The British election result is historic for a number of reasons, not least of which because it served as a test case against the long-offered argument that turning left is electoral suicide for a major political party.
But what made it particularly significant is that no major party candidate in the Western world in recent history has faced the kind of consistent, widespread, stubborn, and (in Corbyn’s case) often dishonest opposition from both the media and the political class — and come out on top regardless.
It was always a given that the Right would do its best to discredit Corbyn, particularly the famously vicious right-wing British press, which has never met a Labour leader it didn’t attempt to portray as a buffoon. But what makes Corbyn’s sudden ascent so unexpected is that the attempts to undermine and delegitimize him came from not just the Right, but from across the political spectrum.
Over the last two years, it’s often been the very same Labour MPs sitting across from Corbyn in shadow cabinet meetings who have been most dedicated to undermining his leadership and ensuring the party remained in a permanent state of chaos. At every step of the way throughout Corbyn’s leadership, he has faced an implacable and hostile wall of opposition from his own party. This was coupled with the never-ending stream of negative coverage from both the right- and left-wing media.
Looking back on this nearly two-year long history of attacks, plots, and smears shows just how extraordinary of an achievement Corbyn’s victory is.
“The center-ground would move”
No one would argue Corbyn’s leadership was flawless for much of his tenure — not even he does. The relaxed, confident Corbyn of the 2017 campaign was a far cry from the one who had led the party the preceding years, who disliked personality politics and seemed to resist media training.
Some of the people he surrounded himself with had a habit of saying the wrong thing at the most inopportune times. He was prone to unforced errors that were needless gifts to the considerable forces arrayed against him. He loathed and avoided the media, which only backfired on him (though one can hardly blame him given the press’s uniform hostility). And his tepid campaign for the Remain side, while undoubtedly over-emphasised and exploited by his enemies, was a mistake.
But let’s be clear: the opposition to Corbyn was about none of these things. The unrelenting, three-pronged attack campaign from the press, the political opposition, and his own allies was entirely about delegitimizing the politics he represented — the same politics that ultimately led him and his party to electoral success.
Corbyn was never meant to be the Labour leader. He certainly had no interest in it and only joined the leadership contest in June 2015 because of a grassroots push to include him. He barely made it onto the ballot paper, securing the necessary nominations from his fellow MPs — some of whom ran through Westminster to place their nominations — at almost literally the last minute. And the necessary 35 Labour MPs made clear they only nominated him to broaden the leadership debate, not because they saw him as leader potential.
Needless to say, regrets were had.
Although at first not taken seriously — in mid-July, the Telegraph provided a “handy five-step guide” to conservatives for how to join Labour and vote for Corbyn in order to “condemn Labour to years in the political wilderness” — Corbyn soon became the target of attacks. For “moderate” Labour MPs, who had long accepted the Third Way theory that only moving rightward could win elections, Corbyn’s success seemed to pose a danger to Labour’s electability (as well a danger to how true that theory was). For the Right, something else was at stake.
As Owen Jones documented, conservative commentators were concerned that Corbyn’s rise could undo the UK’s successful rightward shift under Thatcher, which, as her former chancellor had boasted, had “transformed not just one party, but two.” The Telegraph’s Allister Heath warned that Corbyn’s rise would make it “acceptable again to call for nationalizing vast swathes of industry, for massively hiking tax and for demonizing business,” and that “the center-ground would move inexorably towards a more statist position.” Oliver Cooper argued that Corbyn’s leadership would “shift the entire political debate to the left” and “lend credibility to the far-left’s rejection of reality.”
So the attacks began. The Telegraph had a former Labour activist pen an op-ed claiming he was “not a serious politician” and calling him “an unreconstructed Trotskyite whose views have remained frozen ever since he attended his first demonstration in the late 1960s.” It later claimed that if he won, “Labour will be in the extraordinary position of having a leader with among the most extensive links in Parliament to terrorists.”
The other line of attack was that Corbyn’s economic policies were simply too extreme to be taken seriously. Corbyn was “a stranger to responsibility and will loathe leadership,” warned the usually sympathetic Independent, comparing him to “an adolescent with a head full of ideas who is not in the least interested in how his cherished principles impact on the outside world.” The Telegraph, in a piece that was meant to be straight reporting, called his economic policies an “escapist heritage artefact.”
