THE moment Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour Party for the first time I was writing in the library. I doubt there was a person in there who didn’t hear my anguished cry.
I immediately wrote an intemperate tweet which suggested that perhaps the people who had voted for him might eventually come to regret their choice, and eventually took it down because I had called people I like and respect “gobshites”.
I am not going to say that everything I predicted was correct. I suspected that Corbyn’s old-time religion would pile up votes in Labour strongholds while putting off voters in swing areas. I was wrong. Mea culpa. I vastly overestimated his appeal.
Now I absolutely get why Corbyn appealed to Labour Party members and the three-quid recreational leftwingers. Labour had just lost an election which it was expected to win, like in 1992, and supporters were upset.
“We’ve already had to put up with Miliband saying he’d keep half an eye on immigration,” they said, “and now this?! You’re expecting us to vote for somebody like Yvette Cooper? Or Liz Kendall?!”
And then Corbyn came along, with those soothing words that told you what you wanted to hear: “It’s not you that’s wrong, it’s the electorate. Let’s not bother convincing those Tory voters, let’s just enthuse the non-voters and build a bright, etc, etc.”
No wonder you voted for him. Losing an election is tough. Being told that the reason you lost it is because you didn’t work hard enough to accommodate people to the right of your party is even tougher.
No wonder you took the easy way out. And then you justified it by saying that people have had enough of “moderates”. That’s the message you were getting from the electorate, oh yes.
You heard that message in 2010 when Brown was turfed out of office, and you heard it again in 2015 when that notorious Blairite Ed Miliband was defeated at the polls.
But it’s absolute nonsense, isn’t it?
Brown lost in 2010 because Labour had been in office for 13 years, and he was at the wheel when the economy crashed. It doesn’t matter how well he and Alistair Darling did to pull the country back out of recession, or how influential he was in saving the world economy.
Nor does it matter that the crash was caused by the collapsing loans market in the United States, and not because Labour spent some money on fixing school roofs. The fact is he was in charge, so he got a pasting.
Even so, if the Tories had been led by Michael Howard or Ian Duncan Smith in 2010, Brown would probably have beaten them. But they were led by “a moderate” who had spent three years reassuring the electorate that he was a safe option.
Yes, in power David Cameron presided over a dreadful right-wing shambles of austerity and bedroom tax and Brexit, but he had a plausible manner. He spoke like a centrist. “I’m not one of those old-style Thatcherite hang ’em and flog ’em Tories”, he said to the electorate, “I hug hoodies and huskies and I like The Jam and don’t mind the gays.”
Unfortunately, after the 2010 election, the Labour selectorate learnt the wrong lesson. Did they pick the wrong Miliband brother? I don’t know if it’s that simple…
But what they did do was pick the most left-wing candidate on offer who wasn’t a black woman. They picked the candidate most likely to spend the next five years saying how dreadful the previous Labour administration had been. And who wasn’t a black woman.
And in 2015, what happened? The Lib Dems collapsed, mostly because the Labour voters who had defected to them because of Iraq and tuition fees wanted to punish them for entering into coalition with the Tories, and the Lib Dem/Tory floating voters were sufficiently reassured by Cameron’s government to decide they did not need Clegg’s restraining hand.
It wasn’t because of a collapse in support for centrist politics. Cameron still painted himself as centrist. He did quite well out of it.
Miliband tried to paint himself as centrist to the broader electorate, and radical to Labour members, which was a difficult trick to pull off and one which he failed to do. But that was not the problem he had.
People decided early on in his leadership that he was not prime ministerial material, just as they had with William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith, and Michael Howard.
And Scotland went full centrist. The SNP is completely Blairite, apart from the constitutional issue, and its position on Trident, which is bound up with the constitutional issue.
The point is, centrism and moderation are not the problem here. It’s about credibility.
So when Corbyn came along in 2015 saying all the things you wanted to hear, and you convinced yourself that the problem with Ed Miliband was that he was too right-wing, and that’s why people went for the Tories, you were wrong. You were so wrong. You were 20-points-behind-in-the-polls-a-month-before-a-general-election wrong.
I’m a centrist. But I’m a centrist who knows that centrism isn’t enough. You need the electorate to believe that you have a leader who is prime ministerial, a leader who goes to where most people are, and gently pulls them in the right direction, rather than standing miles away from them with a megaphone and placard, a leader who says some things that they want to hear and that you don’t.
And what did you do? You picked a man with no experience of office, who has never seen a British foreign policy he liked, or an authoritarian left-wing leader he didn’t like. A man who won’t sing the national anthem. A man who is “always on the right side of history” – apart from Kosovo, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and that time he founded an organisation which then called for insurgents to kill British soldiers in Iraq, before becoming its chair.
Oh, yes, and that photo of him opposing apartheid – as if that were an unpopular position in Britain in the sixties to the nineties? That’s at a protest which the bulk of the British anti-apartheid movement did not want to happen.
As my dear friend Twll Dun says:
…what actually emerges from our brief potted history of a picture of Jeremy on a demo is not a lone man, prescient in his opposition to the evil apartheid regime. Instead, it is a man who – when an idea is already mainstream and backed by the vast majority of the left – finds himself drawn to a demonstration organised by those on the wildest shores of it, a demo the utility of which – centred entirely around the right to keep a non-stop picket outside an embassy – to the wider cause of the movement is debatable, to say the least.
You picked a man with absolutely no hope of becoming British prime minister – and a long history of opposing the EEC/EU – and you knew all this before you voted for him, because you were told.
And all this because you didn’t want to compromise. Because you were happy to make the perfect the enemy of the good.
That’s fine if you’re on the far left of British politics. If your concern is about building a populist protest movement, then you know what Jeremy Corbyn is and how he would be as leader. I have no problem with you. You had an objective and you succeeded. Fair play to you.
But the rest of you, the ones who voted for Jeremy Corbyn because you thought he was the most likely to become Prime Minister – what on earth were you thinking?
I’m a centrist. But there’s a line at that centre. I’m probably far closer to some people on the other side of that line on many subjects than I am to the leader of the Labour Party.
But I won’t cross that line, because in the end I think people who have all the advantages have to help those people with none of the advantages – not that they ought to help them, not that they should be encouraged to help them, but that they have to help them. It’s not a matter of charity, it’s a requisite of civilisation.
That’s why I have to vote Labour at this general election. Not because I think Jeremy Corbyn is good – I think he would be a terrible Prime Minister, incapable of taking the sort of quick and ruthless decisions with which Prime Ministers are faced.
But I think Theresa May has demonstrated she is a much worse Prime Minister. I believe she will pursue a disastrous Brexit and leave the public realm devastated for generations, while Corbyn would pursue a slightly-less disastrous Brexit and keep the NHS and schools ticking over until a proper grown-up who can do sums could take charge.
If you’re on the same side of that line as me, you should do the same. Being an adult in British politics often means voting for the unsatisfactory to avoid the worse. I told people before Corbyn was first elected that they were making the perfect the enemy of the good. It would be inconsistent for me not to follow my own advice.
But don’t bloody make me do this again, you gobshites.