Jeremy Corbyn’s Movement Was a Signpost for the Future, Not a Relic of the Past

Twelve months after the electoral defeat of Corbynism, we shouldn’t allow its opponents to rewrite history. It was the Brexit crisis with all its side effects that dealt a crippling blow to Corbyn’s project, not a left-wing policy agenda that spoke to the issues of the future.

Jeremy Corbyn visits the Whaley Bridge Dam site on August 5, 2019 in Whaley Bridge, England. (Anthony Devlin / Getty Images)

The British general election of December 12, 2019 was a heavy defeat for the Labour Party, dealing a hammerblow to the project of Jeremy Corbyn and his allies. But it was also a generational rout. Despite losing fifty-nine seats overall, Corbyn’s party still comfortably bested the Conservatives with every demographic cohort under the age of forty-five: according to Lord Ashcroft’s exit poll, by 57 to 19 percent among eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds, by 55 to 23 percent among twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds, and by 45 percent to 30 percent among thirty-five- to forty-four-year-olds.

It was voters old enough to remember when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979 who opted for her party, by ever-widening margins as one ascended the demographic scale, with a staggering gulf among pensioners — 62 to 18 percent in favor of the Conservatives. The strongest rejection of Thatcher’s legacy came from those who had only ever known the world she made.

As Keir Milburn has argued, this generational chasm, by no means peculiar to Britain, is best seen as a variation on class politics rather than a substitute for it. Younger people — including those who are now fast approaching middle age — have had a radically different experience of housing and employment markets, amplified by the crash of 2008. In the British context, this encouraged them to identify with Corbynism, even as it faced its electoral nemesis.

Explaining Defeat

An article by Guardian journalist Andy Beckett, published soon after the 2019 election, is worth revisiting today, because it shows us the difference between common sense and good sense, conventional wisdom and actual wisdom. Beckett responded to attacks on Corbyn and his allies from Alan Johnson, a leading Blairite politician, by distinguishing between this result and Labour’s crushing defeat in 1983:

For a start, 1983 was much worse in many ways than 2019. Back then, the Conservatives won a majority of 144, compared with 80 last week. In 1983 Labour got 27.6% of the vote — its worst share for 65 years. Last week it got 32.2% — mediocre, but more than at the 2010 general election, when Alan Johnson was home secretary, or in 2015 under Ed Miliband. This year Corbyn may well have been “a disaster on the doorstep”, as Johnson put it; but such assessments conveniently omit to mention that New Labour, in its latter years, was an even harder sell.

Corbyn’s detractors have repeated the claim that he led Labour to its “worst defeat in eighty years” so often that it has become a kind of mantra. In terms of vote share, he didn’t even lead Labour to its worst defeat in ten years — or its second-worst defeat, for that matter. Corbyn won slightly fewer Westminster seats than Michael Foot had managed in 1983, even though Labour’s vote share was considerably higher this time, because the British electoral system tends to magnify small, geographically concentrated shifts.

The first of those shifts, in Scotland, preceded Corbyn’s leadership. In 2010, Gordon Brown took forty-one seats for Labour in Scotland, despite winning just 29 percent of the vote across the UK. Five years later, under Ed Miliband, Labour was left with one Scottish MP as the Scottish National Party (SNP) swept the board.

Although Corbyn led the party to a modest Scottish recovery in 2017, he could still only convert 40 percent of the UK vote into seven Scottish seats, with the SNP now well established in former Labour strongholds. The year 2019 wiped out that halting progress, reducing Labour to a single Scottish seat once again. Corbynism didn’t solve Labour’s Scottish conundrum, but it inherited that problem from the party’s former leadership teams.

The second shift came under Corbyn’s watch, in a swathe of Labour-held constituencies throughout the Midlands and Northern England. We’ll come to the details of this wipeout in a moment; for now, it’s important to note how damaging it was in terms of Westminster seats. The vast bulk of constituencies that Labour lost lay in the so-called red wall — an unhelpful, mystifying term, but one that has become a media buzzword. Together, Scotland and the red wall explain why Corbyn came home with fewer seats than Foot, Brown, or Miliband, despite outpolling them all.

