Why is Corbyn a bad leader
The Corbyn Fantasy - doomed from the start
Hopi Sen - The new Labor leader's agenda won't work. Not because it is too left or too extreme. But simply because it is wrong
Sometimes the details of a huge political shock provide more insight than great overall analysis. To understand the state of the British left this fall, consider this: On the Sunday after his election victory, Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn sat in a small office in Parliament trying to assemble his top team. Corbyn had just crushed his competitors. Even more: he had simply wiped her out. And yet he found it difficult to put together a team at all.
How was that possible? Just the day before, an enthusiastic crowd had cheered the new leader in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn is not Alexis Tsipras or Pablo Iglesias. He may be their English uncle: more restrained, gentler, a little paler. But he inspires the same fervor. Jeremy Corbyn's mandate as the new party leader was therefore out of the question. His popularity within the party was evident. In fact, old allies and new flatterers should have queued up with him. Outside of Parliament, Corbyn indeed has many friends: union leaders, journalists, celebrities, students, retirees - all enthusiastic and excited about his rise.
Serve this general? D rather not
And nevertheless. Jeremy Corbyn has been a member of the House of Commons for 32 years. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of his parliamentary colleagues have declared that they disapprove of his policies. Less than one in ten Labor MPs wanted him as party leader. Those who supported him are, with one or two exceptions, habitual party rebels like Corbyn himself. Therefore, in order to build a team, he had to reach colleagues beyond this group. He tried this. But many refused to serve as an officer under this general.
Complicating matters was the fact that the Conservatives immediately launched a tough attack on Corbyn to brand him as a threat to national security. In the process, they twisted (a little) what Corbyn had said a long time ago at a peace rally. His words came to the point that Britain did not need an armed force capable of crossing the sea.
Corbyn's three basic problems
So the new Labor leader needed a shadow defense minister. Together with his parliamentary group leader, he was looking for one. Unfortunately, the two of them did not know that their phone calls could be overheard by those waiting outside. A journalist heard the following: "That may sound a bit like a crazy idea, but could you imagine becoming shadow defense minister?" Pause. “What do you think about Trident?” Trident is the British nuclear weapons system. Jeremy Corbyn is against Britain having nuclear weapons. Most Labor MPs disagree with him on this. A much, much longer break. "But would you be ready to discuss it?"
Here, as if under a magnifying glass, the three fundamental problems that Labor now faces are revealed. First, there is the simple question of competence. After spending their entire political life in the inner opposition, the leaders of what was formerly known as the “far left” in Britain are not used to the rigorous scrutiny that national leadership positions entail. Of course, they have skills, enormously important ones at that. You can identify big issues. You can demand the end of injustice and torture, poverty and war. You can get carried away - and have already done so. That is the reason for their current triumph. They owe this not least to the fact that their opponents - including the author of these lines - seemed incapable of inciting anyone to such passion.
Still, it's hard to imagine that a Lyndon B. Johnson or a François Mitterrand would ever have been embarrassed about a door that was too thin. It is equally difficult to imagine that they would have offered any defense power to anyone whose views they did not know about it. After all, this would mean that the personal views of politicians are pretty unimportant. Corbyn has long argued that political positions should be decided by the entire party. Until the decision can be freely debated. That will now be the new leadership model.
Of course, democratic debate and opinion-forming have their value. But they also have their price: apparent indecision. It takes a lot of persuasion and explanation to clear up the possible confusion. But Jeremy Corbyn, ubiquitous during the leadership campaign, did not initially give any illuminating interviews after his victory.
In his place, his newly elected deputy Tom Watson, a supporter of both NATO and British nuclear weapons, diplomatically fought off questions about Labor's defense policy: he did not know the views of his party chairman and that the upcoming debate would clarify. Hilary Benn, Labour's new foreign affairs spokesman, said the party would fight unconditionally to keep Britain in the EU. Only the evening before, his chairman had said in front of Labor MPs that the question was open. A debate on this subject is certainly due soon.
Confronted by journalists with the question of why he had not accepted women into the party's leadership team, the new Labor leader walked silently and alone into the night. The next day, his supporters argued that this was a new political approach. There are now no “top positions” in the Labor Party. Perhaps the people concerned simply did not know whether the post of finance minister or that of minister of youth is the more important position. However, following the sudden discovery that all positions were endowed with equal power, no one offered a change.
The central bank is supposed to print money
Modern political leadership is difficult. It is exhausting. It could be that Jeremy Corbyn's principled resistance path did not endow the new Labor leader with the skill that is typically expected of political leaders. It could be that he is not very good at running a political party the traditional way. But that is still its simplest problem. Jeremy Corbyn can easily solve it by leading in a non-traditional way. So he finally won the competition for the party chairmanship.
Which brings us to the second problem: What purpose should the party leadership serve? Jeremy Corbyn conquered the Labor leadership by promoting real and sweeping change. What the nature of this change would be was communicated principally and with great grace.
Corbyn promised to end austerity, which could be financed by eliminating all tax avoidance. At the same time he called on the Bank of England to provide the government with the necessary money to finance its projects.
He opposed any international participation by Great Britain, whether with regard to the NATO presence on the borders of Russia or military options in Syria, unless such operations were expressly approved by the UN Security Council.
Leader or notary of the movement?
He announced that he would better finance the welfare state and public services, prevent the expansion of free trade and end the neoliberal economy. In addition, Jeremy Corbyn has distinguished himself (from the perspective of the author of these lines: in an admirable way) as a consistent advocate of the rights of migrants and refugees - this at a time when many British see immigration as a threat to their comfort and security.
