At 11:45 a.m. Saturday morning, Theresa May, the newly ensconced leader of the Conservative Party, won a handsome victory at Britain’s next general election. It was also the time, the precise moment, when the Labour Party ceased to exist as a functioning electoral force. For it was at 11:45 a.m. that it was announced that, for a second time, Jeremy Corbyn was duly elected leader of the Labour Party.
The Labour Party that has produced six prime ministers, from Ramsay MacDonald to Gordon Brown, is no more. It is an ex-party. It has ceased to be. A once mighty electoral machine built upon the sweat and passion of the working class has been taken over by the far left, a patchwork coalition of cranks and Trotskyites much more motivated by ideological purity than tedious, even banal, considerations of electability. In Corbyn’s world, winning elections is for losers.
The Labour Party is not trudging into the wilderness, it is enthusiastically scurrying to the nearest, highest cliff from which it may leap. This is a party embracing its own downfall. It is quite a sight, the like of which British politics has not seen in decades.
As Oscar Wilde nearly put it, to elect Corbyn once may be regarded as a misfortune, to do so twice looks like carelessness. The facts are these: Corbyn was re-elected as leader of the party with more than 60 percent of the votes cast by around half a million party members. That will be taken by his supporters as an overwhelming mandate even though his defeated challenger, the Welsh Member of Parliament Owen Smith, was a no-name, doomed-to-lose candidate who had risen without a trace and was only standing against Corbyn because, damn it, someone had to. Despite running a hapless and hopeless campaign, Smith won nearly 40 percent of the vote.
In such circumstances, Corbyn’s call for party “unity” is as hollow as it is mirthless. Tellingly, Smith won a majority of the votes cast by Labour Party members who joined the party more than two years ago. The members, that is, who staff campaigns, canvass voters, deliver leaflets, and generally do the grunt work required to help win elections. Corbyn’s support, by contrast, came from the hundreds of thousands of new party members who, fed up with the compromises required for political victory, prefer the purity—and sanctimony—of opposition. Many of them are not even diehard Labour supporters, being instead members of the hard left whose “journey” to Labour smacks of entryism. The Labour Party is now an extremist party of the far left that has no prospect, none at all, of persuading a moderately conservative country such as Britain to entrust it with power.
At this point we are required to say that a world in which Donald Trump can be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee is a world that has lost its capacity to astonish. If that can happen, and by god it has, then anything is possible. Even allowing for these malignant times, however, the idea of Prime Minister Corbyn stretches credulity far beyond its snapping point.
This is not a matter of personal opinion. Rather it is a question of empirical evidence. One recent poll revealed that 46 percent of working-class voters—upon whose support the Labour Party has always relied—consider Corbyn an “election loser.” Just 19 percent think him a “winner” and only 22 percent believe he is “in touch with voters.” A mere quarter rate him “competent.” No Labour leader in history has plumbed such polling depths; Corbyn is stuck in a hole from which it is impossible to emerge even if he really wanted to. This, remember, is a poll of Labour’s natural constituency.
Nor is it clear that he does desire to govern. It seems telling that Corbyn does not spend time talking about what he would do in government—in the admittedly unforeseeable likelihood of him having that chance—but, rather, in terms of changing the “tone” and “culture” of politics. He does not advocate a politics of policy but, instead, one of attitude in which the banality of utopian left-wing dreaming substitutes for a credible program of government.
His rise to prominence, however, reflects a wider crisis of the left. The triangulating managerialism of Tony Blair was scuppered by the Iraq War and then, after Blair’s departure, by the financial crash in 2008. That ushered in a new era of astringent Conservative government whose “austerity” regime has proved unpopular but still more palatable than anything offered by a Labour Party that has lost its sense of purpose. The British people never learned to love David Cameron but, when push came to shove, they trusted him just enough to put him into Downing Street not once, but twice.
Corbynism, then, is a cry for help and a plangent whimper for an alternative to business as usual. That this veteran left-winger, a sponsor of doomed causes for all his 30 years in Parliament, has become Labour leader proved a surprise to him as much as anyone else. Last year he only made it onto the ballot for his first tilt at the leadership thanks to the generosity of Labour MPs who gave him the support needed to qualify for the contest as an act of charity designed to “widen the debate.” This, as more than one such MP subsequently admitted, was a moronic act even if they were not to know Corbyn would only go and win the contest, capitalizing on the sudden entry into the Labour Party thousands of diehard leftists.
Ever since, the parliamentary party has been riven by division. Fewer than a fifth of Labour MPs support Corbyn’s leadership. Those who are not openly hostile to him keep quiet, for fear they will be deselected by activist local party branches who value ideological purity—and faithfulness to the gray leader—above trivial concerns such as electability. Polling evidence shows that even Corbyn’s supporters do not think he can win a general election; it also shows they do not care.
Even so, the ineptitude of the so-called Labour “moderates” remains startling. Over the summer they attempted a coup, rebelling against Corbyn’s self-evidently hapless leadership. Unfortunately, they did so without proper ammunition, planning or ideas. The Labour rebels went to a knife fight armed with nothing more substantial than rubber spoons. Hence Smith.
Where Corbyn’s renewed mandate leaves “electable Labour” is anyone’s guess. The party has split before and may do so again. The last time the Labour left was ascendant, in the 1980s, right-wingers left to form the Social Democratic Party (now a part of the Liberal Democrats). A similar split may again be unavoidable, now that the Labour Party is a husk of what it was. At present the party is held together with sticky tape and only residual loyalty to the ancient idea of what Labour should be—a party that seeks to win elections to advance the interests of ordinary working people—keeps many long-standing Labour members within the fold.
Labour’s crisis could be entertaining if it were not so serious. You would never know it right now, but Theresa May’s Conservatives are themselves deeply split between those who favor leaving the European Union at any cost and those who’d prefer a “soft Brexit.” May’s government has not hitherto given a convincing impression of an administration that knows what it is doing. Instead her ministers prattle that “Brexit means Brexit” without acknowledging that there are many different types of Brexit, and it would be useful if her government chose one of them.
Sensible government, however, requires a plausible alternative. That is the greatest check available in a democracy. Healthy opposition keeps a government honest and, more than that, sane. It acts as a check on its own worst impulses and instincts. In the absence of that opposition, government becomes as arrogant as it is complacent. There is a grave danger that this is precisely the kind of government Britain will now enjoy at a moment when it requires just the opposite kind of government.
But by electing Corbyn once again, Labour has sold its own supporters down the river. Worse than that, the party membership has betrayed the British national interest. The very last thing the U.K. needs right now is an unelectable opposition. That is exactly what it has, however. Corbyn has been Labour leader for a year now, amply long enough for the British people—whose millions should not be confused with the half million or so Labour members—to deliver their verdict upon his leadership. That verdict has been a withering one: He’s not up to it.
By committing electoral suicide, however, Labour’s members have ensured a Tory government until 2025 and, perhaps, well beyond that. Corbyn is not an ordinary, one-election disaster. He’s much worse than that: the kind of calamity that may prove fatal. If that is the case, even a novice pathologist will be able to calculate the precise moment of death: 11:45 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016.