The stage is now set for a vicious battle over Labour’s future, between Corbyn’s left-wing followers and the remnants of the previous, center-left iteration of the party. Socialists against social democrats. Did Corbyn merely fail this time—or has this result discredited Corbynism as an idea? Is it enough to remove the man, or must the party also reject his ideology?
Corbyn’s defenders are already out in force, blaming the defeat solely on Brexit—a once-in-a-generation issue the party could not tackle—rather than on the leader. “There is absolutely no appetite to go back to the centrist policies of old,” Laura Parker, the national coordinator of Momentum, a campaign group founded to support Corbyn’s leadership, said after the exit poll. “We will keep the Labour Party socialist.”
It is true that Brexit has exposed a bitter divide in British politics. We call it Remain versus Leave, but that is also shorthand for city versus town, young versus old, university graduate versus nongraduate, cosmopolitan versus protectionist. Johnson appears to have united the Leave vote behind his party, whereas the Remain side splintered. Voters could choose among Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens, plus Plaid Cymru in Wales and the Scottish National Party in Scotland, all of which backed a second referendum on leaving the European Union. (In Scotland, the nationalists won a landslide, increasing the chances of another referendum over its independence.)
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But really, come on. Much like Labour’s grumbles about Britain’s print media being dominated by the right, its Brexit problem falls into the category of “Okay, but you should have a strategy to address that.” Less than two months ago, the Labour leadership directed its members of Parliament to support triggering a general election while Brexit still hung in the balance, with Britain scheduled to leave the EU on January 31. That meant Johnson was always going to run a campaign based on his exit deal—and the promise that he alone could “get Brexit done.”
Attributing the loss to Brexit neatly avoids the other obvious culprit for Labour’s catastrophe: its leader. Phil Wilson, the former MP for the northern-English constituency of Sedgefield, once held by Tony Blair, called blaming Brexit “mendacious nonsense.” He added: “Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was a bigger problem. To say otherwise is delusional.” Ian Murray, the former Labour MP in Edinburgh, echoed that. “Every door I knocked on, and my team and I spoke to 11,000 people, mentioned Corbyn. Not Brexit but Corbyn.” Former Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson said on live television, “Corbyn was a disaster on the doorstep; everyone knew that he couldn’t lead the working class out of a paper bag.”
Under this analysis, Corbyn is to blame for alienating Labour’s traditional working-class base, and appealing instead to metropolitan liberals. Corbyn himself is solidly middle-class and metropolitan—a teetotal vegetarian who grows marrows and represents a London constituency. His historically unpopular campaign carried strong overtones of piety, as if anyone who did not support it was morally defective. In the election campaign, he promised that schools would critically teach Britain’s colonial past, and his government would seek to atone for British imperialism. He also pledged to allow adults to self-identify their gender, and suggested that the law might legally recognize nonbinary people. Such policies are extremely popular among left-wing accounts on British political Twitter, but perhaps less interesting to swing voters in places such as Redcar, where the steelworks recently shut down under the Tory government, and where voters nevertheless switched from Labour to the Conservatives.