The Labour Party have announced that in the new year, there will be a Jeremy Corbyn “re-launch”, one positing him as a “left-wing populist”. The first thing to say is that, ironic given the content, this story is so achingly Corbyn era Labour in its design it hurts: telling the Guardian you’ll be doing something you haven’t done yet but surely will do soon enough in the hopes that if and when you do come around to doing the thing in question the Guardian at the very least notices.
But now let’s seriously debate the issue this announcement raises: can Corbyn ride the wave of anti-establishment feeling currently doing the rounds, thereby restoring Labour’s popularity? The answer is definitely not – but the answers as to why that is the case are important in several ways that are key to the future of the Left and indeed, politics overall.
Before you get into the more intellectual problems, there is the personality of Corbyn himself to consider. Look at populists who have succeeded in politics and then gaze again at Jeremy and a pattern becomes clear. Things that Farage, Trump, Grillo, even Bernie Sanders have in common: a real fire in their bellies that comes across instantly; an ability to not only identify what gets people angry but why precisely they are angry about these things; a shouty, rallying way of speaking, both at mass events and on television; a way of coming across as truly empathetic towards working people. Corbyn has none of these qualities in any regard whatsoever. He always seems a strange mixture of bored and grouchy whenever he has to come into contact with anyone who isn’t a gushing acolyte; successful populists always are able to turn any attack into a victory by playing the victim without seeming weak. Corbyn only likes playing to his natural constituency, which is much smaller than he deludes himself that it is; this is the very anthesis of populism.
In regard to policy, it should be noted how much The Left likes to cherry pick the things they support that are popular – rail renationalisation, better funded public services, an improved NHS – while ignoring completely the fact that other, core portions of their programme are wildly unpopular – pro-immigration, identity politics, strident anti-patriotism, a pacifist oriented foreign policy. The point here being that even if Corbyn could become a firebrand, Bernie-style political warrior, the things for which he would be shouting wouldn’t be popular. If he wants to become a populist, Corbyn needs a totally new agenda. He won’t adopt one and even he did, it wouldn’t be credible; everyone gets what he stands for already.
Jon Trickett is mentioned as the architect of this attempt at a Corbyn rebrand. Years ago, Jon used to wheel out a presentation about the long term weaknesses in regards to the ability of the Conservatives to keep their electoral big tent upright enough to win a parliamentary majority. It’s a shame he can’t spot the weaknesses in his own side’s ability to do so these days.