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Will Labour Properly Turn Its Back on Corbyn, the Narcissist Who Gave Racists a Free Ride?

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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn walk through the Commons Members Lobby during the State Opening of Parliament. London, December 19, 2019
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn walk through the Commons Members Lobby during the State Opening of Parliament. London, December 19, 2019Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth,AP

We get the leaders we deserve, reckoned St Augustine. But do they reflect us or us them? Most likely, it’s both, which is to say that the United Kingdom has been cursed, and cursed itself, with the worst leaders imaginable at the worst imaginable time. 

In 2010, then-Conservative party leader David Cameron and his claaque of sycophantic toffs imposed a program of austerity that forced the poorest in British society to foot the bill for the financial crash.

Then, after winning a general election in 2015, Cameron initiated an in/out referendum on membership of the European Union to placate the little Englanders on his backbenches. Unable to fathom a world in which circumstances did not conspire to his advantage, he failed to deduce the inherent stupidity of so basic a question; to appreciate that effecting such monumental change necessitated a super-majority; and to understand that racism in Britain remains both tireless and omnipresent.

Naturally, he ran away when things went wrong, leaving his successor a hopelessly divided country. Theresa May might have attempted some healing but instead took the most divisive stance possible before failing at everything she tried - and bequeathing us Boris Johnson.

Labour, meanwhile, were fronted by Jeremy Corbyn, who had spent a long political career demonstrating his utter unsuitability for high office. But because he was the party’s most left-wing leader in a generation, his supporters could stare into the void and project onto him whatever they wanted him to be – roughly, themselves – and support for him quickly morphed from political preference into identity essence, his acolytes cleaving to him with intractable fervency.

His parliamentary party – comprised of people who actually knew him – were less credulous, and he lacked the intellectual firepower, mollifying inclination and force of personality to convince them otherwise. They may have have been wrong to reject Corbyn’s election by party members and ignorant of their own failings, but there’s a reason why, when a football manager loses the dressing room, he is the one sacked – regardless of what the fans think and regardless of whether the players have undermined him. It is a matter of practicality, not morality.

The EU referendum came early in Corbyn’s stewardship, and despite decades of vociferous Euroscepticism, he opposed Brexit – under pressure from senior shadow cabinet figures and the vast majority of Labour members. But he then campaigned without energy or enthusiasm, opting not to deploy his political capital to convince people that, though the EU had its faults, they were suffering because of austerity, not because of migrants; that without EU subsidies, things would be even worse; that leaving the EU meant less money to regenerate their communities; that the EU is a force for peace.

These were not difficult arguments to make, but Corbyn largely ignored them nonetheless, and a significant number of traditional Labour voters, already smarting at their abandonment by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, opted to leave.

In the lead-up to the referendum, Corbyn refused to share a platform with Cameron – who was also campaigning to remain in the EU  – because he was a Tory. This was a troubling development, given the phenomenal array of mass-murderous anti-Semites with whom he had gleefully fraternized, and also indicated a gross narcissism. For Corbyn, maintaining the purity of his political principles was more important than fighting racism and preventing recession, the connection between the two eluding him completely.

Indeed, though we were regularly advised of Corbyn’s personal commitment to "fighting racism in all its forms," he did little to highlight the bigotry which defined the Leave campaign. Though this was a trickier argument to propagate, it remains a leader’s imperative to change hearts and minds; to stand up for what is right. But Corbyn opted to remain cynically silent, lest he offend xenophobes who might vote for him.

A lot of good it did: A year later and at the height of his personal popularity, he nevertheless failed to win the 2017 general election against the historically hapless Theresa May. But because Corbyn did not do as badly as feared, he and his disciples confused repudiation with affirmation, and simply carried on as before.  

Corbyn was never as popular again, and while he and his disciples fruitlessly flailed to fantasize it being so, around him the stakes raised dramatically when Boris Johnson replaced May as prime minister. Within weeks, Johnson had prorogued Parliament, incited the far-right, threatened to confiscate the license of an unfriendly broadcaster and suppressed a report detailing Russian meddling in UK political affairs.

Very quickly, it became clear that the next general election would shape a generation.

As such, this was no time for blind loyalty or ideological piety; there is no glory in failure, and it was clear that Labour was headed in precisely that direction. Had Corbyn stepped aside, or been ordered aside by his closest allies, Labour could have installed a less mistrusted leader and made alliances with other parties to force a second referendum rather than  a general election.

