Jeremy Corbyn’s stock has been on a wild ride in the last couple of years. When he was elected leader of the British Labour party in 2015, many of his parliamentary colleagues greeted him with disapproval and dismay. The ensuing 18 months of his leadership saw him stumble through various PR disasters, endure the scrutiny of a heavily critical mainstream press, and a botched parliamentary attempt to remove him.
He ultimately won a second leadership election in September 2016 thanks to a strong grassroots movement, and without gaining much credit or support among his colleagues.
But since then, things have changed dramatically. After a shock general election result brought two years of Conservative majority rule to an end and saw Labour surge to a once-unthinkable 40% of the vote, many of his harshest critics were falling over themselves to reverse their assessment. “I admit it,” was the tenor of the day, “I was wrong about Jeremy Corbyn.”
But in the level-headed mindset between between furious disapproval and euphoric reconciliation, how should Corbyn really be judged?
Corbyn the activist
Corbyn was first elected to parliament in 1983 after having worked in trade unions and local government. He was best known as an activist and campaigner: he joined nuclear disarmament organisations as a schoolboy in 1966 and went on to campaign against apartheid, for pro-Palestinian solidarity, and against the Iraq war as an MP.
Speaking with conviction, he often disagreed with the Labour leadership and prime ministers. He was in fact the most rebellious Labour MP under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, voting against the party more than 400 times.
A veteran, cloth-capped MP who had routinely disobeyed his own parliamentary leaders, he was widely dismissed as nothing approaching leadership material when he put his hat in the ring to be leader after Ed Miliband in 2010. After all, how could he reasonably ask MPs to do his bidding when he had so routinely disobeyed previous leaders himself?
Corbyn had in fact made a career of promoting the very policies that Labour leaders spent 20 years trying to ditch in the hope of winning an election again. They was evidence for their argument: Tony Blair, who adopted policies once associated with the Conservatives and dropped the party’s commitments to renationalise state industries, broadened Labour’s appeal, and won three general elections in a row (the first two by landslides).
A very small number of Labour MPs nominated Corbyn for the 2015 leadership contest, mostly in the hope of keeping the contest from becoming a battle of mainstream “Blairites”. He was never supposed to win, or even come close. One veteran Labour figure, Margaret Beckett, later confessed that she felt like a “moron” for nominating him and that at no point did she even intend to vote for him, “nice as he is”.
Once Corbyn became leader, he faced serial shadow cabinet resignations, an unprecedented vote of no confidence from his own MPs against him and seemingly endless rumours of impending leadership challenges. Traditionally pro-Labour columnists lined up to deride him as “crassly inept” and debunk his prospects of electoral success.
Corbyn rode out each resignation. When there was a leadership challenge, he won handsomely, extending his margin of victory after the party’s membership expanded. But it still looked as if Corbyn was struggling to win the country over. Labour lost seats and councils in the local elections and was unable to make progress in Scotland. After the party’s poor showing at the local elections in May 2016, a member of the shadow cabinet bluntly said that voters don’t see Labour under Jeremy Corbyn as a “credible party of future government”.
Labour’s “surge” in the 2017 election is therefore all the more surprising – but it must be put in historical perspective.
Prepare for government?
One approach, which I recently set out in a book I co-edited with Charles Clarke, a former Labour home secretary, is whether they win office for their party or move their party in a winning direction. Power is centralised in the office of prime minister and parliament in the UK. It is only in government that real change can be made to society. This is therefore an intuitive test.
Corbyn may not have won an outright parliamentary majority, but gaining 30 seats is an unexpectedly large step forward. In a league table of Labour leader’s cumulative seat change, he would come sixth out of 13 – above Hugh Gaitskell, Ed Miliband, James Callaghan, Michael Foot, Gordon Brown and Ramsay MacDonald, but below Clement Attlee, Tony Blair, Neil Kinnock, Harold Wilson, and Keir Hardie.
The chart below shows the historical fluctuations of Labour’s performance in elections, and the extent to which they may have just turned around. There is a clear reversal of fortunes.
To get into office, a party needs a winning electoral strategy. A focus on austerity during times of real wage decline, public service investment and an acceptance of the Brexit referendum vote, successfully galvanised a new generation of young voters and dodged the Brexit question to woo back UKIP voters. It has returned Britain towards two-party politics that favours the Labour party so well, putting a lid on support for emerging parties. There are the makings of a new electoral block in British politics, in a rapidly shifting landscape.
Let his MPs fulminate against his left-wing policies all they want – this result has dramatically shored up Corbyn’s mandate to lead the party. Corbyn and his team have successfully rebuilt Labour’s mass membership, and the grassroots’ dogged loyalty will make him extremely hard to remove. They have also reconnected the party with its radical, critical soul.
That said, there’s a good deal of work to be done before a full-blown return to majority government is plausible – and low expectations can easily get in the way of solving long-term problems.
Labour won 3m more votes than in 2015, but as the chart above shows, its seat share is well below that needed to form a majority government. It only won over 27.5% of the registered electorate. Elections are often won by whichever party is seen to be the most competent on the economy, and here too Labour never came close to outpacing the Tories. And while Corbyn’s personal approval ratings notably improved as the campaign went on, he lagged behind May among the wider electorate until the very end.
So when parliament reconvenes, Corbyn must up both his game and the party’s. Ironically, he’s been successful because he’s driven by ideals rather than pure political interest. Yes, he visibly squirms when asked to take a strategically important position purely for the sake of party cohesion, but on the whole he comes across with an honesty that cuts through to the electorate and allows him to stand out. If he can reconcile that conscience with a bit more political cunning, real success is far from out of the question. No one can predict the future of British politics right now.