Cast your minds, if you can bear to, back to the summer of 2015. Ed Miliband had just lost a general election and resigned, and David Cameron had victoriously returned to Downing Street as Prime Minister once again, this time free of the shackles of his pesky coalition partners. The stage was set for the almost-unknown Jeremy Corbyn to ride a resurgent wave of support into the office of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition.
I was a part of that support. Jeremy’s vision excited me, and the human ease with which he communicated his vision without the slippery, pre-cast idioms, characteristic of the other career-politician Labour Leadership candidates, was hugely refreshing. The choice I faced as a Young Labour member with a leadership ballot seemed so plainly simple, so black and white, so obvious. Jeremy stood out as a breath of fresh air, while the other candidates – Cooper and Kendall particularly, Burnham less so – seemed to be trying to (to me at the time, at least) make the party position a mirror image of the hateful Conservative manifesto which had just won an election. I resented their buying into the Conservative narrative that austerity was a necessary force, and that their implication that to suggest otherwise is ludicrous, wishful thinking from would-be communists. Thus, when faced with my ballot, I didn’t think twice. I didn’t even put a second preference. I became part of the 251,417 voters to give Jeremy Corbyn a 60% mandate to lead the party.
Then began the honeymoon period. I became an ardent Jeremy Corbyn supporter, dismissing every criticism of him as baseless and as a deliberate attempt by the Labour party’s right wing to steal back power through undermining his authority. I well and truly became part of the Corbyinista movement, as did many of my friends. Corbyn’s first few months in office, therefore, did not seem all that bad from my perspective. Any criticism heaped on him from the press I disregarded, cheerfully quipping phrases along the lines of “If Jeremy Corbyn is so bad, why are the right-wing press so desperate to get rid of him? He must be doing something right if he’s got them scared!”
His performance at his first PMQs was disheartening but I excused it by reassuring myself that he would improve with experience. He hasn’t. His less awful performances still pale in comparison to the more charismatic performances from his deputies, such as Hilary Benn’s barnstorming speech prior to the Commons authorising military action in Syria. Corbyn’s stubborn approach to leadership – an approach I first applauded as a righteous detox of the party’s Blair-obsessed grandees – began to frustrate me. The faith I had in Corbyn that his new kind of politics would eventually spread across the country, that the electorate would gradually warm to his policies, began to fade. Any prospect of winning a general election under Corbyn became less and less likely.
Fast-forward to 2016, and I become slightly more hopeful. While the prospect of an EU referendum around the corner was unnerving, I felt sure that Corbyn would transform the Remain campaign into a battle, back from the brink, to win the faith of the electorate. Surely not even Corbyn, the outsider, the underdog, the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, would jeopardise the country’s future by not campaigning relentlessly to ensure the country voted Remain. He would, I assured myself, pull out all the stops, and become the figurehead of the campaign, and then use the outcome of the referendum to springboard himself into electoral viability in 2020.
How wrong I was. Again. Corbyn’s contribution to the campaign was lacklustre at best. Every speech he delivered which was supposedly in favour of Remain seemed to be delivered in the most unenthusiastic of tones. Countless times, he seemed, very plainly, to be more against the concept of the European Union than in favour of it, causing many to believe that he actually voted Leave. Time and time again, opportunities to become a legitimate alternative to the Conservatives were quite literally laid at the feet of Corbyn. The opportunity to unite with the working class and set out, unpatronisingly, the case to Remain, and to address the concerns regarding sovereignty and border security that many voters legitimately held – went completely over Corbyn’s head.
Even after the referendum result, Corbyn once again had a golden opportunity: to spearhead the anger of sixteen million Remain voters, in parliament, across the dispatch box to Theresa May as she spelt out her pathetic, widely-mocked ‘Brexit means Brexit’ nonsense. Instead, Corbyn did nothing. Instead, it has fallen to the unofficial opposition parties – the SNP, the Liberal Democrats – to hold the government to account and call out their callous approach to Brexit negotiations where required. In many respects, the SNP and Liberal Democrats are now becoming more and more vocal by the day, sensing that Corbyn’s refusal to become an effective opposition is a gap that they can capitalise on to gather more support for their own.
“Just give him a chance!” I would repeat constantly back when I was a supporter. Well, after Thursday’s abysmal results in the Stoke Central and Copeland by-elections, I think his chance to prove himself to us has dried up. Copeland’s constituency had been a Labour seat since 1924. 1924. Just let that sink in. Over 90 years of Labour representation. And, rather than UKIP rushing to fill the vacuum to claim the working class vote, the Tories – the Tories – have have taken Labour’s spot. Governments are not meant to win by-elections. Even in Stoke, a Labour safe seat since the 1950s, Labour clung on to victory by the slimmest of margins, a mere 2,620 votes more than UKIP’s disgusting Paul Nuttall. Not even Nuttall’s repeated gaffes – claiming to be a professional footballer; claiming to have relatives who died at Hillsborough; claiming to be against NHS privatisation despite video evidence that he supports it; claiming to have sat on a charity board when the charity board has no knowledge of him ever doing so – could stop UKIP gaining 2.1% on the 2015 result at the expense of Labour losing 2.2%. What does this tell us about the state of the Labour party leadership, when it can’t even win – and win comfortably – in safe-seat by-elections, with odds stacked well in their favour for them to win easily from the outset? If Corbyn can’t even comfortably retain seats in concentrated areas, how can anybody expect him to win back the 96 seats to reach the 326-seat goal in order to form a government?
So where does that leave us? I am ashamed to be a Labour member under its current leadership. I feel personally responsible for allowing Corbyn to take the helm of the party as one of his ex-supporters. I squarely blame Corbyn for the disastrous result of the European Referendum, which will have serious implications for generations to come. A recent poll has confirmed our worst fears – Corbyn polls with a -38 points approval rating, while May – the semi-transparent, wraith-like husk of a leader, trying desperately to mimick Thatcher, yet who sounds like a dull district councillor rather than a PM – polls with a +17 points approval rating. Labour desperately needs a new face, and fast, before we hand the Tories the keys to power for the next quarter of a century. I don’t know who this new face should be, but right now what does seem obvious is this:
It needs to be anyone but Corbyn.