Corbyn’s not the whole problem, but he’s a very large part of it

Harry Robertson 28 February 2017

Despite all the expectation management prior to the two by-elections last week, there is no getting around the fact that Labour did badly. However you cut it, whatever you blame it on, as things are Labour have absolutely zero chance of getting anywhere near government in the foreseeable future. As leader, Corbyn is responsible for explaining why and for providing a plan which addresses whatever problems his analysis reveals. This cannot happen if all he points to are excuses. 

Corbyn and his allies have been determined to blame it on anything but the blindingly obvious unpopularity of their leader. Even if the arguments were not so weak, excuses should not be coming from the leadership as a knee-jerk response in the place of any sort of reflection or change of strategy. Blaming Blair, who left office ten years ago, for losing a seat held since 1983, or claiming people were rebelling against a rigged system and self-interested establishment by voting to increase the majority of a Tory government that has been in power for seven years is not a strategy. 

Even if you accept all of the extenuating circumstances Shami Chakrabarti listed on Sunday—from the weather to public transport—they do not begin to cover the scale of Labour’s problems. Yes, Copeland had a declining majority, and yes, there are local specifics to every individual contest, but there were plenty of reasons to expect a decent showing from Labour. By-elections are often seen as a safe opportunity for a protest vote: they are a one-off and can send a message to a complacent government. Only four times since 1945 have the government won a seat off the opposition in a by-election, and Labour celebrating a 50 percent success rate last week sets the bar embarrassingly low. 

It is of course wrong to extrapolate too far, but losing vote share in Stoke in a by-election against the backdrop of a divided Conservative Party and scandal-ridden UKIP campaign, and losing a seat in Copeland with an issue as important as a hospital closure on the agenda does not bode well. However much you distrust pollsters, a 16 to 18 point deficit in national polls exceeds any possible margin of error—especially as when polls are wrong, they usually overestimate Labour support.

Although there will be countless articles, interviews, and speeches from Corbyn’s camp which will claim “this means you should now all support our politics”, there is no easy remedy. It is true that Labour’s problems extend far beyond Corbyn and no-one seems to have fully identified what is going wrong, let alone a solution to it. If Corbyn leaves Labour will not be instantly fixed. However, just because he is not the only problem dragging Labour down, does not mean he is unrelated or simply being scapegoated; he is a large part of the problem, despite not being all of it. 

Labour policy and publicity is a mess. Press releases are late, messages are unclear, or constantly being changed and contradicted, and everything the Labour Party seems to have to say is about the Labour Party—they rarely set the agenda except through internal crisis. Corbyn is visibly uncomfortable dealing with the publicity and media side of being leader, meaning even if he did have something profound to contribute it would get lost in translation anyway. On top of this, Corbyn is personally unpopular: his ratings are lower than the notoriously unpopular Michael Foot’s were at the same time in his leadership. He has very committed supporters in the party membership, but very few outside it. 

Yet, perhaps worse than being straightforwardly unpopular or divisive, Corbyn’s biggest problem is that he is simply irrelevant. People don’t want to listen to what he has to say and have tuned out. Rather than an aggressive media campaign or internal plotting turning the public angrily against him, his late, muddled messages have meant no-one cares anymore. He mistakes it for hostility, but it is really just indifference. He has retreated from the public, and the public have turned away from him. 

Corbyn, and his increasingly small group of close allies, can live in an alternate reality where everything is the fault of false consciousness, Blairite moles, or fake news; where Corbyn is “one of the most popular politicians in the country” (his elections co-ordinator). But it just doesn’t matter anymore, because nobody is listening. He has shown he cannot be pushed from power, but he shows no signs of leaving, choosing instead to “finish the job”. He can denounce internal dissent as much as he likes, but finishing the job might mean there will be no Labour Party left to fight over.