Neither media pundits nor Labour Party MPs can make up their mind about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. He was criticised for focusing on the May local and national elections, while David Cameron campaigned for the remain cause and gave the impression that it was purely a Conservative Party concern. When Corbyn entered the referendum campaign it was in fact that day before the official campaign period began on 15 April 2016 (Cameron had been campaigning since 20 February). After the referendum was won for leave the pro-remain media and the pro-remain majority among Labour MPs decided that it was all Corbyn's fault. Most of his shadow cabinet resigned, the Parliamentary Labour Party gave him a resounding vote of no confidence and Owen Smith fought an unsuccessful leadership campaign against him. While the trigger was remainer anger at the referendum defeat the official reason for the attempted coup was that Corbyn was unelectable. When he did so well in the June 2017 general election that he deprived the Conservatives of a majority that argument was shot to pieces.
Corbyn's supposed unelectability is not the only myth that needs challenging. The post-result verdict on his half-hearted campaigning and stating that he was only seven out of ten in favour of the EU. At the time his critical stance was deemed to be just what the remain campaign needed to win over Labour voters. The constant media reminders that Corbyn entered parliament under the 1983 Labour manifesto that promised a departure from the EU would have jogged the memories of many an older Labour voter that it was not until the late 1980s that the Labour Party was broadly in favour of the EU. Corbyn stood for the 21st century Labour mindset that had rejected both the aim to leave the EU and the untrammelled love of the bloc espoused by Tony Blair. A ten out of ten Labour leader had not hope of persuading the former Labour voters to returned to the polling booths for the first time in years to vote for the Brexit that the 1983 Labour manifesto had promised, but due to a heavy defeat in the general election had failed to deliver.
Corbyn has been torn since the referendum result between accepting the result that many former Labour voters supported and the dismay at the prospect of Brexit felt by many of Labour's current voters. That split viewpoint probably helped Labour to win back voters in Brexit dominant constituencies while gaining new voters in remain constituencies. Since the general election Corbyn has taken a back-seat and allowed his Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer take the party in a more definite position of opposing the type of Brexit being pursued by the government. Labour would relish the Brexit process dragging on so long that they get to fight another general election in which they can again pick up anti-Brexit votes. Although the diehard anti-Corbyn Labour MPs may not be so keen as it would lead to their hard-left nemesis becoming the first Labour prime minister since 2010.
To understand the revolt against Corbyn it is important to go back to the 2015 general election when Labour did far worse than expected and party leader Ed Miliband resigned. That triggered the first leadership election under the new rules that he had set up. Those rules had been designed after complaints about undue trade union influence in selecting a parliamentary candidate for the Falkirk by-election., although a subsequent investigation did not find any malpractice in the Falkirk selection process. The successor to Miliband as leader would be elected on a one member one vote system with an electorate of party members, affiliate trades union members, and those who paid three pounds to be a voting supporter.
The nominations for leadership candidates was shaping up to be a collection of those from the right-wing of the party until at the last minute some from the right signed nomination papers for Jeremy Corbyn to enable the veteran left-winger to stand and give some balance to the campaign. As David Cameron would later discover in the EU referendum once you give the people the vote you cannot control how they use it. Corbyn won the election by a landslide as the party showed what it thought of the previous three decades of right-wing dominance of the leadership.
The problem that Corbyn faced was that nearly all of the MPs represented the right-wing that the party seemed to want to move away from. Instead the Parliamentary Labour Party quickly moved away from him. Briefings to the media made it clear that Corbyn was being given the benefit of the doubt for a brief period of time so that the elections to English local councils, London Mayoralty, Welsh Assembly, and Scottish Parliament could take place. When Cameron announced that the EU referendum would take place a month after those elections then Corbyn's time on approval had to be extended. It lasted no longer than that and the plot to remove him as leader was implemented three days after the electorate voted to leave the EU.
The initial reason given by the plotters was that Corbyn had failed to persuade enough Labour voters to support the partyís official stance in the referendum and so was bound to do badly if the new Conservative leader was to call a snap general election. That claim later fell by the wayside, not least because the first to officially challenge for the leadership, Angela Eagle, had praised the sixty-seven-year-old leader during the referendum for campaigning with the gusto of a twenty-five-year-old. There appears to be no chance of Theresa May calling a general election before the prescribed date of May 2020 and instead the conclusion is that this is not about Corbyn, but about whether the Labour Party has any purpose when its parliamentarians are at odds with the majority of those seeking a non Conservative government.
