Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 16 July 2019

There is only one alternative to Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Corbyn may not be a great or even a particularly good leader, but it seems few in the media recognise he is the only viable opposition to the far right we have.

While I have been critical of the Labour leadership’s Brexit stance for some time, and still do not think Corbyn has gone far enough to maximise Labour's chances of General Election victory, he has done enough to ensure one thing: his survival. While his Brexit stance, together with continuing problems with antisemitism, will have lost some members and made others luke warm, there is little appetite to replace him amongst most members. This view will only strengthen as the likelihood of a General Election increases. It is Labour party members who choose the party’s leader.

But what about antisemitism? Could this issue be the downfall of the Labour leadership? The answer is almost certainly no. As the poll discussed here shows, while 66% of Labour members think antisemtism within the party is a genuine problem, 77% think the problem is deliberately exaggerated to damage Labour and Corbyn himself. On the basis of current evidence, and that includes any rebuke from the EHRC investigation, Corbyn’s position among members on this issue is secure.

The only other factor that might raise questions among the membership about their leader is very bad poll ratings. But two factors mean this is not a risk factor for Corbyn’s leadership. First, the new Brexit policy will win some voters back. As Rob Ford notes here, there are signs that the electorate’s flirtation with four party politics is coming to an end, as both Labour and the Conservatives move their own Brexit position. Second, Labour under Corbyn have been there and done that in 2017, such that there will always be the hope of a pre-election surge for Labour.

Could Labour’s continuing antisemitism crisis create another serious split between MPs and the leadership, along the lines of the vote of no confidence in 2016 after the Brexit vote? A split of this kind would only make sense if Labour MPs believed that they had a chance of defeating Corbyn in a ballot of members, and as I have already suggested they would be delusional. MPs may demand this and that in terms of how disciplinary procedures are handled within Labour, but any attempt to unseat Corbyn, or mass defections by Labour Mps, seems unlikely.

The security of the Labour leadership’s position within the party is one of two key factors in which to evaluate the impact of continuing criticism of Labour within the mainstream media and elsewhere. The second is the threat we face from what has become the most far right and dangerous government the UK has experienced for decades if not centuries.

The Conservative party is looking increasingly like the US Republican party, and its likely leader increasingly looks like a UK version of Donald Trump. However the Conservative party has got itself into a far more dangerous position than the Republican’s have ever faced. The Tories have Nigel Farage and a right wing press pushing them to implement a No Deal Brexit that goes way beyond anything Trump might be contemplating with tariffs. Furthermore opposition within the Tory party towards Johnson’s leadership ideas and No Deal looks vanishingly small.

Two recent events have underlined how far the UK government has descended into far right territory. The first was of course Johnson’s failure to stand up for one of our own ambassadors in the Darroch affair. A corrolorary of No Deal is that a trade deal with the US becomes politically essential, and that in turn means that Trump’s not so polite requests become the UK’s actions. This is a President who tells non-white Congresswomen born in the USA to go back to “the crime infested places from which they came”. In practice a US trade deal that UK politicians desperately want will be disastrous for UK agriculture, UK consumers and many more, people already hit hard by the UK leaving the EU with no deal.

The second recent event was Amber Rudd preferring a job in any future Johnson government to her previous opposition to No Deal. It has been an object lesson to those who thought Conservative MPs would always stand up for business and the Union to see how quickly all but a few have chosen political expediency instead. Again parallels with the Republican party in the US are instructive. Just as the right wing media in the US was able to use the Tea Party movement to shift the Republicans to the right, so the right wing press have used Farage to shift the Conservative party in a similar way.

The net result will be the normalisation of a No Deal Brexit over the next few months. Leaving without a deal was not what all of the 52% of Leave voters in 2016 voted for, but virtually no one in the broadcast media will be brave enough to push this point. The lie that the 2016 vote provides a mandate for No Deal will go unchallenged. Broadcasters will balance the nonsense that the impact of No Deal on the UK will be, to quote Johnson, “infinitesimally small” against the truth that it is the biggest act of political and economic self-harm ever inflicted on the UK.

Allowing Johnson to become leader shows that the Conservative party has completely lost its moral compass. All of Johnson’s misdeeds in his past mean nothing, just as Trump’s behaviour means nothing to his supporters and the Republican party. Both individuals lie all the time, but it doesn’t matter to his own side. Johnson encourages a friend to beat up a journalist, but it doesn’t matter. Johnson uses racist language on many occasions, most recently comparing Muslim women wearing the niqab and burqa to letterboxes, but this was deemed acceptable by his party. Johnson gets advice from Steve (“Let them call you racist. Wear it as a badge of honour”) Bannon, and even the BBC does not think Johnson lying about these contacts matters.