Tony Blair was one of the most frequent voices on this front. In July, he told Labour voters that “if your heart’s with Jeremy Corbyn, get a transplant.” He further added that “radical leftism was often quite reactionary,” and that he “wouldn’t want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform.” (Note that, far from the usual Third Way protests about electability, Blair here is quite clear about his hostility to left-wing policies on principle).
In August, he warned that “Jeremy Corbyn’s politics are fantasy — just like Alice in Wonderland.” Earlier that month, he cautioned that, with Corbyn at the helm, “the party won’t just face defeat but annihilation,” warning that voters “don’t think their challenges can be met by old-fashioned state control” and think “that a party without a serious deficit-reduction plan is not in these times a serious contender to govern them.”
Even the left-of-center Guardian rolled out an endless series of anti-Corbyn op-eds, of which Blair’s editorials made up just two. “Can Corbyn overcome all with sheer conviction?” asked Polly Toynbee. “I wish it were so. But Labour people, motivated by the plight of the needy in a grossly unjust society, shouldn’t gamble the future of the weak on such a slender chance.”
Former Labour minister Alan Johnson urged Labour voters to “end the madness and elect” Yvette Cooper. Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock warned of the “Troskyite left” and its “malign purposes,” and told voters that “we are not choosing the chair of a discussion group.” The Observer, its sister publication, charged that “there is little new about his ideas” and that “he has offered little in the way of thoughtful solutions to many modern challenges.” Jonathan Freedland, the columnist responsible for the paper’s lead editorial, suggested youth support for Corbyn was a “form of narcissism” and criticized “the purity of impotence.” Freedland would continue to put out negative articles about Corbyn right up until the election in June 2017.
It didn’t matter that the public at the time broadly agreed with Corbyn’s policies. It didn’t matter that more than forty economists, including a former adviser to the Bank of England, signed a letter dismissing criticisms that they were too extreme, or that thirty-five other economists did the same. It wouldn’t even matter, a month later, when the Financial Times published two pieces defending Corbyn’s policies, including his “people’s quantitative easing,” which had been roundly derided (the New Yorker would later call it “an endearing and almost childlike solution”).
Neither did it matter that Corbyn’s support from rank-and-file party members was broad. In a four-way race, by mid-August, Corbyn was the choice of 49 percent of existing Labour members, 67 percent of trade union supporters, and 55 percent of those who had paid £3 to vote, putting him 32 points ahead his closest rival. Nonetheless, his opponents in the party would later claim his win was the result of far-Left “infiltration” of the party.
Pointing to sinister outside forces was a convenient way for Labour candidates to avoid looking in the mirror. In the middle of the leadership contest in July, the Cameron government called for a vote on a round of welfare cuts. Labour interim leader Harriet Harman insisted that the party support it, believing it would show voters that Labour was credible on welfare.
The bill passed, with forty-eight Labour MPs rebelling and voting against it. Corbyn was one of those forty-eight; the other three candidates simply abstained while criticizing it. Two days later, the first YouGov poll of the contest showed Corbyn winning in a landslide.
Labour leaders scrambled behind the scenes to prevent Corbyn’s victory. “We have been through all the numbers, Corbyn is going to win, and our numbers show you are the only person that can stop him,” Chuka Umunna told Andy Burnham in late July. They frantically tried to work out an arrangement where the other two contenders would drop out, believing “that it was our only chance.” As the prospect of beating Corbyn became more and more remote, they even considered launching a legal challenge against the election process.
None of it worked. Corbyn won with 59.5 percent of the vote. Burnham, the runner-up, received 19 percent. According to the Guardian, “shell-shocked members of the shadow cabinet, some on the verge of tears, gathered together in small groups in the foyer” in reaction to the victory, while others “continued plotting, in the manner of Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender at the end of the second world war.”
No Time to Waste
Most newly chosen opposition leaders might receive anywhere from half a year to a year to find their feet as leader of the opposition and turn the party’s fortunes around before party members start openly floating their removal (and even then, things would have to get pretty dire). That was certainly the view of one expert, who believed the party would agree to a “cease-fire” for six to twelve months, at which point they would use falling poll numbers to “start acting more assertively.”
To say that Corbyn’s grace period wasn’t this long is an understatement. There was no grace period.
