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Oh Snap

The Snap Election Won't Bury Corbyn Like You Think

If we assume Labour takes a pasting, why would that mean the end of JC?
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his home in north London, before attending the Prime Minister's Questions. (John Stillwell/PA Wire/PA Images)

The idea of a general election at this point fills most British left wingers with horror. The prospect of it: the Conservatives with a 20 percent lead heading to a parliamentary supermajority, Labour on 25 percent of the vote, reduced to 166 seats on a uniform swing. This would be 1997 in reverse.

You'd think this was the end for Jeremy Corbyn. Surely, after a mauling like that, Labour's old guard, led by Tom Watson, would finally make good their various botched attempts to get rid of him. They must, surely, be welcoming this gift from Theresa May. They must be readying a string of resignations and public calls not to vote Labour.


If they are, they're wrong to be. Labour will certainly be broken as an effective opposition by defeat, but getting rid of Corbyn will be a lot harder than they think, and it won't solve their problem. Their problem, in short, is that they have no answers. It isn't even clear that they understand the question.

Before getting to that, it is important to recognise just how bad Labour's electoral situation is. Some of Corbyn's supporters might be tempted to say they distrust the polls – that polls are an imperfect snapshot of raw material in flux. However, they're rarely so wrong as to erroneously award a 20 percent lead to the party in government.

WATCH: Jeremy Corbyn – The Outsider

Many will point out that public support for many of Corbyn's ideas is there. This is no surprise. The social-democratic reflexes of the British public remain strong despite the Thatcher and Blair years. But Corbyn's difficulties have never been about his policies, and the conversation in the media will not be about those policies. In Labour's modern history, any leader trying to change the balance of wealth and power even slightly, from Neil Kinnock to Ed Miliband, has been ritually slaughtered. It will be hard to get the policies heard over the 24-hour blare of hate.

Some will point out that even good polling cannot anticipate the work that half a million Labour members can do. Sure, this is the biggest campaigning force Labour has had since the late 70s. It might even be a larger membership than Labour has ever had, since prior to 1978 the figures were systematically inflated. But even if the totality of this mass is mobilised – in a way that so far it mostly has not been – it would do well to keep most of Labour's existing seats. Ed Miliband bragged that "four million conversations" would change the political landscape: it didn't shift Labour's vote a jot. This is because the minute-long doorstep conversations on an election campaign aren't remotely sufficient to shift opinions formed over months or years.


It's also true that the current political situation is unusually volatile. The breakdown of established verities in parliamentary democracies is why Corbyn became Labour leader in the first place. The fact that the odds are stacked against him, again, is not the guarantee that it once was. In any case, most caveats about Labour's poor situation accentuate what might change: affirming, in other words, that the situation is awful.

"What are Corbyn's Labour critics actually expecting will happen?"

With all due caveats – allowing that Corbyn might defy the odds, that Britain is not the predictable place it used to be – let's assume that Labour loses badly. What are Corbyn's Labour critics actually expecting will happen? That the membership which has largely joined to support Corbyn will thank them for having enthusiastically, and with grave-dancing anticipation, helped bring this disaster about? That it will be forgotten that a huge part of Labour's current electoral woes derive from the catastrophic self-injury inflicted on the party by its putschists in the Brexit aftermath? Even if the attacks on Corbyn – some coming from figures on the left – persuaded Labour members, how will that make Yvette Cooper suddenly loveable to them?

Let me put it like this: Corbyn was elected for one primary reason – because every possible alternative had been tried, failed and was exhausted. It wasn't that this or that leader had failed. It wasn't that this or that policy had failed. It was that social democracy was visibly in crisis – not just in Britain, but everywhere across Europe. If you think Labour's polling is bad, look to the continent: Pasok, Dutch Labour, the French Socialists, one devastation after another. To which one would have to add Scottish Labour, now a moribund force if ever there was one.

The Labour Party that elected Corbyn in 2015, and again in 2016, was not just a party with a poor vote. It was a party whose purpose was in question. It was no longer clear what social democracy could offer in an age of austerity and low growth. Corbyn's answer was that it should shift modestly left, support investment and redistribution, and try to build social movements. His opponents may not like his answer, but at least he has one; they don't. What's more, he won, they lost. That's why, in the last coup, they didn't even dare articulate a major policy disagreement with him. What will they have this time round? A bad election defeat will hurt Corbyn and damage Labour, but it won't necessarily help them.

Short of a more effectual coup, Corbyn and his enemies are stuck with each other – neither being about to leave Labour. The first question, then, is do Corbyn's would-be gravediggers want to be locked in a spiral of self-destructive war that, even if successful, would destroy the party they want to win? The second question is: if not just the status quo with red rosettes, what are you actually for?