And so, as the Conservative party loses its moral compass, the chances are that large sections of the country’s elite will do so as well, and our standing overseas will plummet even further. Although Tory party members may find Johnson’s insults acceptable, don’t expect other countries to take a UK run by Johnson as more than a bad joke. Don’t expect other countries to do business with a UK that proposes to destroy its trade relationship with the EU and many other countries at a stroke. An elite that treats threats to prorogue parliament as acceptable will not be respected by countries that value democracy, although some others will welcome the development.

Yet those who say not in my name need to ask themselves whether they are prepared to make the choice required to stop this happening. There is only one realistic opposition to a Johnson led government. Believing the Liberal Democrats could ever play that role was unrealistic, because Labour has enough loyal voters to ensure that the anti-government vote would be split. Farage along with the LibDems might also take away votes from the government, but it would be foolish to rely on an English vote split four ways just happening to go against a Conservative government.

The awkward truth for those who for whatever reason dislike Corbyn’s Labour party is that Labour is the only party that can defeat this government, and its leader in the next election will be Corbyn. Voting is always a choice between the lesser of two evils. Supporting smaller parties when that lets the Conservatives win, or supporting none, may make those who dislike Corbyn’s Labour feel better, but it is in effect a statement that Corbyn’s Labour party would be just as bad for the country as a whole as out current government, and that is simply not a credible belief. Corbyn is not going to leave the EU with no deal, and in practice will be unable to leave the EU in any way. Corbyn is not threatening to prorogue parliament, is not desperate to do a trade deal with Donald Trump, does not lie all the time, does not get friends to beat up opponents, and does not have a history of using racist language. Whereas Johnson promises tax cuts for the rich, a Corbyn led government would help the many, not the few.

Yet there are few in the mainstream media who seem prepared to recognise the choice we face for what it is. Even wise and perceptive commentators like Martin Wolf, who lament the situation the Conservative government has led us to, often feel it necessary to balance their piece with a derogatory remark about the Labour leadership. Those remarks may or may not be accurate, but a plague on all your houses just allows this Tory government to stay in place.

Worse still are those in the centre or centre-left who refuse to give up hope of getting ‘their party’ back and will do anything that in their view helps that cause. In the first year after Corbyn was elected many MPs and journalists waged a constant war against the left in the media. I said at the time it was utterly futile and self-destructive, and I was right. It led to an attempt to unseat Corbyn that everyone on the left calls a coup, and a clear majority of members saw it the same way. Polls suggest the same is true today. Those in the centre and centre-left need to realise that for all Corbyn’s faults and mistakes he will be Labour’s leader going into the next election, and if they repeatedly attack him they are helping Boris Johnson do terrible damage to our country.

Of course the right wing press will do anything to discredit Labour: that is what their owners pay them to do. But often their task is made easier by the non-partisan media who think they are making choices using simple journalistic criteria, such as going with the story. What we are in danger of seeing with 24/7 criticism of Corbyn is a repetition of what happened to Hilary Clinton in the US elections. As I showed here, the mainstream media spent much more time talking about her email server than any of the sins of Donald Trump, or indeed all those sins combined. In that sense the US media chose Trump over Clinton. It was of course not a thought-through or considered choice, but just the outcome of lots of individual decisions that seemed to make sense in journalistic terms, but were disastrous in political terms.

Of course the constant tunes the media play matter. One of the incredible poll findings of that US election was that more people trusted the serial liar Donald Trump more than Hillary Clinton. That makes no sense unless you note the constant stream of media stories suggesting Clinton had something to hide. No one is suggesting Labour’s failures over antisemitism should not be exposed, just as no one was suggesting that Clinton should not have been criticised for using her own email for government business. What is missing in both cases is a sense of perspective, as here for example, or here. Without that perspective constant attacks on Corbyn will have an impact. The impact will be to keep a destructive far right government in power.


  1. How many times? Clinton was the subject of a criminal investigation by the FBI because of the server. Trump was not undergoing criminal investigation by the FBI. That is newsworthy.

  2. There is little appetite to replace him among members because they are like-minded. But the members do not represent the average Labour voter, just as Tory members don't represent the average Tory voter. He has vacated the centre, failed to support Remain and alienated many by turning a blind eye to anti-Semites.

    You are missing the point that the two party system is breaking, in large part because the members are electing the leaders and the members have becomes divorced from the typical voter. Also, the system means that in many seats the Lib Dems are more serious challengers to the Tories than Labour. Labour isn't going to win a majority, and with Corbyn as leader even if they are the largest party they will struggle to form a government as they will not get support from the Lib Dems or the SNP.

  3. I'm heartened by this as I think the 2017 manifesto was a good one. But I think Labour needs to work with the Lib Dems and Greens on some kind of electoral pact if it is to defeat the Brexit/Conservative axis. And I can't see this happening.