Long before Corbyn had even won, Labour MPs had decided they would never allow him to lead. In July 27, senior MPs told the Telegraph that, if he were elected, “Mr. Corbyn would never be allowed to remain in the job long enough to fight the 2020 general election” and that “a coup could be launched within days of the result.”
There was an alternative. Labour MPs could have helped shepherd their famously media-shy leader who was unfamiliar and inexperienced with his new role but nonetheless had overwhelming public backing through his initial teething period, thus helping ensure the success of their party. After all, Corbyn’s trouncing of the other candidates and his clear mandate meant it would be difficult to unseat him anyway. By providing him their backing and support, however, they could give Corbyn’s policies a fair trial run, if nothing else.
Instead, within mere hours of Corbyn’s victory, Yvette Cooper — one of his former leadership rivals — and six other shadow cabinet members declared they wouldn’t serve under him. Andy Burnham told an undercover tabloid reporter that his victory was a “disaster for the Labour party.” His shadow education secretary told the press that accepting the role had been a “difficult” decision. His shadow foreign secretary avoided endorsing Corbyn’s choice of shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. When Corbyn entered his first meeting with the PLP — the Parliamentary Labour Party, or Labour members who are also MPs — he was greeted with virtual silence, which the Spectator’s James Forsyth called “quite unprecedented” and a sign they’re “sullenly accepting his leadership.”
Corbyn appeared to be extending olive branches. He promised no MPs would be deselected, something his grassroots supporters had been calling for, and which Labour MPs had been outraged about. After being attacked as “disloyal” for not singing the national anthem, he promised to do so in the future. He pledged to keep Britain in the EU, despite his longstanding opposition to it.
But the ideological gap between him and his fellow Labour MPs remained. When Corbyn declared he would never use nuclear weapons as prime minister — reasoning that voters had known his views when voting for him and that it “would be dishonest of me to say anything less than my honest view on it” — his shadow defense secretary said that “ answering a question like that in the way he did is [not] helpful.”
By early November, Labour MPs were plotting a coup, planning to start with a pre-planned wave of resignations on an acceptable pretext, most probably an upcoming round of elections, including the London mayoralty in May. “There will be an uprising in the PLP at some point,” one MP told The Independent. “But we have to get our timing right. We may only have one shot.”
As one longtime Labour aide told the Guardian that same month: “We could turn around tomorrow and get rid of Jeremy Corbyn but the membership would react violently. Jeremy needs to be able to do his thing, and if that fails people may change their minds. But they’ve got to fail — or succeed, who knows? — on their own terms.”
High-profile Labour members took turns publicly criticizing Corbyn and his allies. Labour’s candidate for London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, gave a speech that featured several thinly veiled criticisms of Corbyn (“I was proud to sing not one national anthem, but two!”). Former prime minister Gordon Brown warned that Labour must be “popular, electable, credible.” In one of the more ludicrous “gaffes” of the period, John McDonnell gave Conservative chancellor George Osborne a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book in parliament to chastise the Cameron government for selling public assets to China, and “assist Comrade Osborne in his dealings with his newfound comrades.” Labour MPs criticized the joke (“I haven’t quoted a communist before and I have no intention of doing so in the future”).
Despite all this, Corbyn’s public support continued to be broad. By November 19, he had the highest satisfaction levels of any leader (including David Cameron); five days later, 66 percent of Labour members thought he was doing well.
But the issue of national security intensified the party’s hostility to Corbyn. In November, twenty Labour MPs rebelled against Corbyn and voted for the Trident nuclear program, even though he had asked them to abstain while the party’s official position was clarified. Soon after, prime minister David Cameron decided to launch airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. Corbyn opposed the measure, while much of his shadow cabinet supported the airstrikes.
Corbyn told his shadow cabinet he wanted the party to have a “collective” position, suggesting he was against a free vote (the former is the norm in parliamentary democracy). He urged MPs to consult their local party members before making a decision on the vote, and shadow cabinet ministers started getting emails from Momentum (the Corbyn-supporting grassroots movement) urging them to oppose it.
In response, one accused Corbyn of “using terror tactics” and claimed it was “the start of the civil war in the Labour Party,” despite his denunciation of the harassment of pro-airstrike MPs. Three former ministers called for him to resign over his position. One accused him, with no trace of irony, of “an attempted coup.”