Andy Beckett went on to note another contrast between 1983, when the Conservatives had much more support than Labour among younger voters, and 2019:

Then, Margaret Thatcher’s party often seemed more modern than Labour, offering a vision of an individualistic, competitive country, which many young people liked. There was an intellectual ferment on the right, which for years had been producing fresh policy ideas. Few people would say these things about the Tories now.

Under Corbyn, as Beckett pointed out, Labour had developed a policy agenda that addressed Britain’s social and economic problems — not to mention the burgeoning climate crisis. He argued strongly against throwing out that baby with the electoral bathwater:

After last week Labour could look for a different path to recovery, acknowledging that the left of the party, for all its failures this time, understands the modern world and the emerging electorate in ways that centrists, at least so far, do not. Yet if the party is too busy blaming the left for everything, this route to power will not be found.

Smashing the Wall

Twelve months later, everything that Beckett warned against has come to pass. Labour’s “new management” grouped around Keir Starmer has interpreted the party’s electoral defeat as a damning indictment of Corbyn’s entire program, not simply his leadership style or his approach to Brexit. Although Starmer’s team have been studiously vague about policy commitments, anyone who still expects the greater part of Labour’s recent election manifestos to be reproduced next time around is unwilling to read the writing on the wall.

That makes it all the more important to remember what actually happened in December 2019. An article by the Sky News reporter Lewis Goodall, published shortly before polling day, stands out for its prescience about the dynamic of the election. Goodall began by recalling a trip he had made to a snooker hall near Birmingham, where he grew up, during the 2017 general election. Talking to people back then, he had found it “obvious that Conservative overtures to this bit of the Midlands working class were failing, or at least, not succeeding enough.”

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks as supporters hold signs gathering around him on May 10, 2017 in Rotherham, England.
(Anthony Devlin / Getty Images)

This time, having paid a return visit to the same hall, Goodall’s impressions were very different: he was sure that Conservative talking points had started to cut through. For Goodall, the party’s change of policy over Brexit since 2017 was crucial: “Labour has become associated with attempts to block or reverse our leaving the EU.” His argument about the significance of Brexit is worth quoting at length, because it probed well beneath the surface of political events:

Whatever Remainers say about the referendum being only advisory, or long ago, it misses the point of the pain which the impression of its dismissal has created. Rightly or wrongly, class politics suffuses the interpretation of the election result. Again and again you hear “they don’t pay attention, our vote counts for nothing”. It causes incomprehension. For certain types of voter, the Brexit process has thus reaffirmed and cemented old doubts about politics. In their minds, it has proven that change is not possible, that democracy doesn’t work, that its practitioners aren’t interested in making it work for anyone but themselves. We hear a lot about the supposed anger of certain places. There’s some of that but at least as abundant is pure confusion and incomprehension.

According to Goodall, the protracted Brexit crisis had fostered a sense of nihilism about political change that was bound to be particularly damaging for “the party which is promising most change of all”:

For certain Leave voters, they look at politics and see a gaping space where they thought would be political cause and effect. In that space, it has been filled with slogans like “Get Brexit Done” and worse. For Labour Leavers in particular, a Brexit-infused narrative from the right has replaced and reordered the way they interpret politics, where the left used to be.

Jo Michell and Rob Calvert Jump crunched the numbers from Labour’s red wall seats earlier this year. As they pointed out, Labour’s vote share in those seats was no lower than it had been in 2010. The real shift was the massive post-Brexit increase in support for the Tories, rising from 32 percent in 2010 and 2015 to 42 percent in 2017 and 47 percent last year (just shy of the combined Tory–UK Independence Party (UKIP) vote share in 2015: 49 percent).

