It is a truth universally acknowledged that a political party in want of electoral success must be favourably perceived by the public. Universally acknowledged, that is, except for within the Labour Party.
Labour’s 2017 General Election Campaign was a success in many ways. Gone was the myth of needing to sacrifice political convictions to garner votes and there was no longer any question of Jeremy Corbyn’s electability. Its relative success placed Corbyn’s boots firmly in the party’s soil. But these boots have been pressing deeper over the year, Corbyn’s faction has seized greater control over the party machine, and it is now that a sinkhole seems to have formed. The soil has all but disappeared, the boot has yet to budge.
Metaphors aside, Labour has a serious problem. Capitalising on Corbyn’s anti-establishment brand in 2017 was an effective tactic. If the political disturbances of previous years tell us anything, it is that a large proportion of the public are sick of the status quo. Corbyn’s message resonated with many.
It was through his rallies, public speeches and social media that he began to build a relationship with his supporters. He built trust, appeared credible and rounded up those sympathetic to him, forming an impressive support base. This relationship, enhanced by the likes of Momentum, was a godsend for the Labour Left. What Labour strategists have failed to realise however is that this relationship should have been a means to later success and not a success in itself.
The logic behind political relationship-building is simple. Parties that have meaningful relationships with their supporters have less need, but greater freedom, to deviate from ideological principles, increasing their competitive ability during elections. Corbyn’s relationship with his supporters affords him the opportunity to surrender some policies and appeal to wider segments of the electorate whilst maintaining his already loyal base.
This is not taking voters for granted, for once the party builds a relationship with the wider electorate, it should return to its earlier commitments. But note that these relationships can take years to build. A party truly in it for the long-run ought to recognise this and keep its eyes on the finish line. Labour’s current competitive advantage will persist so long as Corbyn is
leader, yet it is exactly this fact that makes the party’s position a precarious one.
To both its supporters and the wider public, Labour is inextricably linked with Corbyn. His relationship with his supporters is exactly that. His. The relationship between the broader party and Corbyn supporters on the other hand is non-existent. Labour’s currently loyal base, then, is as stable as Theresa May’s Cabinet.
Neglecting to put the party at the fore of its electioneering strategy has created a dreadful dependency on its leader, especially worrying given the controversies of previous weeks. Remedying this requires the broader party replace Corbyn as the dominant figure in ‘Party-Supporter’ relations. Such an activity however, is nigh on impossible for both paths to this outcome are unfeasible.
The first possibility is that Corbyn remains leader, strategists get their act together and other significant figures within the Party force themselves into the ‘Corbyn-Supporter’ relationship. But this is absurd. Since winning the first leadership election, Corbyn has portrayed himself as a ‘man of the people’, it is him that people trust and not his colleagues.
The Party has left it too late to make any significant impact. Any attempt by Labour figures to edge themselves into the relationship would therefore be wasteful. The other possibility involves Corbyn leaving so that the party can take his place and develop its own relationship with his supporters before the next election. Such a tactic is the only way Labour can reach beyond its current base and rid itself of the blemishes left by its leader. But what would become of Labour without Corbyn?
Fanatical supporters of the leader are likely to flee in much the same way UKIP supporters did post-Farage, albeit at a reduced rate. This is merely a symptom of the Party’s decision to utilise the ‘Corbyn-Supporter’ relationship rather than build their own.
Labour ought to make no mistake of this fact. It is with the man himself that supporters place their loyalties and not his ideas. The recent “#wearecorbyn” wave is proof enough of this. Had strategists given other ideologically-similar figures the same exposure as Corbyn at an earlier stage, Labour would not be in this predicament.
Jeremy Corbyn is both a liability and an asset to his party. Without him, Labour’s support base is significantly diminished. With him, Labour cannot branch out and capture the votes it needs if it wishes to win the next few elections.
The Labour Party faces a dead end. Going forward and pushing other Labour figures to the fore will reap no rewards. Reversing and replacing Corbyn pushes Labour back years in terms of base support levels. Labour’s only plausible solution is to invest in a time machine and restart the game. Who knows? Perhaps a commitment to time travel will be in their next manifesto.