Despite relentless hounding from the press, the spirit of Corbynism lives on, and Labour’s deselection of the Islington North MP will be at the party’s peril.
No other politician in the UK has faced the volume of smear that Jeremy Corbyn has. In 2016 – the height of Corbyn ‘panic’ peddled by the mainstream media – 75% of the press coverage misrepresented the then Labour leader, with more than half of news articles about him being of a critical or antagonistic tone.
Seven years on, and the Tory press is still intent on disparaging the MP, using him as bait, not only to stir up trouble among the Labour Party ranks, but to depict socialism as a dirty word.
The latest Corbyn-smear was made on February 13, when the Sunday Times reported that the Labour Party is preparing to deselect Jeremy Corbyn and replace him with a new candidate ahead of the next general election. The report contends that discussions have been held at the top of the party about how to oust the former Labour leader from Islington North – a seat he has held since 1983.
Corbyn has been an independent MP since October 2020, after having the whip removed for saying allegations of antisemitism in Labour under his leadership had been “dramatically overstated.”
It is believed that Corbyn is committed to standing at the next general election, either as an independent or for Labour. According to the Times, a source close to Keir Starmer had said there was “no chance” the Labour leader would bring back Corbyn, and that his time in the Labour Party was “effectively over.”
The current Labour Party calculation is that the only way to win back the seats lost in the 2019 general election is by creating as much space between themselves and Corbyn and his allies as possible.
The Tory media echoes a similar sentiment. Following revelations over the weekend that Labour is preparing to oust Corbyn, the Telegraph reported on how ‘deselecting Jeremy Corbyn could save the Labour Party.’
The report’s author, Tom Harris – a former Labour MP and a “self-confessed Blairite” – contends that the former leader is gifting Keir Starmer the perfect opportunity to restore pragmatism and clarity to his movement.
Harris writes that if Starmer “holds the line”, we could see a “new Labour Party, supported and funded by fewer trade unions, emerging from the wreckage of Corbynism.”
While it might be seen as inevitable that the Labour Party would move to deselect Jeremy Corbyn, as it would be untenable if he was the official candidate in Islington North while still denied the whip in Parliament, any move to officially block him from being a Labour candidate is likely to initiate a huge backlash among Corbyn supporters.
What Harris refers to as the ‘wreckage of Corbynism’ is going nowhere, and Labour’s fight against ‘Corbynism’ – the term coined to describe the powerful leftist ideology that Corbyn preached, namely opposition to war and privatisation, and a commitment to democratic socialism – is far from over and is likely to escalate following an official deselection of Corbyn from the party.
I was proud to be at the heart of the Corbyn movement, which I understood as being centred on a socialist philosophy that everyone should care for everyone else. I was one of the influx of 320,000 people who joined the Labour Party in the year after Corbyn was elected as leader in 2015.
Corbyn’s promise to make Labour the ‘party of equality’ by doing more to tackle homelessness and improve public services like the NHS that have been deteriorating under Tory-imposed austerity for years, struck a chord with younger generations and people who had traditionally been disengaged with the same old elitist politicians and polices.
In his leadership victory speech, Corbyn himself suggested that disengaged young people, written off as a ‘non-political generation’ by political parties, were drawn to his campaign by the promise of a new and more inclusive style of politics.
The movement Corbyn awakened lives on, and the former Labour leader’s ‘youthquake’ and desire for policies to build a fairer society haven’t disappeared.
Following Starmer’s election as leader in April 2020 and Corbyn’s suspension over the antisemitism row, Labour Party membership numbers fell by around 250 a day, with supporters of Corbyn leading an “exodus from the party.”
For millennials and generation Z’ers who, as research shows, identify corruption, unemployment and poverty as leading concerns and think cynically about war and conflict, exiling peace-loving Corbyn from Labour is likely to alienate younger generations from supporting Labour.
In response to the UK government’s statement on Russia, Corbyn, a longstanding anti-war and anti-nuclear activist, said: “Any war on the border between Russia and the Ukraine will be a disaster for peace across all of the continent of Europe.”
The right-wing Express leapt on Corbyn’s comments made during a livestream titled ‘No War in Ukraine: Stop NATO Expansion,” stirring up hatred towards the 72-year-old MP, accusing him of “sparking fury after blaming UK and US for provoking Russia in Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, Starmer is accused of “beating the drums of war”, writing in the Telegraph that Britain must “stand firm against Russian aggression.”
By joining in the warmongering over Ukraine and doing what politicians often do – fighting the last election – and with little evidence that Labour, under Starmer, has the deep, transformative solutions that Corbyn promised as leader that generated voter enthusiasm among the politically disengaged, Labour is losing support.
The Daily Mail – one of the right-wing newspapers that was quick to jump on the story of Labour preparing to oust Corbyn – is right when it says, “any effort to formerly block him [Corbyn] from being a Labour candidate would trigger an almighty row with his supporters who remain on the backbenches, as well as thousands of grassroots hard left activists.”
What the Mail fails to touch upon are the voters who might not consider themselves as “hard left” but agree with Corbyn’s principles to make society fairer, particularly younger generations.
Like those represented on a YouGov poll that shows Corbyn remains the most popular Labour leader among Labour voters – by a long way.
Starmer’s commitment to be seen to be doing something to differentiate himself from Corbyn in order to rebuild acceptability to some sections of the electorate – namely the ones that Labour had lost to the Tories in the 2019 general election – feeds into the Labour-right narrative that the British people will never elect a Labour government committed to radical change.
What gets forgotten is that they did so in 1945, again in 1964, and again in 2017, when Corbyn secured the biggest swing to Labour since 1997. Even the so-called ‘disaster’ in 2019 delivered more Labour votes than Gordon Brown did in 2010.
Projecting an image of managerial competence might see Starmer go a long way when up against an incompetent like Boris Johnson, but without policies that will transform people’s lives, Starmer is electorally rudderless.
A move to deselect Corbyn won’t just put Labour on a collision course with Unite – Labour’s biggest funder, which has already reduced its financial commitment to the party after Starmer took over as leader – but it will alienate those who felt energised by a movement for real change and equality.
In its latest Corbyn-smear, the Telegraph describes Corbyn as being too much of a narcissist to retire.
Indeed, Corbyn – the man who as leader helped make the Labour Party the largest political party in Europe – is unlikely to retire following deselection from Labour. He is too intent on offering the transformational change the country needs.
His supporters on the other hand could be going somewhere – abandoning their support of Labour in favour of a manifesto that promises to tackle prejudice, promote peace, and achieve greater equality.
Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a journalist and editor based in Manchester. Follow her on Twitter @GabsP78.