Labour managed to keep its head above water in 2017 by lifting its vote share dramatically across those constituencies, from 42 percent in 2015 to 50 percent two years later. When the party reverted to its 2010 level of support (39 percent), it left the way clear for Johnson and the Tories to gobble up Labour-held seats. An election polarized between pro- and anti-Brexit camps was always likely to be a disaster for Labour, and so it proved to be.

Echoes and Whispers

Lewis Goodall didn’t gloss over the importance of another factor that has been granted canonical status in the standard media narrative: negative perceptions of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. However, unlike most of his colleagues, Goodall didn’t see those perceptions as an explanation in their own right. They were something that had to be explained:

Talk to any working-class voter for long enough and you’ll hear a fragment of something they’ve seen on Facebook, an echo of a whisper about something connected with the IRA or terrorism, or desire to disband the army or some such. Story after story, sometimes fake tweets, or some tales about Mr Corbyn’s past. This slow marinade helps explain why views around him are so impacted, why his personal ratings have remained stubbornly low. The invective is profound; they can’t even tell you why they hate him, so they just do. That doesn’t mean that these voters are backing the Tories, for many still a step too far. There isn’t that much transference. Most just won’t vote at all, which is probably all the Conservatives need.

“Any working-class voter” is an exaggeration here, since Labour’s vote held up well among sections of the working class — indeed, the 2019 election result underlined the difficulty of generalizing about a British working class that is sharply divided by age, race, geography, and other fault lines. But Goodall is clearly describing a real phenomenon that needs to be accounted for.

After the election, liberal pundits and Labour politicians lined up to claim that Brexit wasn’t the real issue: Corbyn was. Keir Starmer and his allies quietly discarded that line of argument when they floated the option of supporting Johnson’s Brexit deal as “a signal to ‘red wall’ voters.” Whatever else may be said about this gambit, it certainly wouldn’t make sense if Corbyn had been the only significant problem for Labour in those seats.

That still leaves the matter of Corbyn’s personal image among voters. Although this was an issue in its own right, it can’t be neatly boxed off from the ongoing Brexit crisis, as if there was no connection between the two. Polling by YouGov at the start of 2019 suggested that Brexit was by far the most important factor behind negative perceptions of Corbyn:

We asked those who had previously been supportive of Corbyn, but have now switched position, what changed their mind. The list was dominated by responses about Brexit, with nearly half (43%) mentioning it in one way of another. In most cases it wasn’t due to his position being too far towards Remain (just 3% thought this) or too far towards Leave (just 6% said this), but rather the fact that he doesn’t seem to have any position at all. . . . Even amongst those who didn’t specifically mention Brexit, many responses still feed into this theme. Some talked about how they thought the Labour leader had recently shown himself to be indecisive by not stating his views strongly enough (14%) whilst others thought he shown bad leadership or been generally weak (10%).

Other factors that have been discussed at great length in the British media as Corbyn’s weakest points appeared to be much less significant, according to YouGov’s research:

Suggested links to terrorist organisations were only mentioned by 4% of respondents, despite dominating the headlines last summer. His positions on defence were mentioned by just 1 percent of respondents, whilst nobody mentioned his response to the Salisbury poisoning.

Corbynism Without Corbyn?

A similar picture emerges, from a slightly different angle, in an article published shortly before the general election by James Johnson, a former Tory adviser. Johnson reported that focus groups he had organized revealed a negative view of Corbyn among the majority of voters, but not for the reasons you might think:

Jeremy Corbyn’s deep unpopularity is not because of his past and his links to unsavoury characters. His background did not register with voters in the 2017 general election, nor does it now. Instead, voters dislike Corbyn because they think he is fundamentally a bit useless. Time after time, they have seen him struggle to control his party, fail to take clear positions, and handle Brexit haplessly. People view [John] McDonnell differently. He might have the same, if not more, disconcerting past. But whereas Corbyn is described as the “wet rag,” McDonnell is the “bank manager” with a strong grip.

