Left’s own failures resulted in a Labour defeat. While Labour did not receive as low a vote as in 2010 or 2015, they did receive the lowest number of seats since the end of WW2.
This attempt to blame Corbyn is part of a wider tendency. After Corbyn’s resignation, some demanded he step down immediately and an interim leader takes over. His critics want him and his two leadership victories eradicated from Labour Party history.
By defining the past, Corbyn’s critics want to determine the future. They never want to lose control of the party again and have the Labour pose a threat to the existing economic order.
What is it about Corbyn and the Left that inspire such a reaction? Because Corbyn and the Left believe in a fundamentally different society to that of the Centrists and Right. If Corbyn and those like him are illegitimate then they don’t have to; they can simply present themselves as the only alternative to the Right.
The Right doesn’t mind Centrists, after all, they serve several useful functions. Centrists can be trusted to not threaten the existing political and economic order when the Right temporarily relinquishes power as it must do in a democratic system from time to time. Not so the Left. The Left may make billionaires pay taxes.
The Centre and Right can tolerate each other as merely rival sports teams. The Left doesn’t believe in the rigged rules of the game that lead to so much harm and suffering to the audience.
The interests of both the Centrists and the Right faces an existential challenge that also threatens an economic order that serves the rich and their underlings in the ideological movements that support their system.
In politics, we rarely think of psychology as the basis for why things happen, but perhaps one reason for the Centrist hated for the Left is psychological, not political. Unable to embrace the policies, outlook and outcomes of socialism they label the Left as anything from unrealistic to malevolent depending on the convenience of the moment.
Centrists see themselves as progressives, as the good guys. The Left points out that they unwillingly to really offer any change, and the Centrists are incandescent in their rage.
Is there a guilty conscience at work? Whether it be worthless comedians who have never done a thing in their life to make the world a better place or Centrist politicians and pundits who think of how sickened their younger versions would be if they saw what they had become.
Considering how flawed his opponents claimed Corbyn and Corbynism was, it’s amazing how few critiques were serious, policy-based criticisms. Rather a good and decent man was destroyed with lies. Perhaps, the only way to justify that behaviour is to believe it was true.
Corbynism had to happen. The Labour Party was utterly lost and Corbyn’s opponents had nothing to offer. Corbynism came heartbreakingly close to enacting the kind of much-needed economic and social reforms that no-one else could or would.
If the Labour Party has any chance in the future, in either winning elections or making people’s lives better, it will have to look at why Corbyn surpassed all expectations and won two leadership contests, came so close to victory and keep the best part of what he had to offer. The Left needs to look at the futility of building bridges with those that wish to destroy you.