Labour MPs publicly sided with Cameron and made clear they would resign from his shadow cabinet en masse if he didn’t allow a free vote. (Corbyn ultimately, albeit reluctantly, allowed a free vote, with most Labour MPs backing his position. One centrist MP promptly criticized that decision).
Corbyn’s shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn ended up doing a competing speech in parliament in favor of the airstrikes. Labour MPs said it was like listening to “the statesman versus the geography teacher” and called Benn, who had also voted for the Iraq War, an emerging alternate leader to Corbyn. And when a left-wing group that had nothing to do with Corbyn called for the airstrike-voting Labour MPs to be deselected, Labour MPs blamed Corbyn, despite his publicly denouncing these calls.
After all this, in Corbyn’s first electoral test in early December, Labour ended up increasing its vote in Oldham West and Royton, despite media reports prior to the election suggesting Labour was on the road to oblivion there. But rather than celebrating that their predictions of electoral annihilation had perhaps been premature and over the top, anti-Corbyn MPs instead fretted that the victory had strengthened Corbyn’s position as leader. (Two months later, one anti-Corbyn MP would push the goalposts further ahead, stating that Corbyn had to prove he could win in elections on May 5 or resign).
Despite Labour MPs’ concerns about electability, party staff appeared determined to sink Labour’s chances. Corbyn’s former spokesperson told Jacobin earlier this year that during his time with the campaign from May 2016 to the start of 2017, “it was very difficult to get Southside [Labour Party Headquarters] to work with us constructively,” and that Southside staff would regularly leak details from private meetings and other information that journalists would enquire about almost immediately.
So criticism persisted following the victory. Columnist and on-again, off-again Labour member Dan Hodges declared Corbyn the Left’s “Enoch Powell,” a notoriously racist former Conservative MP. Blair despaired at the “tragedy of Labour’s current position.” Peter Mandelson, a former Blairite minister, warned darkly that Corbyn wanted to “use his army of supporters to back his desired policy changes” and that he did “not look like a credible would-be prime minister to ordinary voters.”
New Labour MP Jess Phillips spent an interview deriding Corbyn, declaring that she would “knife [him] in the front” instead of the back as soon as he began hurting Labour’s electoral standing, and that she “would do whatever I could to make Jeremy Corbyn more electable, but you’ve got to give me something to work with, mate.” (One Labour MP commented that she would make a great party leader).
Phillips’s efforts to make Corbyn more electable over the next year included accusing him a month later of “low-level non-violent misogyny,” criticizing his call for decriminalizing prostitution, resigning in a coup attempt against him, threatening to leave Labour if he didn’t resign, and as recently as April suggesting he should resign and stating that “the clouds aren’t going to part and something amazing is going to happen that is going to save the left of politics.”
She wasn’t the only one. Labour MP Simon Danczuk was a consistent and public critic of Corbyn, including taking aim at him for a drummed-up controversy over his supposedly failing to pay proper respects at Remembrance Day (the UK equivalent of Memorial Day). Danczuk would later be suspended after it emerged he had been sexting a seventeen-year-old girl, which some immediately charged was simply a pretext to punish him for his rebellion.
At the same time, after accepting that Corbyn’s “leadership has stabilized for the near future” in the wake of the Oldham victory in December, centrist MPs drew up an eighteen-month strategy to attract a hundred thousand new centrist members to the party and oust Corbyn in 2017. “He could be here for the long haul,” a former shadow cabinet minister told the Telegraph. “It is up to our wing of the party to make sure we fight him every step of the way and keep spirits up.”
Corbyn made plans to reshuffle his shadow cabinet in the new year and reshape it to something that more accurately resembled his policy vision, an ordinary and rational course of action that party leaders do all the time, let alone when their own shadow cabinet is openly plotting against them. An anonymous cabinet member quickly labelled it a “revenge reshuffle,” and Labour MPs alternated between grumbling to the press about losing their positions (he’s “ruining Christmas,” said one) and threatening to quit parliament and pursue “alternative careers.”
Corbyn’s original reshuffle would have gone further, but a number of the shadow ministers proved too powerful to remove. He ultimately only removed two, a fact that didn’t stop another minister from resigning and Peter Mandelson from warning that the reshuffle “spells disaster” and “takes Labour even further away from any prospect of winning a general election.” He did express hope that “Corbyn and his coterie may yet be capsized by the weight of their own internal electoral contradictions.”