Writing in the Spectator, a right-wing magazine, Johnson stressed that Corbyn’s failure to cut through with the electorate did not mean his policy agenda was unpopular:

If the appeal of Corbyn is over, do not assume the allure of Corbynism is. John McDonnell is a key proponent of that form of politics. And certainly when I was doing the Conservative party’s polling, it was McDonnell I was most scared of.

It would be facile to look at this picture and conclude that Corbynism might have worked out differently if only McDonnell had been its front man rather than Corbyn himself. The main objective difference between the two men was that McDonnell always seemed more relaxed and confident in a television studio than Corbyn, which is an important skill for a politician to have, of course.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn stands with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell after his major speech on the economy at the Invisible Wind Factory on November 7, 2019 in Liverpool, England. (Richard Martin-Roberts / Getty Images)

However, the issues that James Johnson identified as the source of Corbyn’s “wet-rag” perception — party management and Brexit — were largely a function of his role as leader, rather than his personal qualities. In the public eye, McDonnell did not carry the same weight of responsibility for Labour’s bitter factional divisions. Nor was he associated with the prolonged dispute over the party’s Brexit policy — which was the symptom of a real political dilemma rather than an inability on Corbyn’s part to make up his mind.

If John McDonnell had been in the same position as Corbyn after 2015 or 2017, with all other things being equal, he would have faced the same implacable opposition from the Labour right as Corbyn did. That opposition was not based on pragmatic concerns about “electability” — it was firmly rooted in ideology and material interest. The only way to get around it would have been to capitulate by abandoning the entire project.

Swap McDonnell for Corbyn, without changing any other aspect of the political environment, and you have the script of the last few years turned on its head, with sage voices calling for “McDonnellism without McDonnell.” They might even have suggested that the Labour left needed a more emollient figurehead to weather the storm, like his ally Jeremy Corbyn.

Aerial Warfare

In hindsight, it’s clear that Corbynism had already been defeated by the time the 2019 election campaign began, for two main reasons. Firstly, Labour could never have repeated its 2017 performance without striking the same balance between Remain and Leave voters (roughly two-thirds to one-third that year).

Labour might have achieved a better result in December 2019 if it had stuck to its original Brexit policy and steered clear of the second-referendum camp — one can make a plausible argument for that scenario, though not a provable one. However, it’s very difficult to imagine that any policy could have delivered 40 percent of the vote for Labour in an election where Brexit was the primary issue. Corbyn’s best hope was to change the focus of political debate, but that was no longer possible by the time the election was called.

Secondly, the sharp decline in Labour’s polling figures over the course of 2019 — and especially after the European election in May — meant that the party had too much ground to make up over the course of an election campaign. Labour’s average support in the polls during October 2019 was 25 percent. This was almost exactly where it had stood in April 2017, when Theresa May called a snap election, while the average figure for the Tories — 35.7 percent — was several points lower. But it was too great a challenge for Labour to repeat its 2017 surge.

In part that was because of the Brexit-imposed ceiling on the party’s vote. More importantly, the experience of 2017 had put the British ruling class and its various institutions firmly on their guard. Public service broadcasters like the BBC gave Corbyn a relatively fair crack of the whip in his first campaign, not because they truly felt bound by commitments to impartiality, but because they expected him to lose by a wide margin anyway, since there was no precedent for a party clawing back a huge polling deficit in the space of a few weeks.

There was also a general assumption among journalists that left-wing policies were deeply unpopular with the electorate, so giving Corbyn enough space to articulate his policy agenda would do Labour’s prospects no good at all. The 2017 campaign tested both assumptions to destruction, and there no question of allowing it to happen again. As Archie Woodrow wrote on the eve of the 2019 poll:

In the 2017 general election, while it was clear that Corbyn was the outsider with the establishment overwhelmingly united against him, there was at least the semblance of a fair, democratic contest. In particular, when the rules on broadcast impartiality and equal coverage of parties kicked in, the difference was obvious. Almost overnight, there was a sea-change in the quality of Labour’s television coverage. . . . This time, there has been nothing of the sort, and to many of us, despite coming in with extremely low expectations, the conduct of this election has been absolutely shocking.

