In a recent appearance on the Andrew Marr Show, the Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, dismissed leadership-based politics, stating that politics “is about having strong movements” of ordinary people. Corbyn has long pontificated about the virtues of what he calls “movements”. There have been innumerable occasions when he has referred to the necessity of Labour becoming a movement in order to return to government.
The definition of a “movement” is flexible depending on what Corbyn requires it to mean: a “movement” could be a group of single-issue activists working in unison for a specific cause, such as the movement to get him elected Leader of the Labour Party in 2015 and to the anti-war movement. Or it could be what Corbyn more frequently alludes to; a much larger gathering of people with the ambition to enact some form of change in modern Britain.
Increasingly, though, Corbyn has opted to refer to political activism on behalf of the Labour Party as “a movement”.
The Labour Leader makes no mistake about his support for and admiration of supposed-progressive political movements, he and his top tier of Parliamentary colleagues seeming to attach such immense significance to them that one has to speculate whether the voices of those involved in “progressive” activism are more valuable to Corbyn than those of the majority of people who do not participate in them.
In some ways, this is to be expected.
Corbyn’s roots are firmly planted in activism. He was the chair of the Stop the War Coalition. He has long campaigned for nuclear disarmament. He has been meeting socialist and racial equality activists for decades. On the day Theresa May became Prime Minister Corbyn was not on television complaining that the new PM had not been formally elected. He was not setting out what questions he was going to ask the incoming PM. He was at a Cuba Solidarity meeting.
Corbyn attaches such gravity to activists and so-called movements because he has spent most of his adult life working within them; he understands the people who work in them, he is personally acquainted with a great many people within them. For a man who has never (his tenure as Labour Leader aside) come anywhere near wielding any real political responsibility, the language and behaviour of protest is the only language and behaviour that he can understand.
His political experience has been constricted to extra-Parliamentary demonstrations, to listening and speaking to those who already share his opinions, opposing and criticising, but never actually acting. And having mostly lived in the unrepresentative dimension of protest politics, Corbyn now has, in his capacity as Leader of the Labour Party, serious difficulties in communicating with anybody other than those he has been communicating with on repetitive, hyperbolic terms for the last forty years.
The irony of the situation, however, is that Corbyn’s progressive, left-wing activism and life-long commitment to empowering “movements” has collided with something else which might be reasonably termed a movement, a “single issue” tectonic shift in public opinion which vastly outnumbers the activists Corbyn has spent his life talking to.
The question this collision raises is this: what has Corbyn done when a people’s “movement” has said something he completely disagrees with?
The vote to leave the EU has been interpreted in numerous ways. Some have described it as a revolt against a “political elite” who don’t listen to the public. Others have described it as a lurch towards right-wing isolationism. Others still have suggested that the vote demonstrates a rejection by the UK public of political integration with Europe.
Among these things, the Leave vote was a rejection of the status quo regarding the ability the UK had to turn away people from other countries trying to enter the UK. The public were dissatisfied with high levels of immigration for all kinds of reasons: cultural, economic, availability of school places for their children. Whatever the reason immigration became a concern for voters, the action they took was the same, and by voting to leave the EU these voters collectively stated that immigration from the EU has to come to an end.
The Thatcher government arguably transformed the British political/public consensus concerning the market economy, as shown by the fact that no party other than the Conservatives could get elected until New Labour embraced the free market. The Cameron government, less famously, changed the public consensus on welfare expenditure, so that parties seen as not serious about reducing or at least controlling welfare could not enter government; this is demonstrated by the fact that the 2015 election again saw Labour (who had voted against the Tories’ welfare spending cuts) defeated by a wide margin.
In very much the same way, though at a much faster pace, the EU Referendum has restructured the UK public debate around immigration. Apart from placing immigration ahead of economics on voters’ list of priorities concerning the UK’ relationship with the EU, the vote to leave has shifted the debate about immigration decisively in favour of considerable, permanent and rapid reductions in current immigration levels.
This is the newest consensus of British politics.
Politicians, whether they voted Leave or Remain, will from now on be judged as much on immigration policy, and their seriousness in reducing immigration, as they would previously have been on the NHS, education and defence policy.
Corbyn, of course, cannot currently be held responsible for reducing immigration or negotiating Brexit, as he is not in government. But his response to the new consensus of lower immigration, to which the Conservative government has quickly caught on, will have an important influence on the electoral fortunes of the Labour Party over the next few years- and possibly the next decade.
As we know, Corbyn does not believe that politics is all about leaders. But most modern politicians (especially the successful ones) know that leadership matters.
The chief creators of New Labour understood this only too well. Tony Blair himself summarised the immensely important role leaders now play in politics when he said in Charles Clarke and Tony S. James’ book British Labour Leaders (2015) that leaders need to establish bonds of trust with the electorate while in opposition, and carry out their promises to change peoples’ lives while in government. This quote encompasses what the modern party leader is expected to do, whether they believe their voice is the most important one around or not.
Out of government, leaders have to embody the best aspects of their party as well as the public, so that the public can see themselves reflected in a future Prime Minister. And in government, a leader must walk the talk of opposition, carrying out that agenda which captured the public mind in the opposition years.
More recently, as revealed in Ed Balls’ Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics (2016), shortly before the 2015 General Election, Blair urged Ed Balls to be realistic about Labour’s election chances and confront the reality that the public simply could not envisage allow Ed Miliband as Prime Minister.
But more important than what politicians think, it matters to voters who the Prime Minister will be. Voters care about who is taking decisions about the defence of their country. They care about whether a Prime Minister will make the right decisions about how to spend their taxes. They care about how well schools and hospitals are run.
