Two-and-a-half years after being elected, he’s finally acting like a leader
Something has happened to Jeremy Corbyn; something which few would have thought possible, never mind expected a year ago: he has become comfortable doing the job expected of a party leader. Indeed, more than that: he has become confident in the role.
Part of that is, of course, a consequence of the general election – but it’s only a part. Sure, he revelled then in addressing mass rallies, in getting out on the stump and firing up the believers but that was bread-and-butter politics to him: it’s what he’s always done. The bigger change came after polling day, not in the run-up to it.
That change is that he’s finally got serious about being Leader of the Opposition, something best exemplified this week by Labour’s change of policy on the Customs Union. That policy shift wasn’t too difficult for Corbyn – most of his Party want it and it’s not vitally important to him – but the key thing is not that he’s thrown his centrist members some red meat (though that of itself is noteworthy), but that the reason it’s happened – or at least, happened now – is because he wants to cause maximum damage to the government by inflicting a critical defeat in the Commons.
Of course, one reason why he’s able to lead much more confidently, and why he’s able to make greater use of parliament, is because his MPs are following him. Back in 2015-17, he made a virtue of the necessity of his extra-parliamentary campaigning in part because he genuinely believed in direct politics but mainly because four-fifths of the PLP opposed him and so he couldn’t use the Commons effectively. Not that his tactics there helped him but there too, decisions have changed. We’ve not heard questions submitted by Brenda from Barnsley at PMQs recently; Corbyn has recognised that LotO’s past have used their questions as they did for good reason.
Now, however, his backbenchers are quiescent. Some, no doubt, have genuinely given him a second chance (or a first one), while the absence of other critical voices is down to more tactical considerations. All the same, for the first time these last four months, Corbyn has enjoyed the clear support of the membership, the NEC, the PLP and the Shadow Cabinet – and it shows. He speaks and acts like someone who knows he’ll lead his party for years to come (in which he might or might not be right).
Which is not something that can be said for Theresa May. She can’t know if she’ll lead her party to the end of the month, never mind 2022. Trying to find a Brexit solution that satisfies hardline Eurosceptics, keen ex-Remainers, the DUP, Brussels, Dublin and many other players inevitably means that the government isn’t making much progress on the central issue of the day, and that she has little time for anything else. Were he Prime Minister, Corbyn would face a similar problem but he’s not and as such, can advocate his own cake-and-eat-it plans without being called out to anything like the same extent.
In truth, he shouldn’t be quite as confident as he appears, nor should he be given quite such a clear ride. Against a government that’s divided and led by a weak PM, which is still imposing painful spending restraint, and which has presided over a difficult winter in the NHS, Labour should be a lot more than a point or two clear in the polls. In normal circumstances, an opposition fighting a government with those problems could look to make solid local election gains; instead, outside London, the Tories and Labour could well both end up with net gains. Labour’s failure to erode the Tory vote share to below 40 is as good an indicator as any as to the limits of Corbyn’s success.
Even so, the new politically-flexible Corbyn is a significant departure from the old one and all the more formidable for it. If the Tories want to win properly next time, it’s him they’ll have to take on and defeat, not the echo from the 1980s.
p.s. The news that Jon Lansman intends to seek Labour’s General Secretaryship marks both the first breach in Corbyn’s electoral machine and also an intriguing further step in Lansman’s own advance through the movement. In truth, Lansman shouldn’t win and may not see a candidature through. He is unlikely to have anything close to the support needed in Labour’s highest ranks to make his bid stick. However, the fact that he is opposing the preferred candidate of Corbyn and McDonnell shouldn’t be ignored: Momentum and Lansman are breaking out from Corbyn’s shadow – but to whose benefit and to what end?