I’ve always had a huge amount of affection for Jeremy Corbyn. I’ve heard him speak eloquently and forcefully on countless occasions in support of excellent but underpublicised causes. I supported him in the first Labour leader ballot and I urged everyone I knew to do the same. Like most people who care about such things I was furious that the other candidates hadn’t even had the integrity to oppose the Government’s Welfare Bill. When he says that Theresa May is on the wrong side of history in inviting Trump for a state visit, I’m in full agreement with him (although that particular phrase has been overused beyond repair).
However, I didn’t vote for him last November in the second ballot because there were signs that he and his team didn’t have the leadership and communication skills to face the challenge. They seemed unaware of how to research, design, test and transmit compelling slogans and images in order to influence political debate. (Here is an excellent example of what they could have done.) What’s more, there was abundant evidence from former shadow cabinet members who were by no stretch of the imagination Blairites of a lack of basic coordination, so that policies which did emerge were often contradicted or cancelled out by unplanned and haphazard leadership statements.
However, the main reason I didn’t vote for Corbyn against Smith wasn’t his incompetence or the weakness of the opposing candidate. It was his betrayal over Brexit. Although by no means everyone who voted for the UK to leave the EU was a supporter of the far-right, the EU referendum was a nationalist trap which the then PM Cameron, motivated by a mixture of short-term desperation and monumental complacency, fell right into.
Corbyn’s efforts during the referendum campaign were lacklustre, even after one of his own MPs was shot dead by an activist of a terrorist group closely connected to Ukip. His immediate call for implementation of Article 50 was an indication of his lack of political judgment and a betrayal of those who elected him leader. That he should, in this week’s parliamentary vote, exploit the most important issue in recent British history in the attempt to establish himself as a firm leader shows that he and his team have no understanding of what’s at stake and seem to have taken seriously Tory press propaganda that the UK has a future outside the EU. All expert advice before and after the referendum makes it absolutely clear that it doesn’t.
By obliging Labour MPs to vote in favour of whatever Tory plans for Brexit turn out to be, we can only hope that Corbyn has placed himself on the losing side of history. Where he could and should have mobilised Labour’s extensive campaigning machinery and put his very strong core of dedicated supporters to work arguing that the whole Brexit project is a reactionary folly and that the referendum was a farce, he’s divested himself of moral authority and his leadership has ultimately come to serve the socially regressive, racist and climate-lying agenda of the international far-right. The future of parliamentary opposition now lies in a progressive coalition led by people like Caroline Lucas, Mhairi Black, Nicola Sturgeon and, why not (since Nick Clegg’s career is hopefully still dead and buried) Tim Farron. Anti-Brexit Labour MPs, i.e. those who had the integrity to vote against the Government and against their party leadership this week clearly have a role to play. They represented the majority of Labour voters. But as of now the leadership of the Labour Party is, for all Corbyn’s personal decency, at best irrelevant and at worst an obstruction in the way of building something better.