Modern leadership matters because individual party leaders are now responsible for the communication of their party’s message and policies to the wider public. Because they shoulder the burden of being “the great communicator”, modern British political leaders must be able to have conversations with a broad spectrum of voters without ever meeting the vast majority of the public in person: they must be able to speak the voters’ language.
Tony Blair serves as an outstandingly successful example of someone who was able to both learn from and interact with the public.
Blair observed that the centre ground had shifted, that acceptance of the free market and competent management of that market were essential for retaking power. Blair heard the public’s groans of disappointment with Labour’s economic policies of the 1980’s, and he altered Labour policy accordingly. He thereafter won three elections.
He also kept the party relevant during its time in office, holding the public’s trust and attention with Labour’s economic management, rising school standards and NHS investment.
To prove the point that leader’s need to both listen to the public mood and communicate a relevant message of their own, we could take the example of Miliband’s career as Labour leader. One of Miliband’s chief failings and obstacles to his entering Downing Street was the public’s doubt over his ability to handle the public finances, particularly regarding borrowing and welfare spending. Both were major themes throughout the last Parliament, with reductions in a variety of benefits introduced by the Conservative government consistently criticised by Labour.
The Conservatives won the argument, and the 2015 General Election saw Labour defeated.
Miliband’s failure and Blair’s success demonstrate how important it is for politicians to adjust to changes in public attitudes towards major policy issues. Those who accept that the electorate changes, and who admit the need for themselves to change, will stand a much better chance of winning elections; those who either do not recognise a change or attempt to circumvent that change will more than likely suffer electoral defeat.
A new consensus might not become manifestly obvious overnight, but once it has been reached, like on the free market, it cannot be eradicated or watered down.
It follows that a target of achieving and maintaining lower immigration will remain a foundation on which public trust of a political party and individual leaders will be based, much the same as the free market became one of the foundations on which the Conservatives built four election victories between 1979 and 1992.
Though the EU Referendum was only a matter of months ago, and there is still much to be learned about how the vote has changed the relationship between the voters, politicians, and political parties, we have learned since June 2016 that Corbyn is not inclined to change his view regarding immigration.
Since the vote to leave the EU, Corbyn and his top team of Shadow Ministers have said very little about immigration policy- whether it be during a Labour government or in the context of our future relationship with the EU. Dianna Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary (who would be charged with monitoring immigration in the event of a Labour government) has made no major speeches about immigration since the vote to leave.
Neither has Labour’s economic team. But most importantly, Corbyn himself appears to have made no adjustment to his personal position on immigration: he has not only refused to admit the need for lower immigration, but has defended the current levels.
In the same recent appearance on the Andrew Marr Show, Corbyn described UKIP’s appeal as “shallow, populist and nasty”: hardly welcome words for the millions of Labour voters who voted Leave. And they will be little more encouraged by Corbyn’s response to the question of whether it was his policy to bring down immigration: Corbyn’s argument was that though he did not want to set out a policy of reducing immigration, his economic and social policies would have the effect of reducing immigration on their own.
We were not told how his policies would achieve this; we were not told the numbers; we were not told how he arrived at this conclusion. But this is as close as Corbyn has so far managed to bring himself to meeting Leave voters halfway over immigration reform.
His reply will be of no comfort to those who are already drifting away from the Labour Party. It will appear to them that Corbyn, who prides himself on listening to “movements”, on being in touch with ordinary people, of being the opposite of the political establishment- it will appear that this man is not paying attention to their concerns, even after a vote as decisive as the vote to leave the EU.
It is both risky and insulting to expect the public to believe immigration will simply come down on its own.
Corbyn is well-known among his followers as a man who stands by his principles. He has proved this, sometimes to his and his party’s cost, when he intervened in the vote on air strikes in Syria in 2015 and over Trident in the first half of 2016. It seems this is another example of Corbyn sticking to his long-held belief: that high immigration is an overwhelmingly positive thing for the UK.
Corbyn’s choice not to offer the public some concession on immigration presents a very serious danger to his party. The public are not likely to vote for a party whose immigration policy suggests it thinks it knows better than them, and whose leader’s sole attempt at compromise is the assertion that immigration will come down of its own accord, if the public would only trust in Labour and vote them into government.
The choice between Labour’s immigration policy and the Conservatives’ immigration policy is really no choice at all for those who voted Leave mainly or solely because of immigration.
This brings us back to the crucial truth in modern UK politics.
Party leaders must adapt to changing circumstances if they hope to win elections. The vote to leave the EU was, by any standards, a change in circumstances. Corbyn and Labour cannot pretend that the only changes were that of Prime Minister and an intensification of the UK executive’s conflict with Tory backbenchers in the search for an ideal relationship with the EU.
Corbyn has recently called for an election in 2017; indeed, during his acceptance speech at being re-elected Labour leader in September, Corbyn said Labour was now on an election footing. No doubt Corbyn is trying to sound confident to keep up the energetic campaigning that won his re-election, but if he is serious about winning power, he has to hold a much more sensible and pragmatic conversation with the electorate. And the first step towards that is doing what he claims to do best: listen to the public.
The public expressed a very clear view in June 2016: immigration has to come down, and stay down.
Unless Corbyn can express a very clear plan for reducing immigration the Labour Party, like in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and in 2015, could remain in opposition, and stay there until a leader is finally able to listen as well as speak.
“Tony Blair on leadership, New Labour and statecraft theory”, by Tony Blair, Charles Clarke and Toby S. James, in Charles Clarke and Tony S. James eds. British Labour Leaders. Great Britain, Biteback Publishing. 2015, pp363.
Ed Balls, Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics. UK, Penguin Random House. 2016, pp5.