Despite this, a Guardian survey in mid-January found that almost every constituency party that was contacted reported that membership had done everything from doubled to quintupled. Mandelson’s claim that thirty thousand members had left the party wasn’t borne out by the facts.
This unceasing campaign by Labour against their own leader was just in his first four months.
Attack Dog Press
While Corbyn faced sabotage from his own party, he faced an unprecedented assault from the press.
Right-wing tabloids were unsurprisingly savage. The Daily Express found out that Corbyn’s great-great-grandfather had been the despotic master of a workhouse (Corbyn apologized for “not doing the decent thing and going back in time and having a chat with him about his appalling behaviour”). The Times described him riding a “Chairman Mao-style bicycle,” also known as “a bicycle.” The Daily Mail said he wore a “Leninist cap,” similar to that other famous revolutionary, Gigi Hadid.
He allegedly refused to bow at a Remembrance Day service. When this last accusation turned out to not be true, it morphed into the charge that he didn’t bow far enough. One story was so fallacious, even the Sun was forced to issue a front-page correction (though it also revived a thirty-year-old false story that Corbyn had funded an IRA bomber).
But similar treatment came from more establishment press, too. In the United States, the Washington Post warned of his “radically anti-American agenda,” while the New Yorker wrote that Corbyn “unfortunately” fit the “cruel caricature” of a “bearded, bicycle-riding, teetotal vegetarian” leftist. (Similar to Bernie Sanders, the press and Corbyn’s political opponents were often strangely obsessed with his appearance). Forbes opined that his policies were both “mad” and “bad.”
The liberal New Statesman was a frequent critic, in one case chastising him for his anti-nuclear stance: it was an “unserious answer” because “the unpleasant truth is that there will never be a nuclear-free world.” Corbyn “addresses a non-existent world,” the magazine argued, and his “solutions belong in the realm of fantasy.”
When George Osborne put forward cuts to tax credits, it was somehow Corbyn’s fault, because “by electing someone the Tories considered a joke, [voters] made Osborne feel certain he can do whatever he likes.” Various outlets took Corbyn’s remarks about commemorating World War I out of context and presented them in the most damaging way possible.
The Telegraph published articles like this one, claiming Corbyn “passed out” in his office under stress, and captioned perfectly ordinary photos of the Labour leader with things like “El Corbyno.” At one point, the newspaper was officially censured by IPSO, an independent press regulator, for flat-out labelling Corbyn an anti-semite.
Meanwhile, incidents like one where a BBC cameraman was pushed to the ground by the man driving Corbyn to parliament were seized on. It was first reported that a Corbyn “aide” had assaulted the man, with the Spectator claiming that “relations between Jeremy Corbyn’s team and the press have reached a new low.” When it turned out the man was just a driver, numerous outlets reported that “Corbyn’s driver” assaulted the cameraman, making it seem like he was Corbyn’s employee. In fact, he was a government employee sent to pick him up.
The press went wild when Corbyn hired left-wing Guardian columnist Seamus Milne as his communications director. The two were “the demon duo of Fleet Street,” Labour politician Kate Godfrey wrote an op-ed for the Telegraph, labelling Milne a terrorist sympathizer whose crimes included opposing intervention in Syria and calling the objectively disastrous war in Libya “a catastrophic failure.” One liberal columnist argued that he had been “thinking of getting involved with [Corbyn’s] revitalized Labour Party,” but the appointment of Milne was simply a step too far.
Even the military got in on the action. One anonymous senior general declared that the army would “mutiny” if Corbyn became prime minister, because they “would not allow a prime minister to jeopardize the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul, to prevent that.”
Despite all of this, columnists would insist as late as a year later that “it is one of the self-mythologising convictions of Jeremy Corbyn that he faces a uniquely hostile environment.” There was, according to one, “an extraordinary surge of paranoia and conspiracy theory on the left,” as exhibited by Corbyn’s suspicion of the mainstream media.
But as has been widely pointed out, two separate university studies found that Labour and Corbyn specifically were receiving a disproportionate amount of negative press. The London School of Economics report determined that “sources that were anti-Corbyn tended to outweigh those that support him and his positions,” that he was “systematically treated with scorn and ridicule in both the broadsheet and tabloid press in a way that no other political leader is or has been,” and that “UK journalism played an attack dog, rather than a watchdog, role.”
