Labour’s Love’s Lost

How accidental leader Jeremy Corbyn got left behind in the age of accidental politics.

Jeremy Corbyn MP, leader of the Labour Party, walks towards the Houses of Parliament on June 24, 2016 in London, United Kingdom.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn MP walks toward Parliament on Friday in London.

Rob Stothard/Getty Images

Jeremy Corbyn was a political accident when he became Labour leader last year. Never having enjoyed the support of most of his party’s own MPs, he has been in the awkward position of an anti-European or Europhobic leader of a pro-European or Europhilic party. He took part in the referendum campaign that came to such a dramatic conclusion on Thursday, ostensibly on the
“Remain” side, but belatedly, half-heartedly, and with the air of a man who was just pretending.

Now he stands accused by his own colleagues of having sabotaged the outcome. After senior Labour MPs Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey challenged Corbyn to resign, Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, told Corbyn at 1:15 a.m. Sunday that he had lost the confidence (such as it was of) of Labour MPs, whereupon Corbyn sacked him. By later that morning a third of Corbyn’s shadow Cabinet, the MPs who officially oppose the government in the House of Commons, had resigned, and the hemorrhage of departure continued comically all day, until Tom Watson, the deputy leader, who’d spent the weekend in a rather undignified way for a man of his age at the Glastonbury Festival, also told Corbyn that the game was up.

Maybe I should say that as I read the names of those resigning—Heidi Alexander, Seema Malhotra, Ian Murray, Lilian Greenwood, Lucy Powell, not to mention Kerry McCarthy, “Labour spokesperson on the environment and rural affairs” (who knew?)—I was reminded of the famous “Who? Who?” Cabinet of nonentities in 1852, so-called from the question the aged Duke of Wellington kept asking as the unfamiliar names were read to him.

These “shadow” teams have expanded enormously in recent decades, with the ostensible purpose of marking each government minister as soccer defenders mark strikers, and also as a way of allowing younger pols to cut their parliamentary teeth. All the same, it’s one symptom of Labour’s plight that even a reasonably well-informed political journalist can barely put a face or brief résumé to these supposed eminences of the party.

But who is Jeremy Corbyn himself? an American might reasonably ask, or anyone else for that matter. I may be able to help. Before I fled London, I lived in Highbury, close to the old Arsenal Stadium, and for some years Corbyn was my MP. That was after he was elected in the fateful year of 1983. On the one hand it was Margaret Thatcher’s millennium; she’d won a huge majority, larger than her first victory in 1979. And it was also the heyday of the far left inside the Labour party. They nearly took over the party and did impose that year’s disastrous ultraleft election manifesto—in a too-oft-quoted jibe, the longest suicide note in history.

By the time he entered Parliament, Corbyn was a very typical product of that left—and he is frankly absurd as a supposed tribune of the toiling masses. Now 67, he comes from a middle-class background and was educated at private schools, albeit of a modest kind (and with very modest results in terms of grades; even his greatest admirer would be hard-pressed to claim that Jeremy is the brightest bulb in the lamp). He has scarcely ever had what most people would call a job, but he spent his early life as a full-time activist or agitator. Needless to say he doesn’t represent a hardscrabble proletarian constituency: Islington North is the epicenter of the liberal chattering classes and must have a higher proportion of houses worth 1 million pounds, or even 2 million pounds, than all but two dozen other constituencies in the country.

From the start he bought the left package deal: IRA and PLO, good; the United States, the market economy, and NATO, bad. And what was then the European Economic Community was also bad. There was a longstanding left-wing hostility to the Common Market as a capitalist conspiracy. The last European referendum was held in 1975 by a reluctant Harold Wilson, the Labour prime minster, to defuse the left of his party, as David Cameron had hoped to defuse the right of his.

As so often, les extrêmes se touchent: In 1975, the anti-Europeans included Michael Foot on the Labour left and Enoch Powell on the Tory right. That 1983 manifesto promised “negotiations with the other EEC member states to establish a timetable for withdrawal,” and there’s no reason the think that Corbyn has ever really changed his mind. Indeed, Chris Bryant, one of Corbyn’s Labour critics, said on Monday that he doesn’t believe Corbyn actually voted “Remain.”

The left also forced Labour to change its way of choosing its leader. From its early days, the Labour leader had been chosen by the Labour MPs, which is the honest, democratic way to do it. But the left imposed a new system, a foolishly named “electoral college” of unions, party members, and MPs. That was how Tony Blair was chosen and also, after Labour lost the 2010 election, Ed Miliband, when he performed political fratricide in knocking off his elder brother, David.

After an imbroglio too complex and lurid to explain here, involving among other things a Scottish MP in a drunken brawl in a House of Commons bar, Labour decided in March 2014 to change the system yet again. Party members would elect the leader —except that anyone could vote who bothered to pay 3 pounds, literally less than the price of a pint of beer. It proved to be one more excruciating own goal.

When Miliband lost the election last year, he resigned, and a not hugely impressive array of candidates lined up. At the last moment Corbyn joined them, having secured just enough MPs to nominate him, some of whom may have been playing a double game, hoping to draw left-wing support from their favored candidates, and others of whom added their names out of a misplaced sporting spirit. His odds for the leadership were 100-to-1. All of a sudden, joining up to vote for “Jezza” became the craze of the moment among young people, hundreds of thousands of them, as I observed from my daughter and her friends—rather like the enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders, although he’s in every way a better man. What that means is that, even if the Labour MPs attempt to depose Corbyn and trigger a new election, he can stand again and will be re-elected by the same pint-of-beer followers who elected him the first time.

Maybe we live in an age of accidental policies. The reaction of the Brexit Tories, Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove, to a victory whose calamitous consequences they now have to deal with, suggest that they may never have expected to win, and Corbyn certainly never expected to become Labour leader. He makes Sanders seem a dazzling political operator.

Having spent his life with W.H. Auden’s “flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting,” within a political fringe who commanded a tiny popular following, Labour’s leader for now is a man whose politics stopped dead in the age of protest against Margaret Thatcher. Much of the past 30 years has passed him by. Corbyn has been completely out of his depth for the past year. He is a deadly dull speaker, and he has been hopeless in Parliament. In the Commons on Monday, one of his own MPs behind him shouted, “Resign!” and he faces the prospect of a no-confidence vote Tuesday. It would almost be possible to feel sorry for him, if he hadn’t come near to destroying a once-great political party.

Nobody thinks Labour can win an election under Corbyn, although that “nobody thinks” is what’s called the conventional wisdom, which isn’t looking very wise at present. The bookmakers’ odds show that. On the morning of the general election in May of last year, you could bet at 8-to-1 on the Conservatives to win an absolute parliamentary majority, which they did, and on the evening of this referendum last Thursday, you could bet at 7-to-1 against Brexit. For that matter the conventional wisdom holds that Donald Trump can’t win in November, but the same wisdom held that Trump could never gain the Republican nomination.

Right now the fact is that politics—here, there, and everywhere—are like Hollywood in the saying that nobody knows anything.

Read more Slate coverage of the Brexit vote.