The embattled Labour Party leader is hated by his opponents for all the right reasons.
British politics is in a state of chaos after Thursday’s Brexit vote. Prime Minister David Cameron has resigned, the economy is sliding towards recession, and it is fast becoming clear that there is no plan for exiting the European Union.
This might seem like an obvious time for the leading opposition, the Labour Party, to put forward an alternative. But as anyone who has followed Labour since the election of Jeremy Corbyn could have predicted, it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, the party has been plunged into a likely leadership contest — an effort led by its most right-wing members of parliament (MPs). This coup has little to do with Brexit but could be crucial in determining Britain’s political landscape in its aftermath.
Here are five reasons left-wingers need to rally to #KeepCorbyn.
1. It’s not about Brexit.
Thursday’s vote to leave the European Union has been used as a pretext for the coup against Corbyn. In its immediate aftermath articles appeared in the BBC, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere alleging that Corbyn had “sabotaged” the Remain campaign.
The numbers simply do not bear this out. According to Lord Ashcroft’s poll, 63 percent of Labour voters went for Remain with 37 percent against — almost exactly the same numbers as the SNP (64–36) whose leader Nicola Sturgeon is being lauded by the press.
The party whose voters disobeyed their leader in the largest numbers were in fact the Tories, 61 percent of whom went for Brexit. This is a crisis of David Cameron and Boris Johnson’s making — that is the argument that Labour should be drilling home right now.
In reality, Corbyn is being stitched up by people who planned to replace him a long time ago. Weeks before the referendum it was being reported that “Labour rebels hoped to topple Jeremy Corbyn in 24-hour blitz” after its result. It was even telegraphed how they would do it: “by fanning the flames with front bench resignations and public criticism . . . to trigger a leadership race within a day.”
Weeks before even this an article appeared which correctly predicted that the person to initiate the coup would be the MP Margaret Hodge. A former minister of state under Tony Blair, she was to inflict the first wound and then “drop out so that moderate MPs remain unscathed as they launch their leadership bids.”
But how well-suited are these plotters to make the case against Corbyn on the basis of Brexit?
Margaret Hodge’s own constituency in Barking was one of only five boroughs in London to vote to leave the European Union — and by 62 percent. In Corbyn’s Islington more people turned out than during the general election and 76 percent voted to remain.
Those resigning from the shadow cabinet have no better records — Gloria de Piero’s Ashfield, for instance, voted for Leave by almost 40 points. Chris Bryant’s Rhondda, Lilian Greenwood’s Nottingham, Lisa Nandy’s Wigan, Karl Turner’s Hull, and Vernon Coaker’s Gedling followed suit.
If these MPs were such excellent campaigners and better understood the mood of the electorate, why couldn’t they deliver their own constituencies?
There is no question that Labour failed to win a number of its strongholds in the referendum. One part of its base — those who have suffered from globalization: older, less well-off, less well-educated workers in centers of deindustrialization — decided to give the establishment a bloody nose.
But it’s untenable to propose that establishment MPs would have stood a better chance of winning over those voters.
2. Labour’s coalition needs Corbyn.
The Brexit referendum has exposed deep divisions in British society.
One of the most important of these, broadly speaking, was between winners and losers of globalization.
Remain tended to win among younger, more educated, and more culturally liberal voters, particularly those in diverse and prosperous urban areas. But it lost badly among older white workers in places like the North East, Yorkshire, and Wales.
In order to build a social majority and win elections, the Labour Party needs a platform that can bring together these two wings of its base.
This is by no means an easy task — but no one is better positioned to do it than Jeremy Corbyn.
He is the only leading figure in the party with purchase among young Labour voters, almost doubling his rivals combined in the under-forty category during the leadership election.
And he is the only plausible candidate with credibility in opposing the policies of economic liberalization, pursued by both Conservative and Labour governments, which have hollowed out England and Wales’s industrial heartlands.
Sunderland was once a place of stable, decent-paying jobs in shipbuilding, coal mining, and glass-making. Today, it has one of England’s highest unemployment rates.
More than four times as many people work in the service industry as in manufacturing — but they are around half as likely to reach professional-managerial grades as their counterparts elsewhere in the country.
Faced with this reality, it is Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, not those plotting against it, which speaks about “a radical break with the past” on the economy — pursuing a serious industrial strategy and returning investment to the places left behind by globalization.