All Roads Lead to a Coup
The new year didn’t bring many changes. Blair continued to badmouth Corbyn. MPs continued to call on him to resign. The press (with the help of anonymous Labour MPs) portrayed him as a hypocrite for being paid to do his job as an MP.
Labour MPs continued to plot against Corbyn. “We need to have more courage,” one told the BBC. “Lots of people are talking about a battle of ideas. But that can wait. There is nothing more important than ditching Jeremy Corbyn.” Another said that “if Jeremy Corbyn leads us into the 2020 election, it’s all over for the party. We are screwed.”
The May 2016 election results provided the next opportunity for MPs to declare Corbyn’s leadership a failure. In reality, the May elections were a mixed bag for Labour, with the party losing big in Scotland and Wales (where it had been hemorrhaging votes for years), but more or less breaking even in England, as well as decisively winning the London mayoralty. Perhaps given the preceding eight months of infighting largely instigated by anti-Corbyn MPs, it was to be expected. But Labour MPs immediately called for Corbyn to resign in the wake of the election, citing his leadership.
As the Guardian’s Gary Younge put it, “When it comes to assessing Labour’s electoral fortunes, Corbyn is treated with all the due process of a seventeenth-century woman accused of witchcraft and dunked in a river. If she drowns she’s innocent; if she floats she’s guilty and condemned as a witch.”
Anti-Corbyn MPs faced a difficult dilemma, however. Their efforts to recruit a hundred thousand centrists failed, and it was clear Corbyn would easily win any leadership challenge. So Labour MPs who wanted to oust Corbyn were in the awkward position of constantly badgering him to leave without being able to do anything about it.
The Brexit result provided the long sought-after pretext for Labour MPs to launch a coup. As one Labour MP told the Telegraph about the plot to remove Corbyn ten days before the referendum vote: “It is not going to be a date in the calendar, it will be on the back of a media firestorm. It could happen within 24 hours.” Another explained how it would go down: “Things go wrong, people have had enough, you start to see resignations, and it spirals from there.”
Corbyn’s half-hearted campaign against Brexit, while not the defining factor in the referendum result, nonetheless proved the spark that set off a leadership challenge. The process closely followed what MPs had described to the Telegraph. After the Observer reported Benn was planning on launching a coup against him, Corbyn sacked him, leading to the resignation of his shadow health secretary, which in turn triggered the resignations of eleven more of his shadow cabinet. By the next day, forty-seven cabinet members had resigned, leading to chaos.
MPs wrote scathing resignation letters, with one accusing Corbyn of trying “to poison the well of our national political discourse.” His own MPs yelled “Resign” at him in the middle of a parliamentary debate. They passed a no-confidence motion against him by 172 to forty, and nearly sixty former Labour parliamentary candidates called for his resignation.
To anyone not paying attention, this would have seem particularly damning. And to be sure, even five hundred young Labour members, youth councillors, and activists signed a letter — organized by a formerly pro-Corbyn activist — calling for his resignation, citing his lackluster Brexit referendum campaign.
But the efforts were also entirely in line with what anti-Corbyn MPs had been saying for months was their plan: to find an appropriate moment during which they could force his ouster.
Labour MPs’ efforts to defeat Corbyn failed a second time, however, with Corbyn beating his sole challenger, Owen Smith, by an even larger margin than in his first victory. Yet even this had involved bypassing several obstacles.
At first, it wasn’t clear if Corbyn could stand in the leadership contest without the support of MPs. When the NEC — the entity that decides how the party is run — decided he could, there was a legal challenge launched against the decision. Corbyn’s deputy leader charged that “Trotskyists” had infiltrated the party. London Mayor Sadiq Khan came out in support of his challenger.
But the victory was a decisive one, largely due to party members who had joined up after 2015. This was after the NEC banned members who joined less than six months before from voting, and raising the membership fee from £3 to £25.
Send in the Centrists
Corbyn’s second overwhelming victory didn’t silence dissent. After a cabinet reshuffle in October that saw him sack the chief whip, who he viewed as disloyal, and appoint his supporters to the NEC, he faced criticism and several resignations. Labour backbenchers called for a series of MPs’ ballots to signal their open dissent against his policies.
