Voting ends on Thursday in Labour’s leadership election, before Jeremy Corbyn’s long, five-month goodbye ends on Saturday. Even some one-time supporters can’t wait for him to leave the stage. “I wish he would just go away,” one MP groaned.
Another said: “He’s ending with a whimper. At prime minister’s questions, he hasn’t managed the forensic questioning on coronavirus that Keir Starmer [the front-runner to succeed Corbyn] will bring. He still looks like the backbencher he was in 2015.”
Yet as the reckoning of his leadership begins, the coronavirus crisis has handed Corbyn unexpected ammunition as he tries to defend his legacy. When his allies claimed to have won the argument on austerity after December’s election, it was desperate and unconvincing. Today, it is more plausible; the Conservatives have accepted the state could spend hundreds of billions more after all. They have suddenly embraced many of Labour’s ideas a few months after denouncing them: strengthening the welfare safety net, recognising the value of society, public services and servants, making an unprecedented intervention in the private sector with state control of key services like the railways.
As Corbyn told the BBC: “I was denounced as somebody that wanted to spend more money than we could possibly afford, in order to right the social wrongs of this country. I didn’t think it would take only three months for me to be proved absolutely right by the amount of money the government is now prepared to put in.”
However, Corbyn has not defied Enoch Powell’s law that “all political lives end in failure.” He is wrong to claim victory. Although he did change the nation’s debate on austerity, shifting the dial a little to the left, the Tories moved far enough to retain power. In December’s normal times, there was little public appetite for Labour’s then huge spending programme.
Coronavirus is a convenient diversion from Corbyn’s real legacy: Leading Labour to its worst defeat since 1935, and needing 124 gains to win a majority at the next election. Boris Johnson’s triumph was a double defeat for Corbyn. Not only did it paint the red wall of Labour seats in the north and midlands blue. It also reminded us that Corbyn’s biggest achievement, depriving the Tories of their overall majority in 2017, came against a weak opponent in Theresa May.
Corbyn was the accidental leader. In the 2015 Labour leadership contest, he made it on to the ballot paper only with the help of several MPs who did not even vote for him. Well, they certainly succeeded in “widening the debate.” Even his closest allies did not expect Corbyn to win. When he did, they never dreamed he would become prime minister. As one conceded this week: “The project was about control of the party, not winning the country.” Ominously for Starmer, left-wingers resigned to him winning are already manning the trenches, so they can wage war on his leadership, ignoring calls for the party to come together. “It’s back to 2015,” one admitted.
There are some pluses on the Corbyn scorecard. He enthused a younger generation about politics and hands over the largest party in western Europe with more than 500,000 members. He listened to them, unlike most of his predecessors, who regarded them as irritating flies. In 2017, he raised hopes that the genuine excitement about his remarkable campaign might translate into a remarkable victory. But he fell just short. All he can look back on is a brilliant defeat.
Corbyn could have used his mandate, reinforced when he saw off a challenge from his MP critics in 2016, to unite the party. But he never rose above the left’s 2015 goal. So the petty factionalism continued even though he held the reins of power, draining Labour’s energy when it should have been fighting the real enemy. It partly explained why Corbyn was blind to the damage antisemitism was doing the party, not just among the Jewish community but much wider. To regard the allegations as a wicked plot to undermine him epitomised a lack of judgement and professionalism that dogged his leadership. A big part of Corbyn’s legacy is the inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that might judge a once-great party institutionally antisemitic.
Corbyn’s internal mandate gave him a platform to be a strong leader. But he sat on the fence on Brexit until it became painful to watch, let alone do. He blamed his unpopularity on a hostile media, but his own failings, not the media, meant he was never seen as a credible prime minister-in-waiting by the public.
The Tories’ unexpected embrace of big state solutions, as the curtain falls on Corbyn’s leadership, will not and should not rehabilitate him. It will also make it much harder for his successor to mount a fightback than many Labour MPs believe possible.