3. Corbyn’s politics can hold back the tide of racism.
Probably the most concerning aspect of post-Brexit Britain is the hate crime and racist abuse reported by many.
But what was the record of Corbyn’s opponents in opposing racism during the campaign?
As reports about his alleged “sabotage” testify, “Corbyn’s aides refused to allow LabourIN and senior Labour colleagues to discuss or address concerns around immigration, writing them off as ‘xenophobia,’ ‘prejudice’ or ‘racism’ at every turn.”
This has been the situation at the shadow cabinet level for months.
Jeremy Corbyn has backed migrants’ rights while those who have resigned in recent days have wanted harsher border controls, cuts to benefits, and a new narrative that validated much of the nativist sentiment the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has stirred up.
Just today one of Corbyn’s rivals for the leadership of the Labour Party, Yvette Cooper, has come out firmly against free movement, saying that the compromise proposal of joining the European common market and accepting its terms on the movement of labor was unacceptable.
This position outflanks Tory MEP and Leave campaigner Dan Hannan to the right on the question of migration.
In the context of rising anti-immigrant sentiment, and with official politics taking a rightward turn, replacing Jeremy Corbyn with a politician who gives ground on immigration will ensure one thing: that, in five years’ time, Cameron’s government will look left of center.
Labour needs to hold the line on this issue. Corbyn’s speech after the referendum was exactly what the party needs to say: that the Brexit vote was the result of deep alienation in working-class communities.
Racism is one potential expression of this anger; real left-wing politics is another.
4. A coup will split the party.
You wouldn’t believe it from reading the mainstream press, but Jeremy Corbyn is still a hugely popular figure in the Labour Party.
Not, of course, in the Parliamentary Labour Party, where Corbyn barely found enough MPs to nominate him for a leadership election he won by a 40-point margin in September.
But among the party’s members, who ultimately elect the leader, his support is strong.
A poll last month placed him top of the pile in a putative leadership election by a huge margin with 43 percent support. Andy Burnham, who is backing Corbyn and says he won’t run, is closest to him on 10 percent and the only other in double digits.
The plotters make for a pathetic lot: Hilary Benn can’t even muster 5 percent, Margaret Hodge receives close to 0 percent.
This is not isolated data, either. During the referendum campaign the Fabian Society, who could not be described as fans of Corbyn, released a poll showing him to be by far the most popular politician in the party.
Corbyn enjoys an approval rating of +17 percent. The leader of the Labour’s Remain campaign, MP Alan Johnson, another plotter against the party leader, is at -10 percent.
When you add the vociferous support Corbyn has received from thetrade union movement the result of any fair leadership election is clear: he would win.
The only way that his opponents can beat him in this election is to rig it. Accordingly, they are already pursuing a strategy of excluding Corbyn from the ballot paper.
The result of such an antidemocratic maneuver would be simple: the Labour Party will split. This, more than any other likely event, would make winning an election impossible.
5. Corbyn can win.
Instead of heading into the coming weeks divided, having lost or alienated the party’s activist base, the Labour Party could move into the general election united behind Corbyn. And, if it did, it would stand a good chance of winning.
Despite months of attempted sabotage from rogue MPs, negative press from pro-establishment media, and a putsch in the wake of the Brexit vote, the latest poll after the referendum shows Labour neck-and-neck with the Tories.
Even if you believe that poll to be wrong by a couple of percentage points, can anyone argue with credibility that a general election wouldn’t be competitive?
What if, instead of undermining him on a daily basis to the press, Labour’s MPs rallied behind Corbyn, communicated his message about a new kind of politics, and backed a break from the failed economic policies of the Tories? What if they spent less time writingGuardian columns and more time fighting for their constituents?
Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen. Nye Bevan had it right decades ago: “the right wing of the Labour Party would rather see it fall into perpetual decline than abide by its democratic decisions.”
But Labour members can, and must, stand up to this.
Post-Brexit Britain is not the place to be jettisoning principled, left-wing, antiracist leaders.
Across the Western world, this is an era dominated by anti-establishment politics and the collapse of Tony Blair’s Third Way. Social-democratic parties that refuse to recognize this development don’t prosper; they get hammered: in Ireland, in France, in Germany, in Austria, in Italy.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory was a product of today’s political landscape. Most of his opponents live in another one. It’s vital that the Left rallies behind him.
Cover Photo by Chris Beckett
Words by Ronan Burtenshaw
The article was originally published in Jacobin, a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.