This week Jeremy Corbyn returned to work after a lengthy (and hopefully restful) Winterval break. As the Labour Leader toured breakfast TV and radio studios, many of his backbenchers were given cause to regret their criticisms of his period of self-enforced silence – it turns out that sometimes bad publicity is not better than no publicity at all.
Excited aides had briefed the press that we were about to get a sneak preview of a new Jeremy. ‘No more Mr Nice Guy’, we were promised; instead they were letting Corbyn off the leash and were now going to ‘let Jeremy be Jeremy’. It is a sad indictment of British politics that even the principled comrades of the hard-Left now openly play make-believe that they are characters in the West Wing but, worse, this briefing was an insight into how poorly even Corbyn’s team appear to understand him and his character. Jeremy Corbyn is not a ‘left populist’. Many believe he is, if anything, a left unpopulist – believing passionately in those dogmas of the modern left that routinely find little sympathy amongst working class voters and reacting with ambivalence or disdain to the common or garden patriotic leftism that characterises the attitudes of many traditional Labour voters. Nothing highlights this problem better than the very issue on which Jeremy Corbyn was supposed to be hinging his relaunch – freedom of movement.
For millions of people in Britain – Brexit and Remain voters alike – mass immigration has become a totemic issue. Rightly or wrongly many working-class voters worry that the influx of low to medium skilled workers from Eastern Europe has suppressed their wages, priced them out of housing, created unsustainable pressure on public services and changed the character of their communities. Someone in Jeremy Corbyn’s office understands this – and understands that making the best of Brexit for Labour will mean demonstrating some measure of empathy for these widely-held concerns. That is why they wrote their Leader a speech in which he would reassure Labour voters that he was not ‘wedded to free movement’ (tepid, yes, but a start). That is also why, presumably, that same staff member briefed the press and booked Jeremy a series of TV and radio interviews – all the better to ensure that as many people as possible would hear the Labour Leader demonstrate his understanding of their plight and his willingness to try to fix a system that they feel is rigged against them. A spot of left populism to (belatedly) kick off 2017.
But letting ‘Jeremy be Jeremy’ and launching a left populist appeal are mutually contradictory strategies. At the first opportunity, Jeremy Corbyn declined to stand by the speech he had yet to give and instead seized the opportunity to wax lyrical about the contribution that economic migrants make to Britain – before launching into a series of apparently off-the-cuff thought experiments about the best way to tackle ‘excessive’ executive pay. Pity the speech writer (and the press officers) tasked with spending the rest of their day redrafting Corbyn’s speech in real time as he changed his mind, live, on various cameras and down multiple microphones.
In Dominic Cummings’ long tribute to his campaign’s success during the EU referendum – published this week – he makes a crucial observation about the mythical ‘centre ground’ of British politics. Most voters are not consistent in the way that political obsessives want them to be. The bulk of the British electorate believe in things that look mutually contradictory to a died-in-the-wool ideologue; individual economic freedom is important but so too is fairness and economic justice, welfare isn’t generous enough to hardworking people but there are too many scroungers who get a free ride, immigration is too high but I don’t mean Piotr from work because he’s alright etc, etc. Populism is not as easy as it looks and it is especially hard when your instincts take you to extremes at one end of the spectrum and make you blind to the charms and allure of the other – as is the case for Corbyn.
Trump did not win simply by injecting traditional Republican talking points with more aggressive or ‘down-to-earth’ language – he successfully married FDR style New Deal talk with hard-line anti-immigrant rhetoric and an emotional appeal on behalf of blue collar workers left behind by globalisation. It was this recipe that Labour spinners claimed they were hoping to emulate but – frankly and fundamentally – they lack the appropriate ingredients.
Jeremy Corbyn has neither the intellectual or political dexterity to replicate Trump’s success. That may be to his credit – after all, consistency and a refusal to blow in the political wind are generally considered admirable traits in a Leader. But this being the case, it is perverse that his closest advisers and advocates chose to begin the New Year with such an obviously unsuitable rebrand. Even now, eighteen months in, they do not appear to know their man very well at all. This should worry all Labour supporters because whatever appeal the Labour Leader can claim to have beyond ‘core group friendly’ is surely built on the impression that he is authentic, consistent and principled. Yesterday’s shenanigans were not merely embarrassing, they hurt that brand and with it they hurt Jeremy Corbyn’s already slim chances of becoming Prime Minister.