Corbyn v Smith – Hobson’s Choice for Labour

Today Labour Party members in the UK begin the process of electing their new leader. I’m going to predict Corbyn – while I think the enthusiasm for his campaign is overstated, I also think Smith has proven to be too lightweight in this scenario. If I were still a member, I’d not vote.

So I write what I think will be the challenge for Corbyn as leader, and for the party as a whole.

1. Corbyn has to make peace with the PLP. While people might argue the Labour MP’s need to give Corbyn greater support for him to improve, remember this not a chicken and egg argument. I believe in the truism that teams reflect the mindset of the leader. Disorganised, argumentative and unruly teams are a sign of a lack of leadership. The MP’s are reflecting their leader.

The general threats made towards MP’s, as well as the (untrue) claims of ‘red Tories’ do little to encourage anyone. I feel genuinely sorry for the PLP. I had no idea of the sheer sense of desperation that had seeped in after Brexit, the final straw to break the camel’s back. Threats of deselection may prove to be meaningless – they think they are going to lose their seats anyway. But these people believe in the party, and they were campaigning for it long before the bulk of Corbyn’s supporters joined.

Corbyn will be hamstrung unless he can find ways to work with the PLP. A man of peace, articulating negotiation over aggression, Corbyn needs to exercise that principle in practice. I’d even suggest a third party mediator if needed (low key of course) to help bring agreement. At the very least, Corbyn needs to find new ways to work with them – his previous approach merely led to him facing another leadership contest.

Remember, it is the leader’s responsibility to bring the team to him, and the team need a reason to follow.

2. Corbyn needs to develop a narrative. Ed Miliband had some good popular policies, but he failed to weave these into an effective narrative for the country. The stories haven’t had one for decades (Big Society was the last one and it was a flop). The problem was they could simplify their campaign message to one thing, the economy. Labour were still trying to bang on about One Nation stuff. 

Corbyn’s produced some good policies. He’s calling for the abolition of the House of Lords and devolution to the rest of England (thus I could get behind), but he has to connect this anti-austerity (which most people don’t know the meaning of), and demonstrate an ability to tie in resolute decision making. 

This is a major hamstring. I notice phrases like ‘call the government to account’ and ‘ask questions of the government’. This is the wrong mindset. It suggests passivity and is the language of a social campaign, not a political force. He did the same when ISIN Duncan Smith resigned – refusing to accuse the stories over economic failure. When the Tories slip up, Labour should state what they would do instead and then ask ‘why aren’t the Tories doing this?’ It forces the narrative to be about Labour’s policies, and puts the stories on the defensive. 

3. Corbyn needs to ignore the media. As a Labour supporter, I have watched for decades now the anti-Labour garbage against Blair, Brown, Miliband and now Corbyn. It’s a long standing issue, but one Corbyn has to manage. This comes down to narrative, having something alternative to show people. At the moment, there’s very little. 

The media in the UK have always been slanted to the right – I’ve always found accusations of the BBC being too liberal laughable – so it’s foolish to expect them to change. They are something to be managed, not constrained.

4. Corbyn needs to be categorical about where he stands, but he also needs to refine his principle approach. I have no idea what he said or didn’t say about Russia, but the impression I got was that he refused to say if he would assist NATO nations in the event of a Russian invasion. All he needs to say is that he would consider military action to repel unwarranted acts of aggression or invasion. It makes me wonder what would have to happen for Corbyn to consider military action.

On Russia I find Corbyn’s position all over the place. Putin has committed a war of aggression on Chechnya (not unlike Iraq?) and is likely responsible for the assassinations of political opponents and critics. Russia has embarked on anti-LGBT legislation and policy, and there’s even one Rusdian MP trying to decriminalise domestic violence. I see little reason to be ambiguous about this man. It does not mean the approach of the West should remain uncritiqued, but Corbyn’s ambivalence to such an obvious dictator will be off putting to millions of Britons.

Also, take nuclear weapons. It’s no use just saying he opposes Trident or nuclear weapons. He needs to weave that into a narrative of foreign policy strategy, about how the UK would function nuclear free. At the moment, he just looks like hippy pacifist that would flinch at nasty language. He looks weak.

5. Corbyn needs to stop giving speeches to large crowds. I really mean it. This is killing him in the polls. His supporters see popularity, but I tell you right now the country will see ‘mob’. Tone. It. Down.

Most people don’t follow crowds. Look at Iraq – 2 million estimated protestors in London against the war. Who won the 2005 general election? Who came second? Pro-war parties took over 60% of the vote.

Crowds help if they are following a wider narrative. When Obama shot into the scene he did it with a message of change that resonated for a war weary world. The message came first, the crowds after. I don’t see any expectation of Corbyn doing anything than saying the same things over and over to people that already like him. It can’t work like that.

The U.K. is much more intimate than, say, the US. British people are by their nature socially conservative. Corbyn needs to encourage most people that if he takes over he’ll spend his time as PM addressing crowds not Parliament or, worse still, that a group of socialist whack jobs aren’t going to run rampage.

Appearances matter. That’s why Corbyn opted for smarter clothes.

I don’t hold much confidence that Corbyn will do this. I merely suggest this approach based on my perceptions. I have the advantage of being on the outside looking in. There’s nothing invested for me in practice – I don’t live in the UK. His past approach has failed, and he needs to change, but his capacity to do this is thus far lacking in demonstration.

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