But instead, Corbyn – and the also deluded Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson – allowed a desperate Johnson to go to the country, even though Labour’s best possible outcome was the hung Parliament it already had! The resultant rout leaves the people Corbyn claimed to represent facing five years of avoidable suffering – at least. 

Though neither Corbyn nor Johnson performed well during the campaign, there was one key difference between them: Johnson had a message. Whatever question he was asked – the day, the time, the number of children he has – the words "Get Brexit done" dominated his answer. It was contrived, it was ridiculous and it was untrue. But because it told enough people what they wanted to hear as simply as they wanted to hear it, it worked.

It also worked because of Corbyn. When Labour pledged to support a second referendum, he did not make the case for why, and in debate with Johnson sagely swerved the isse, thus failing to interrogate Johnson on the burning political issue of the day. How effective might it have been if, every time Johnson resorted to his formulation, Corbyn had simply responded with: "No you won’t," or "You’re lying"? But he did not.

This failing highlights another. Johnson is a homophobic, Islamophobic, racist travesty, who consorts with anti-Semites, some of the planet's worst polluters, and victimizes the vulnerable for sport. He has been sacked for dishonesty, twice; he has conspired to have a journalist beaten up, lied to the Queen and who knows what other dishonesties. The inability to compel voters away from that resume is humiliating for Corbyn – but what is unforgivable is that he didn’t even try to. 

By any measure, Johnson has no business leading a country, but Corbyn refused to attack his character – though it was unfathomably pertinent to the matter at hand – because he deems such behavior beneath his dignity. So when a live TV audience laughed at Johnson for claiming to be trustworthy, Corbyn failed to force the point home, once again prioritizing ego above the welfare of those he claimed to represent.

This was not "fighting injustice in all its forms" but vanity dressed up as morality, to give a dangerous racist a free ride. How could Corbyn expect voters to call out these things if he did not? How do these values help those who need a Labour government?

On top of that, Corbyn was himself mired in anti-Semitism. His refusal to admit any personal wrongdoing, along with his dismissive aggression when challenged on the issue, not only made clear his disgust for the allegations, but allowed voters who care nothing for Jews to take the moral high ground on Jews’ behalf. And more than that, many of them used this position to justify their pre-existing dislike for Muslims, whom they juxtaposed against the Jewish community and alongside Corbyn. 

Corbyn could have stopped all this by simply listening, apologizing and changing – but he refused, invigorating Johnson’s good, honest, old-fashioned English whiteness.

For many in the Jewish community, Johnson's faults were not red lines, a selfish and dunderheaded myopia encapsulated by the re-election of Mike Freer as Conservative MP for Finchley & Golders Green – Britain’s most Jewish constituency.

Somehow, Freer – a whip whose government courts the far-right, and whose leader merrily insults all who are not straight, white men – is feted as a friend of the community rather than a career politician serving his personal ambition. He has voted against helping the poorest in society at every possible opportunity, and trumpeted opposition to a tax on the largest homes as the proudest moment of his first electoral term while ever more children dropped below the poverty line. He is not Raoul Wallenberg.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, with supporters on the last day of campaigning before the election, in Glasgow, Scotland. Labour went on to lose all but one of its seats in Scotland. Dec. 11, 2019Credit: Andrew Milligan,AP

What this election tells the Tories is that they can do anything – anything – and people will still vote for them. They have lied, cheated, caused suffering and death, and in leaving the EU plan to consciously crash the economy. At some point after that, they and others will need people to blame; in such circumstances, I’d anticipate decreasing affection for rootless cosmopolitans.

As for Labour, their election record since 1979 reads: defeat, defeat, defeat, defeat, Blair, Blair, Blair, defeat, defeat, defeat, defeat.

Of course Blair was not the sole operative factor in those victories, but the starkness of the run remains significant. It is almost impossible to envisage Labour winning a general election if it doesn’t have a leader who is either charismatic, center-left or both. Labour must find someone able to persuade and inspire; must acknowledge that, though another leader might also have lost, it is inconceivable that any would have done worse than Corbyn. 

Corbyn’s lack of contrition for the disaster he caused is a damning valedictory error. Not because it will help those sacrificed for his self-indulgence, but because the party must grasp that getting smashed at the ballot box is not tacit acknowledgement that Labour are on the right track, and no moment of national epiphany is imminent.

Politics is not only the art of the possible but the art of the present, and Labour must find a leader who appreciates that. People’s lives depend on it.

Daniel Harris is writer, screenwriter, film-maker and broadcaster. Twitter: @DanielHarris