Season two of ‘Who Wants to be Labour Leader?’ has seen more spin than one of Keith Vaz’s washing machines. After months of infighting and rigorous campaigning, Labour have exactly the same leader as they did at the start of all of this – with the Corbynites holding off the Corbyn-lites to secure Mr Corbyn’s re-election. Owen ‘I never wanted to be Labour leader’ Smith was nominated by moderate Labour MPs, because the only thing he has in common with Corbyn is his electability. An ardent socialist who is passionate and popular with the Labour membership, Jeremy Corbyn is indeed the exact opposite of Mr Smith.
Despite his victory, it has been a woeful few months for the newly re-elected Labour leader, who in a recent YouGov poll about the public’s desired Prime Minister finished narrowly behind a Mr Don’t Know – who is either the leader of the Liberal Democrats, or the person Corbyn’s team claim books all the seats on Virgin trains. The ‘traingate’ incident marked Labour’s lowest point for some time – with the second season of ‘Who Wants to be Labour Leader?’ succeeding where Ed Miliband failed: making Ed Miliband look electable.
When MPs pushed Corbyn onto the ballot in season one, they did so because they thought he would widen the debate and that he was so unelectable that no one would think he could be a viable party leader – over a year later it appears they were right on both counts. In the intervening period, Corbyn has been busy fulfilling his manifesto goal of returning things to the 80s – including the Prime Minister’s approval rating.
Indeed traingate could well be considered a foreshadowing of the 2020 General Election – Corbynites desperately stumbling around, unable to find a seat – but it also highlighted some of the major problems with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. While his supporters cried that it wasn’t a publicity stunt, and his campaign team ran around using just about every excuse they could think of, it became clear with traingate that Mr Corbyn’s new politics is not actually that different to old politics.
The question really has to be, at what point do Momentum draw the line between ‘principled politician’ and ‘career politician’?
Corbyn is heralded and held aloft by his supporters as an untouchably principled politician offering a different kind of politics. In politics since he was 24, in Parliament since 34, and involved in practically every plot to overthrow a Labour leader since Michael Foot resigned – it is unclear what exactly Corbyn has to do to be labelled as a careerist. Pragmatically u-turning on his principles at the referendum to save his leadership? Still managed to avoid being labelled a careerist; whereas Boris Johnson had only to waver slightly before coming down on one side or the other and was barracked with abuse for ‘playing politics’.
And then performing a painfully obvious publicity stunt to promote his policy of renationalising the railways in order to preserve his leadership. Rather than labelling him as a careerist, Corbynites leapt to his defence – one has to wonder whether they would have been so kind if it had been Owen Smith sat on the floor of that train?
The last year has been a fascinating one for those observing Jeremy Corbyn, as he has pivoted from principled to pragmatic and from a new kind of politics to one increasing like the old variety. At least when Ed Miliband did a publicity stunt, everyone acknowledged it as such – mainly because building a giant stone tablet is pretty hard to disguise – but when Corbyn walks past empty seats to make a publicity video, Corbynites move to dismiss any suggestion it might be a stunt.
In pushing his policies on his Parliamentary Party, Mr Corbyn has demonstrated a leadership style more authoritarian than any of the leaders under whom he served. He has managed to create a situation where the Shadow Cabinet is pretty much empty (although on the evidence of traingate, Corbyn’s campaign team would probably describe their meetings as ‘ram-packed’), and the members are people whose careers we had assumed were finished – even the Shadow Foreign Secretary is a politician sacked from the front bench in 2014 with her career in tatters after a ‘drippingly patronising’ tweet. While Labour’s moderates may now crawl back to Corbyn with the realisation that he isn’t going anywhere in a hurry, the Party is hardly a picture of unity.
It is a new kind of politics, one supposes, because traditional politics is at least competent. A normal person who wants to sit next to their wife on a busy train to Newcastle would take advantage of the ability to reserve two seats on that train – particularly when that person has an entire campaign team to coordinate their travel arrangements. Likewise, most traditional politicians would be able to launch an online policy with some online coverage.
Jeremy Corbyn faced a lot of criticism over traingate, but it is really his own fault. Publicity stunts are part-and-parcel of modern politics – that is not the problem. The problem comes when you tell people you don’t do publicity stunts, and then do a publicity stunt. Corbyn, it turns out, is not the unswervingly honest and principled politician that his supporters thought, he is as much a careerist as Smith and all the others his backers lament.
The re-elected Labour leader has emerged victorious from a campaign in which significant numbers of his supporters were deemed to have differing values to the Labour Party. What this campaign has shown is that Corbyn has a lot of work to do to drag Labour into the mythical promised land of Downing Street. This year’s edition of ‘Who Wants to be Labour Leader?’ was good viewing for those in other parties – and like every good celebrity TV show it featured a previous winner and a z-lister you’d never heard of before the competition.
Remember when Labour’s biggest problem was that their leader was a geek who couldn’t eat a bacon sandwich? That must seem like a golden time to Labour’s moderates now.