Fishing for excuses: why Corbynism really failed.

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Labour Party conference, just a few weeks before the biggest defeat since 1935

You may know Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s former head of policy, for his dramatic resignation two months before the 2019 General Election and the ‘leaked’ memo which excoriated the dysfunction at the heart of the Corbyn campaign and predicted its defeat. Somehow a widely distributed memo found its way into the hands of political correspondents. Who knows how these things happen?

You may also know Fisher from when he was suspended from Labour for publicly backing Jonathon Bigger, the Class War candidate standing against Labour’s Emily Benn in Croydon South in the 2015 general election (he got 65 votes) and for advocating support for the Greens in the 2010 general election. Fisher, who claims he was misunderstood, is not the first public school boy (Brighton College) to support Class War, or the Green Party, but he is the first head of Labour policy to do so.

He has written a long piece about why Labour lost the 2019 election. Whenever the Corbynistas break for cover to attempt a think piece, it always worth a close read, for what it reveals about their thinking, internal dynamics, and their attack lines in the battles ahead.

He attempts to analyse ‘a four-and-a-half-year period (from June 2015 to December 2019) when socialism advanced and then receded.’ How, exactly did socialism advance in this period? The Conservatives were in office the entire time. In June 2015 there were 232 Labour MPs; in December 2019 there were 202. In the European elections, Corbyn’s Labour came third, with 13.6% of the national vote. The period saw poverty, crime and homelessness increase, and investment in the public services decrease. Genuine question: how is Mr Fisher measuring ‘socialism’ to be able to claim it ‘advanced’? I do hope he’s not measuring it in terms of his faction winning internal elections and stitching up parliamentary seats.

As has been thoroughly discussed, central to the Corbynite narrative is that Labour’s cataclysmic defeat in 2019 was not because of the leadership, manifesto, spokespeople, advertising, slogans, policies or strategy of the Labour Party, all of which was under the firm control of Corbyn supporters, but because of a shadowy conspiracy of saboteurs on the party payroll operating from the London Labour Party’s offices.

He says ‘in 2017, Labour came within a whisker of squeaking into government despite huge internal sabotage from some of its own politicians and some of its own senior staff’. A ‘whisker’, also known as 55 seats and three-quarters of a million votes behind May’s Tories. This story of sneaky saboteurs, while compelling and convenient, has been comprehensively debunked as nonsense on stilts.

Mr Fisher is a bright chap — he went to Cambridge after all — and knows the ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth is built on sand. So he starts to shift blame away from the targets identified in the ‘Labour Leaks’ report (another ‘internal document’ which somehow got into the press), currently under investigation by Martin Forde QC:

‘Whatever truth the Forde inquiry finds about the actions of senior staff exposed by the leaked report, the reality is that Labour MPs inflicted far greater sabotage in the period prior to the 2017 election.’

We can expect to see more of this blame-shifting once Forde reports.

Another central component of the Corbynite narrative is that the Labour Governments after 1997 were no better than Conservative Governments. They were both ‘neo-liberal’, you see, and therefore the same. Fisher says ‘New Labour won electoral success on the back of the groundwork done by John Smith, but it never really converted the party grassroots’. Note the barely concealed disdain for ‘electoral success’ and the USSR-style airbrushing of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from the picture, like they never existed.

By the way, John Smith was very clear in his attitude towards Corbyn’s brand of politics. The claim that Blair and Brown ‘never really converted the grassroots’ is laughable, as anyone around at the time will attest. Membership shot up once Blair became leader, and the Road to the Manifesto document was endorsed overwhelmingly by party members in a national vote. I don’t remember Jeremy Corbyn giving me a vote on his manifestoes.

Fisher lobs in quotes from Marx, Gramsci and Crosman to give heft to his argument. It was Marx, of course, who misquoted Hegel in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by saying ‘all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce which serves as a near-perfect description of the relationship of the Corbyn leadership and the Bennite insurgency of 40 years earlier.

And as for Gramsci? Fisher quotes the familiar lines from Prison Notebooks that ‘the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born’ but strangely leaves out the second half of the quote — that ‘a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’ which again serves as a perfect description of the last five years, from the weird chanting, shrines and knitted dolls, to the rampant antisemitism.

Mr Fisher describes Corbynism as an ‘attempt to birth that new order’. Seasoned old hands might get that the ‘new order’ is the L’Ordine Nuovo of the Italian communists in the 1920s, but given the current investigation by the EHRC perhaps it wasn’t the wisest of phrases to use.

Fisher is honest enough to admit that Corbyn’s presence on the ballot paper in 2015 was because ‘allies begged nominations to scrape on to the ballot’ and mostly they regretted it. It remains a mystery why someone in an institution for over 40 years, who never had to take an unpopular decision, had so few friends and supporters amongst his colleagues.

Fisher then says he ‘not only won the Labour leadership, but won it by a landslide’. Well, he won 59% of the vote, meaning that four out of ten people voting in the leadership election voted for someone else. Hardly a landslide. And as Fisher helpfully admits ‘During the leadership election, support was drawn from the People’s Assembly — which mobilised a 200,000-strong march in late June 2015; from the Stop the War movement, and the Palestine solidarity movement’. In other words, Corbyn was elected by non-Labour activists and entrists who joined just to support him (perhaps from Class War or the Greens), not by the longstanding Labour membership. Many of these new arrivals have since left, despite pleas for them to stay. The entrists have been replaced by centrists.

And what of the Corbynista triumph of 2017, the cause of so much rejoicing and nostalgia, when Labour lost the general election but not as badly as they thought they would? Fisher says this defeat-as-victory was because: ‘Labour rammed home a simple message, For the Many Not the Few, and illustrated it with three core messages that fitted within that frame, and had mass public appeal: we’ll invest in your public services, we’ll increase taxes on the corporations and richest to pay for it, and we’ll take into public ownership services that should never have been privatised to stop the rich ripping you off.’

If this is true, why didn’t it work in 2019, when Labour made an identical offer? Why did Labour lose millions of votes and 60 seats, including ones held for decades, like Bolsover, Don Valley, Great Grimsby, Sedgefield, and Wakefield? Why is the legacy of Corbynism a raft of Labour seats like Bedford, Coventry NW, Coventry S, Dagenham & Rainham, Weaver Vale and Wansbeck with majorities under 1000?

The reality is one which Mr Fisher cannot or will not accept: that Corbyn’s two defeats were not due to Brexit, ‘structural issues’, sabotage or Rupert Murdoch. They were due to the kind of incompetence laid bare in the new book Left Out, the schisms between rival brands of far-left and hard-left factions, the cloth-eared inability to hear what the electorate was saying about Corbynism through opinion polls and in real elections, and because of Jeremy Corbyn himself. His character flaws, his past affiliations, his instincts and values, his appointments to his top team, his abilities to conduct basic communication with the electorate and his lack of relevant experience.

Most of all, though, the failure was because of the policies, the strategy and the ideology of the people who found themselves in temporary charge of the Labour Party, like Homer Simpson in charge of the Springfield nuclear plant pushing buttons until the whole thing melts down. Corbyn may have gone, but the people who thought he would bring in socialism are still there, unrepentant, unaware, and as wrong next time as they were last time.

Paul Richards is a writer-for-hire.

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