It was on this basis that Corbyn inspired his constituents. He won their hearts, their heads, and their applause. It was a wave, a tsunami, a revolt against conventional thinking and political small-mindedness. The election, which gave the new party leader a gigantic mandate, was a real celebration of political enthusiasm. Yet Corbyn's campaign suffered from a subtle contradiction. Jeremy Corbyn was the man of principle, of faith, of clarity. But at the same time he was a gatherer, merely a faithful servant who humbly offered to serve that great movement whose will he now had the honor to carry out.
But what exactly is this will? His own? Resolutions from party meetings? The mood of a demonstration or an online campaign? In addition, not all decisions can be postponed until the will of the movement has become known. Every personnel decision, every public appearance has consequences. Does Corbyn want Britain to have a nuclear force? Does he want the Labor Party to stand unconditionally for British EU membership? Does he reject limits on immigration? How does he intend to prevent tax evasion and avoidance?
So far, Corbyn has replied that he will simply be the instrument of a great democratic movement. It doesn't matter what he thinks. What matters is what the movement decides. Realized as a strategy, this would mean that those who control the machinery of the movement also determine its fate. Once upon a time, Corbyn was a fan of internal pre-arrangement and wing building. Today he is no longer. There are others who do these tasks with skill and care. In the digital age, even the tasks themselves have changed. Some of the talents in this field share Corbyn's principles, others far less.
If Jeremy Corbyn pledges to serve the movement, he could end up being caught in a machinery of groups and wings vying for rule over committees and campaigns. His defense spokesman, for example, could not refuse to take part in a debate, but might have to fear the defeat of his own position and would therefore avoid a resolution. If he follows this path, Corbyn can only enforce what allows him to enforce forces that he has not mastered. In the best case scenario, he will preside over a precarious peace until at some point he is too weak to prevent his deposition. In the worst case scenario, the party will fly around his ears beforehand.
Corbyn's own agenda is bizarre
So maybe Corbyn has to do it himself to lead. He won his party's mandate to make big changes. He ended the existing consensus. He broke the old framework. He ended the triumphant era of New Labor and the years of the nervous, faint-hearted successor to Tony Blair. Why shouldn't he do tabula rasa with everything and everything? Why shouldn't he confess to the power of his victory?
Corbyn can - quite rightly - derive a clear claim to allegiance from public support for him as a political person. He has every authority to get his agenda through. If he did so, he would simply insist on the principles that have brought him to the top of the party. Even his internal party opponents know that Corbyn could hardly be prevented from turning his popularity into power over the party. So he could push his agenda through - but that would be Jeremy Corbyn's agenda, not a synthesis of all good things.
This leads to the last and most fundamental of all Labor Party's problems - and at this point I will stop discussing options and consequences, even in a seemingly neutral manner. You may disagree completely. For my party, this is definitely the case - in its overwhelming majority. Maybe you're right, and that's no problem at all.
The only thing is: the whole thing is doomed from the start.
Forget my first point, don't bother with questions of competence and skill at all. Just insinuate that Corbyn is indeed the preeminent political operator and inspirational leader that his followers see in him.
Also, ignore my second topic. Just imagine, every internal obstacle is overcome, every battle is won. Either through careful control of the democratic will or through the power of his own mandate, Jeremy Corbyn commits his party to a principled and passionate radical agenda of the left, and with this project he comes before the public.
It will not work. Not because the project is too left-wing or too extreme. It is simply not because it is wrong.
We started with defense policy. The French socialists support NATO. The German Greens have endorsed the use of NATO in Kosovo. But Jeremy Corbyn said that NATO should be dissolved and that the attacks on Serbia were illegal. Now he believes NATO is deliberately provoking Moscow by encircling Russia.
Leaving or dissolving NATO or limiting protection for our Eastern European partners - that is quite simply a bad idea. Nothing else.
And how does Corbyn intend to finance his plans? Even on this most basic of all questions, Corbyn takes refuge in either the fantasy of tax loopholes or the idiocy of unproblematic money printed at the behest of politicians. How often has something like this turned out well?
The best of his followers do not accept either of these options. Instead, they advocate a combination of higher spending, higher taxes, and higher borrowing. British voters have already rejected such a Labor program twice. They didn't really care how many Nobel Prize winners supported us. For them it's about competence, not ideology. Corbyn chose the fantasy option because he knows that the realistic and expensive version of his radicalism would fail the electorate. Even if he were to win with such a program due to some bizarre circumstances, we would either have to give it up like Mitterrand and Tsipras - or we would fail at the beginning.
The whole construction will collapse
Of course, some of our offerings will be popular and useful - in every major political failure there is still something to admire. There are ideas worth saving and from which we can learn. But the whole construction will collapse. She is simply unable to carry the hopes placed in her.
In my view, therefore, it would be best for the Labor Party if the first or second problem were to overwhelm Jeremy Corbyn. In that case, at least we'd never have to deal with the third one.
I might be wrong. I hope so, because if I am right then it is simply that the progress of social democracy cannot succeed under a gentle, kind man whose conviction that the memory of water molecules can cure diseases, nor to his less controversial views counts.
And since I could be wrong, maybe I should find a somehow cheerful ending. So: we all perish. Our life is a meaningless speck of dust. Let's relax! Because none of this really matters.
Translated from the English by Tobias Dürr
We would like to thank the Policy Network London for the kind permission to reprint.
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