The following month, 158 MPs rebelled against Corbyn and voted against an inquiry into lies Tony Blair had told parliament in the run-up to the Iraq War. (Months earlier, a Labour MP had yelled at Corbyn to “sit down and shut up” as he gave a speech in the House of Commons criticizing the Iraq War after the publication of the long-awaited Chilcot Report).
He faced more rebellion and resignations in January 2017 — this time, including from the grassroots — after he instructed his MPs to vote in favor of triggering the Brexit process. The following month, Labour lost a seat it had held in every election since 1935, seemingly portending doom.
It was around this time, perhaps the lowest moment in Corbyn’s leadership, that waves of op-eds urged Labour to move right.
“Where are Labour’s centrists?” one asked. “Labour can only make radical policies fly when floated by a trusted leadership,” said another in a criticism of Corbyn’s embrace of a snap election; “Corbyn may offer the casebook study in how to lose.” One prominent donor, who had earlier compared Corbyn supporters to Nazi stormtroopers, warned Labor “faces annihilation at the polls.”
Writing in the New Statesman, one academic charged that “Corbynism is a paranoid and inward-looking politics” that “has little interest in — and still less to offer — the outside world.” Nick Cohen of the Spectator urged a “conclusive break with the disastrous experiment with pseudo-leftism” in late April, only a month after asking readers if they “still believe the far-left politicians and journalists who promised that you would have shifted ‘the Overton window’ by now,” which he called a “cod piece of jargon.”
Of course, as we now know, it was precisely Labour’s radical (by the standards of 2017) manifesto that helped rescue Corbyn and Labour from the doldrums, with the party shooting up in the polls in the month during which the manifesto (which the Telegraph warned would “take Britain back to the 1970s”) was leaked. This was no doubt helped by the opportunity Corbyn was granted to speak directly to voters free from the constant sniping of his fellow Labour MPs and the filter of a hostile press, as well as the impact of divisive set of Tory policies.
Amusingly, one columnist claimed that the Labour manifesto was both not radical enough, and that it would be rejected by voters “because it added up to less than the sum of its parts when it came to plausibility.” Sometimes you just can’t win.
Coming Out Clean on the Other Side
What can we learn from this long history? For one, given the scale, persistence, and often dishonesty of the nearly two-year long campaign to undermine Corbyn, Labour’s election result is particularly astounding. If Corbyn can lead Labour to its biggest gain in vote share in seventy years with all this, imagine what the party could do when its MPs are actually trying to help their leader win.
Secondly, Corbyn’s journey highlights once again that all the typical rhetoric and rules around objectivity, unity, and decorum go out of the window when a candidate is a leftist.
Consider the Labour Party. Imagine if a centrist candidate had won the leadership on the back of an overwhelming mandate, brought in hundreds of thousands of new party members, insisted (fairly meekly) that his shadow cabinet toe the line that she or he was elected on, and disciplined (or threatened to discipline) party members who openly rebelled and plotted the leader’s ouster from the first few months of their leadership onward. Would that leader be accused of fomenting some kind of hostile, radical takeover of the party? Would they be accused of bullying and be compared to Kim Jong Un?
Or would MPs and the media more or less talk about disciplining party dissidents and “loyalty tests” as a routine matter, and casually refer to party leaders “consolidating their power,” as they tend to do? Contests for power are an inherent part of politics, particularly party politics, and to some extent the media will always be obsessed with court intrigue stories of backstabbing and maneuvering. But the opportunistic outrage of Corbyn’s parliamentary opponents for doing what any leader would have — and has — done in his situation has been particularly over-the-top.
Corbyn made his fair share of mistakes over the course of his time as leader. But there is little doubt his attempts to lead Labour were perpetually undermined by a PLP and staff hostile to not just his leadership, but to his beliefs — beliefs which have not just helped Labour became a political force in the UK again, but have potentially even provided a blueprint for halting the advance of the far right around the world.
After nearly two years, Corbyn has fulfilled the direst predictions of his conservative detractors: that he “would skew the discourse,” establish his ideas as “the default alternative to the Conservatives,” and end up “influencing people, particularly young people, across the political spectrum.” All he had to do was fight the Right, the press, and his own party to do it.