Throughout the campaign, there was a concerted effort to depress the Labour vote, not merely from the partisan right-wing press, but also from broadcasters with a statutory obligation to remain impartial.

One incident will have to stand in for the whole: in the final days of the election, the two most eminent figures in British current affairs broadcasting circulated a fake story about Labour members assaulting a Tory politician’s adviser to an audience of millions. Neither the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg nor Robert Peston of ITV faced any consequences for their grossly unprofessional conduct, nor did they seek to explain themselves. They relied on a tacit understanding among their colleagues that all bets were off until Corbynism had been vanquished.

While it’s important that we remember this pattern of behavior, there’s no point complaining about it to a nonexistent referee. The unprecedented campaign against Corbyn and his movement was always bound to happen now that his opponents were forewarned. To get around it, Labour needed to be in a stronger position when the election was called, within touching distance of the Conservatives, so that the ground game of its activist base could compensate for the hostility of the broadcast media.

Even if Labour had managed to scrape a victory against the odds, it’s unlikely that Corbyn could have used that as the launchpad for a program of radical reform. Because of the Labour Party’s internal divisions, Corbyn needed a big victory to strengthen the left-wing current among Labour MPs and marginalize his irreconcilable opponents. While it made sense for Labour activists to suspend their disbelief until the votes were counted, especially after the shock turnaround in 2017, their own campaigning efforts could never have sufficed to overcome these crippling disadvantages.

Enemies Within

Twelve months on, the 2019 campaign seems more like the miners’ strike of 1984–85 than a conventional election. Seumas Milne, one of Corbyn’s closest aides after 2015, wrote a definitive account of the dirty tricks used against the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), The Enemy Within. For the most recent edition of the book, published in 2014, Milne added a preface about its meaning for the present:

The year-long strike was a defensive battle to protect livelihoods and communities that the miners could not have avoided. But it was also a challenge to the destructive profit- and market-driven transformation of economic life already then in full flow. And it raised the alternative of a different kind of Britain, rooted in solidarity and collective action, against the individualism and private greed of the Thatcher years . . . the industrial and political conditions that gave rise to the 1984–85 strike, along with the miners’ victories of the early 1970s, will never recur in that particular form. But as the economic order that Thatcher helped build has foundered, the message of the miners’ struggle can speak to our times — and both its lessons and example will be an inspiration long into the future.

Awareness of what really happened during the miners’ strike took a long time to percolate outward — although the inhabitants of pit villages knew all about the conduct of the police while the strike was still in progress. To this day, you’ll find more unvarnished truth about the NUM’s struggle in a film like Billy Elliot than in the pages of broadsheet newspapers: popular, guerrilla memory has had to compete with the official record. The same is likely to be true of the Corbyn years for a long time to come, especially with a witch-hunting, McCarthyite regime installed at the top of the Labour Party.

When people take on the ruling class, more often than not, they lose. Self-criticism after a defeat is necessary for any political movement, but it shouldn’t be confused with self-flagellation. The guardians of conventional wisdom in the British press will be lining up to deride Corbyn and his supporters, just as they derided the NUM for its resistance to Thatcher. These figures have never taken a stand for anything in their lives — their careers depend on such abstinence — and will never understand why others do. Their half-baked, finger-wagging polemics should be roundly ignored.

Memories of the miners’ strike and other struggles of the 1980s helped nourish movements in subsequent decades that took on a very different organizational form. While the political conjuncture that shaped the rise and fall of Corbynism may never be repeated, the experience of those years will also be a source of instruction and inspiration for any movement that sets out to challenge Britain’s social order.