One of the chief charges against Corbyn was that he had been a half-hearted campaigner for the remain cause. Had the charge been a half-time campaigner the charge would have had more merit, because Corbyn concentrated on the local, devolved, and mayoral elections until after 5 May 2016. Corbyn's first major speech on the referendum was on 14 April, which was the day before before the campaign officially began, even though David Cameron had been campaigning since his return from the renegotiations with the European Council on 20 February. Many Labour supporters criticised their MPs for launching a coup at a time when they should have been dealing with the fall out from the Brexit vote and taking advantage of the Conservative disarray in the wake of David Cameron's resignation as prime minister. In reality the coup had been brewing ever since Corbyn was elected leader, with MPs briefing that they would move against him if the elections did not go well, but would give him a chance to use his popular appeal to win the Labour left wing towards a remain vote. The elections were not as bad for Labour as some had predicted and so the referendum took on a larger role as the proclaimed reason why Corbyn must be deposed. The strength and speed of the move against him after the referendum result suggests, however, that there may have been an element of the anti-Corbyn faction worrying that their plotting had lead to the leave victories in Labour's working class heartlands outside London.
Corbyn had not been enthusiastic about standing for the Labour leadership in 2015, but it was impressed upon him that there needed to be a candidate from the left of the party, which was very much in the minority after the centre left had dominated during the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years. It was only at the last minute that Corbyn received the necessary number of nominations from his parliamentary colleagues in order to stand, but during the leadership campaign he drew large crowds and ending up winning by a landslide. The irony was that Corbyn was seen as the first of the unexpected popular surges the saw the socialist Bernie Sanders run Hillary Clinton close in the battle for the Democratic nomination for the presidential election, the British electorate vote to leave the European Union, and Donald Trump win the presidential election. It was odd because Corbyn was campaigning for a remain vote, although he shared with Sanders the ability to energise young activists to support him.
Corbyn was a late convert to the EU and was first elected to parliament in 1983 under Michael Foot's manifesto that called for a British departure from the European Union. Corbyn continued for many years to oppose the European Union as a capitalist club that did not have workers' interests at its heart. He stated that he would vote to leave the European Union if it was to impose free trade ideas on the whole bloc, but as leader changed to supporting staying in and undoing any dangerous developments in Cameron's renegotiations. During the referendum campaign it was argued that Corbyn was the perfect foil to David Cameron and George Osborne's very establishment-based remain campaigning, in that Corbyn could speak authentically to those who had reservations about the European Union. Despite what the Parliamentary Labour Party claimed in launching the coup Labour voters appear to have overwhelmingly voted remain. The large vote in remain areas was due more to those who had not voted for years plus eurosceptic Conservatives. In fact, the Labour leave vote according to some polls was no higher than that of Scottish National Party voters, although admittedly prior to 2015 many of them were Labour voters. As the coup progressed the referendum issue slipped into the background, but during the 2016 leadership campaign Owen Smith sought to win the backing of remain voters by calling for a second referendum before leaving the European Union. Corbyn won the 2016 leadership election with a slightly larger percentage than in 2015 (62% rather than 60%), but with a narrower margin of victory due to only facing one candidate in 2016 as opposed to three in 2015.
Although this unsuccessful leadership coup took place after the referendum it is important due to the speed at which it was launched after the vote to leave. It is unlikely that such a coup would take place just because Labour MPs were upset at the country voting to leave the European Union. It was more likely that it was something long planned and therefore many of those Labour MPs may have been wishing Corbyn to fail, but miscalculated their presumption that the remain campaign would win the election anyway. It was not until 7 June that the Labour shadow cabinet voted to authorise Labour MPs to return to their constituencies to shore up the failing remain campaign outside London. That probably reflected more the way in which Cameron's non-referendum strategy had failed. One possible reason for the referendum campaign taking place during the run up to the 5 May elections was to harm Labourís electoral chances, but instead Corbyn focused on those elections and it was the remain campaign that suffered the consequences.
© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved