Jeremy Corbyn was timid and cowardly, argues Adam Lewinski. Though this article was originally written for the Morning Star, it was rejected by the editor, who deemed it too critical. We print it in the name of honest and open debate
As Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader was coming to an end, the left naturally rallied around him in support for the sheer personal hell he had been subjected to over the past four years.
A concerted media campaign of personal smears and abuse, an Orwellian witch-hunt against anti-Semitism in Britain’s foremost anti-racist political party and rampant social media disinformation campaigns from the Tories have all marred his premiership. As has the consistent sabotage and disloyalty of the Labour right, the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the full-time staff.
It is absolutely right and proper to call out the flagrant hypocrisy and corruption of our established media interests, the Tories and the Labour right. But, as the dust settles on Corbyn’s tenure, it also has to be recognised by the British left that he had been a singularly incompetent leader. That incompetence cannot be displayed more clearly than by the helplessness and complete lack of institutional security the post-Corbyn left looks likely to have in the party now he is gone.
With a galvanised Labour right surrounding new leader Keir Starmer, talk has already begun on removing every trace of Corbyn support from the new shadow cabinet and staff of the party. In all likelihood, the right is about to tighten its stranglehold over the party machine in such a way as to never allow a movement like this to occur again.
Depending on how ideologically suicidal the centre-right are planning to be, the result of this could well be to plunge the organisation into another four years of civil war, precipitating more huge losses at the next general election - and the potential eclipse of the Labour Party for good. Whether they choose to pursue this agenda to the death or not is now entirely out of the left’s hands. Through poor leadership we have squandered any opportunities we had to entrench ourselves against the always likely outcome that Corbyn would not miraculously sweep to power in Britain and enact a new radical, social democratic consensus.
Here are just a few of the Corbyn movement’s failures.
A complete failure to defend itself in the face of unrelenting attacks on the Labour Party membership both from the Labour right and the press.
One of the groups of unspoken victims of the past four years have been the membership, who despite absent leadership have shown remarkable loyalty and discipline in the face of constant slander from the national press, their own elected representatives and party staff. The anti-Semitism ‘crisis’ in Labour is the perfect example of this.
From 2016, the Labour front bench went from rightly calling out the influence of paid Israeli agents in diplomatic sabotage and smear campaigns to signing off a definition which made even acknowledging the existence of such things anti-Semitic. It went from a full-throated defence of Palestinian liberation, in the face of a genocidal movement to obliterate the Palestinian state and people, to simpering self-admonishments for ‘not having dealt with the problem’ of a statistically insignificant number of Labour members using the incorrect definition for Zionism.
The left leadership’s willingness to throw its members and key allies in the party under the bus rather than face up to clearly cynical attacks from the press is a betrayal that should never be forgotten by the hundreds of thousands who looked with such hope and determination towards their success.
A total lack of cultural self-awareness, the profusion of nepotism and favouritism and small-scale corruption around the leader’s office.
The Labour leader from the beginning has been surrounded by middle class Oxbridge graduates, a wealthy south London bubble of volunteers and social media whizz-kids, who are completely politically inexperienced and culturally at odds with the country. The continued indulgence by the left of the issue of trans rights, affecting 0.2 per cent of the British population directly, as well as a host of fashionable campus causes around lifestyle politics and sexuality has left it totally alienated from the majority of Labour voters, who are primarily interested in universal social and economic justice, high welfare spending, economic planning and decent employment opportunities.
There is a total lack of message discipline designed to unite voters around these core messages and an almost in-principle desire to draw abstract red lines around an ever-thinning core of enthusiastic middle class activists on decadent ideas of self and individualism - which by default isolates anyone who considers themselves culturally heterogeneous. The descent of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s continuity campaign into this vapid cultural hole emblematises the extent to which the left has been swallowed by this toxic culture war against the majority.
A failure to make constitutional change and embed the left into the structures of the party.
Unlike the right, Corbyn and John McDonnell have never prioritised the permanent establishment of the left as a force within the staff, the elected structures or the constitution of the Labour Party. The much-vaunted ‘democracy review’ was an entirely wasted opportunity to reduce the constitutional clout of the PLP and local councillors - bastions of the right - and empower unions and members. In place of serious constitutional change, we were treated to paltry and often unworkable promises, like direct elections for council leaders and marginal changes to the processes for deselecting MP candidates.
Cowardice and incompetence: time and time again opportunities to establish himself as clear leader of the organisation were not taken. From voting away his own majority on the national executive committee in 2016, by siding with calls for an extra Scottish and Welsh NEC representative, to failing to discipline MPs like Margaret Hodge, whose outrageous displays of public abuse and indecency fell more than once against not only the rules of the party, but also laws of the country. As members were marched slowly in rows towards the arrayed machine-gun posts of the party’s disciplinary procedures, MPs and rightwingers - constantly briefing the press and inciting hateful abuse against their colleagues - were let off the hook time and time again.
Jackie Walker was disciplined for pointing out in a Jewish Labour Movement meeting that Jewish schools are not the only inner-city schools to hire security; Marc Wadsworth for calling out Ruth Smeeth for passing Labour press releases to Telegraph journalists; Chris Williamson for standing as a lone voice against the unfolding insanity of labelling the Labour Party ‘institutionally racist’.
Incompetence and spin: Corbyn’s special ingredient to the political discourse of 2016 was his authenticity and honesty.
Immediately after taking office, he and his team chose so many idiotic defensive lines against the unrelenting onslaught of the press that he quite quickly found himself painted into a corner. Refusing to accept that there was a civil war in the Labour Party tied one arm behind his back, whilst factional warlords like Tom Watson took unrestrained swings.
Apologising for non-existent anti-Semitism allowed the press to entirely divorce their claims from reality and not research the crazed sources they were quoting. Vacillating and compromising on the party’s Brexit position made every announcement on the issue into a running joke. By the end, from being a straight-talking voice of authenticity in Labour, Corbyn’s public pronouncements were universally veiled as deliberately vague soundbites, repeated ad nauseam, in a desperate attempt to control an incomprehensible message.
In his wake, the British left has mobilised more people than ever before since the collapse of our mass trade union movement in the 1980s – but, unlike the trade union movement, we have no established structures or routes for action to take them to in the absence of Corbyn’s leadership of Labour. Our Palestinian solidarity movement is in tatters, and the cultural brand of the left and socialism itself is tarnished amongst millions of people as being obsessed with sexuality, gender and race - rather than the bread-and-butter issues which affect the majority of the country.
Corbyn’s failures cannot be forgotten by any left serious about moving forward from the current situation. We cannot find ourselves caught defending an idol who was so ill-equipped for the task laid before him, or the historical moment that befell him.