  4. So just as people like Amber Rudd have decided to hold their noses and support Johnson, those in the centre and on the centre left are expected to hold our noses and support Corbyn. It took the humiliation of Labour in 1983 for the party to come to its senses and reject the Bennite analysis of how to achieve electoral success. Those who continue to support Corbyn's leadership of the Labour party haven't learnt the lessons of history.

  5. A good post, Simon. What is also missing from the journalistic perspective is here an accurate account of the ongoing anti-semitism issue within the party which treats it as the serious matter that it is and not a vector for intra-factional squabbling. Their failure on this can be witnessed e.g. in the open reputation-washing that Iain McNichol is now perpetrating in plain sight, despite having played a key role in the party’s poor handling of the issue.

  6. Anyone who thinks that .06% of actual members found to have made anti-Semitic comments - is a problem in the Labour Party, is seriously exaggerating the case for political reasons. Instead of pretending that the likes of Watson are serious about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party but serving the interests of a foreign government, most casual observers know from the lobby lies and deceit are spread about Labour in order to break up the support of ordinary members for Jeremy Corbyn rather than any real claims of anti-Semitism.

    What is apparent from most polls at this moment in time, is with the mass coverage and smear campaign mounted by the BBC over anti-Semitism is that the public at large are not taken in and perhaps understand at long last what the real agenda is in attacking Jeremy Corbyn.

  7. That is all fair enough as far as England goes, but in Scotland, NI and even in Wales, there are better alternatives than Labour, which in both the recent and distant past has shown itself, with few exceptions, to be as rabidly unionist and recently anyway, as Neo-liberal as the Tory Party.

  8. It should be pretty obvious by now, after 4 long years of constant unrelenting attacks, that a sizeable segment of the PLP and the "mainstream" media are above all desperate to keep Corbyn out of no. 10. No matter the collateral damage to people or institutions up to and including the UK itself.

    Even the "Peoples' Vote" campaign seems to be essentially an effort to (maybe) prevent brexit while eliminating the argument that the only way to definitively prevent a hard brexit is electing a Corbyn lead Labour government. Even though a Peoples' Vote runs the risk of strengthening the push for a hard brexit if the vote happens to go for brexit again and the EU negotiated deal can not pass in parliament.

    That's how much these people hate the idea of Corbyn as PM. They'd rather increase the risk of what they publicly claim is the worst possible outcome for the country as long as it decreases the "risk" of Corbyn being elected PM.

    Not to mention their cynical misuse of the real problem of anti-semitism among a tiny portion of the "anti-imperialist" left as a cudgel with which to attack Corbyn has turned anti-semitism in to a sectional concern. Thus making it harder to deal with inside the party. Of course, since the intended function of "fighting" anti-semitism is damaging the chance of a Corbyn lead Labour GE win, whether the campaign actually reduces anti-semitism in the Labour party doesn't really matter.

  9. "Voting is always a choice between the lesser of two evils."

    There is no point in voting we are no longer a democracy.

  10. “The Conservative party is looking increasingly like the US Republican party, and its likely leader increasingly looks like a UK version of Donald Trump.”

    Historians will look in disbelief at the current UK liberal elite. Liberals in the US were wrong footed by the rise of Donald Trump, but those in the UK have no such excuse because they had the US example as a warning. Despite this, their response has been to alternately demonise and patronise a major section of the population with their self-righteous indignation. Those who oppose them are gullible morons who have been duped by the media; they are xenophobes who wish to restore the British Empire.

    The UK liberal elite campaign for a second referendum but only for a ballot where they can rig the choices to their advantage.

    The liberal elite favour a People’s Vote but not one where people are able to genuinely choose their preferred option. As George Orwell put it “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

  11. fallacy of bifurcation. The sooner Tom Watson takes over the better.

  12. It sounds to me very much as though you are believe that a "no deal" Brexit will occur. May I ask you to assign a probability to that result? And if it happens, how far will the BP fall?
    Thanks in advance.

  13. Very good article. Expect no comment on this in the media at all. Except perhaps from Owen Jones.

  14. Missing: Infiltration of Labour by malign agents. Very clear in recent Panorama.
    Overall: Impressed by your continuing confidence in Democracy. Unprincipled politicians and lying, manipulative, media have irredeemably corrupted the electorate. Socrates knew (400 BCE) it would all end as demagogues take over. The problem is global: Democracy has sentenced our biosphere to death - just as a democratic jury sentenced Socrates to death in 399 BCE.

  15. Total confusion. Nobody knows what to think. Bad, bad choices indeed. Personally I think that if Corbyn was capable of working with anyone who thought differently from himself, he could save the country. But he has messed around so much that when the chips are down the bottom line is that after 3 years he has made the party's 33% polling figures just before labour lost the 2015 election, seem like something they'd be incredibly glad to get now.


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