At the beginning of his leadership, Jeremy Corbyn stressed that he had composed his Shadow Cabinet of figures drawn from all sections of the Labour Party. Doing so was an achievement, considering that the veteran socialist struggled to get onto the leadership election ballot and faced vocal resistance from elements of the Parliamentary Labour Party during the contest. He sought to use a Shadow Cabinet announcement to demonstrate the unity amongst the parliamentary party following the conclusion of what had been a lengthy and divisive election, after which several high-profile figures refused to serve under the new leader. What a difference a short amount of time makes.
Following a turbulent ten weeks since his victory, talk of internal unity is unravelling fast. Prolonged speculation over whether he would kneel before the Queen to join the Privy Council, his appointment of controversial left-wing figures like Seumas Milne and Ken Livingstone, and his indecision over Labour’s defence policy, has generated sustained criticism of Corbyn’s political judgement.
Multiple polling sources indicate that Labour lost the May 2015 general election primarily because the public did not trust the party to manage the economy, and also because Ed Miliband was not viewed as a potential Prime Minister. Indeed, the Tories’ victory was far more attributable to their perceived competence than the popularity of their specific policies. Whilst the government has run into trouble since May, polling suggests they retain the confidence of the electorate.
Meanwhile, the opposition has developed a third weakness. Since the start of the leadership campaign, Corbyn’s defence policies have been fiercely scrutinised. Corbyn has clung to his long-held beliefs that the nuclear deterrent should be abolished and that military intervention should be avoided at all costs. Whilst the authenticity of his views on war won him many supporters over the summer, they have repeatedly proven problematic during his leadership tenure, when Corbyn is required to deal with real-world issues. By refusing to compromise on his positions, Corbyn has seemed increasingly out of touch not only with his party, but also the views of the electorate.
An effective general must be able to command and maintain the confidence of his troops. Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to provide leadership and clarity on multiple policy issues has characterised him as a leader unable to lead. Over the last few months, Shadow Cabinet members and MPs have openly contradicted his views, often due to the absence of a party line. Given his rebellious history, Corbyn’s authority was bound to be challenged. However, his inflexibility and vague responses to defence questions recently have only undermined his position further.
Since September, Corbynites have been demanding loyalty from MPs. They have threatened deselection and grassroots revolts for non-compliance. Such abuse does nothing to improve Corbyn’s position. Debate and democracy were presented as fundamental components of Corbyn’s “new brand of politics”. Many MPs are unhappy with the direction of the party and are more than justified to vote with their conscience (like their leader did so many times in the past), be vocal in their opposition and defy the party whip. On Monday, it was revealed that Labour’s National Executive Committee agreed to introduce rules to restrict what MPs can say on social media sites, in a move to curb “very harmful leaks to the media”. That the leadership feels the need to silence members of the PLP undermines the very principles of Corbyn’s “new politics”.
Whilst gagging MPs is bad enough, it is becoming increasingly evident that divisions between the leader and the PLP are widening. The saying goes that a picture conveys a thousand words. Below is an image from Monday’s Strategic Defence Review Statement in the House of Commons. The Leader of the Opposition appears almost deserted on the frontbench, not flanked by the Shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle, nor by other members of his top team. In contrast, several Cabinet members are sat beside the Prime Minister. This rather remarkable contrast illustrates the growing dissatisfaction in the PLP. This, alongside chilly receptions at Labour Party meetings and during PMQ, further conveys that Corbyn is isolated from many of his closest colleagues.
Having been catapulted from the backbenches into the never-ending glare of scrutiny that accompanies Labour Party leadership, recent weeks have changed Jeremy Corbyn’s political life forever. Corbyn has struggled to carry his party with him, in part over his refusal to compromise over personal positions which belong more to protest groups than a PM in waiting. I don’t believe that Labour MPs are deliberately seeking to damage the party by undermining their leader. Labour is presently engulfed in a pointless and destructive battle between vocal members who claim to represent the “true” Labour Party and a parliamentary party recovering from a thumping at the general election, seeking to understand why it lost. The frustration of MPs is entirely understandable. Many of Corbyn’s policies are moving the party further away, not closer to, the electorate at large.
Whilst Corbyn enjoys the support of party members for now, if he does not adopt pragmatic, level-headed positions, particularly on defence, that his colleagues can support, things will only get much worse. He appears incompetent and out of his depth, and his MPs are increasingly fearful of an electoral catastrophe in 2020. The run up to Christmas will pose the greatest challenge yet and, as shown above, Corbyn is finding out the hard way that being a leader can be a lonely existence.