Labour’s problems go way beyond Jeremy Corbyn

Lee Waters says there is a gulf between the Labour Party and the people it was created to represent.

So, the Labour Party is in crisis – plots, rebellions, protests: the whole nine yards.

As a recovering political journalist I feel pretty jaded about the whole thing. Fundamentally, the Labour Party is pretty solid and has been through all this before – several times.

But. And there is a big But. Maybe this time it’s different. I’m not overly bothered by the division between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith – it is the meat and drink of politics, but what does greatly trouble me is the growing divergence between those inside the party and the people we were founded to represent.

Successful political parties reflect the communities they are drawn from. That became very clear to me when I first joined the Labour Party in the mid-90s. In parts of the constituency where the local branch was a good cross-section of the local community we did well; in parts where it wasn’t, we did not.

I’ve spent much of the last 12 months knocking on doors; not just of the doors of people we think we’ll get a reasonable welcome from, but on every door. And the experience has been a salutary one: a worrying number of people who you might expect to look to the Labour Party for an answer to their problems have switched off politics altogether, and too many of those who still have some faith in the political process now look to UKIP.

There are signs of a profound disconnect between our party and ‘our people’ (as we’ve paternalistically called them for too long). We saw the result of that in the EU referendum: 90% of the Labour Party members voted to Remain; But 64% of voters categorised as working class (C2s), and those out of work (DEs), voted to Leave the EU.

This is what should be troubling and pre-occupying us: the chasm between the leaders and the led. And instead of addressing it we’re exacerbating it.

Every political party faces the tension between furthering their own set of core values and responding to public opinion. And that’s where Leadership comes in, to balance these tensions, and persuade people to follow a course of action which honours the values of the party and chimes with the priorities of the electorate.

The modern Labour Party is failing to do that. That was true before Jeremy Corbyn became leader, and it has intensified since. There are complex reasons for this, but they have far-reaching consequences for us as a political movement. But where is the searching debate challenging ourselves to respond to this profound disconnect with our voters? Instead we seem to want to fall back onto certainties. We are increasingly talking to ourselves, while the voters look on in bewilderment.

This is typified by the debate over the leadership. Labour’s problems go way beyond Jeremy Corbyn, but without the right leadership we’ll never be in a position to address them.

In modern politics unless you have a leader who is seen as having the potential to be a credible alternative Prime Minister you are dead in the water.

Though I didn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn, I totally understood his appeal. His opponents were so bland, and symbolised how as a party we had lost our way.

I shared a platform with Jeremy in Burry Port earlier this year and praised the fact that he has re-energised the party, but noted that to bring about change we have to win. Sadly (and I take no pleasure from this) Jeremy Corbyn’s personal poll ratings are disastorous.

He is a polarising figure. He may be popular amongst Labour Party members (56% support him) but the general public appear unmoved by his leadership qualities.

Whilst the polls show that he is seen as more honest than most politicians, when people are asked if Jeremy Corbyn has what it takes to become Prime Minister 68% disagree. He is even less popular than Ed Miliband and Michael Foot were as Labour leaders (and by quite a margin).

These facts cannot be dismissed. And they matter.

Just 76% of people who voted Labour in 2015 say they’d do so again if there was a fresh General Election with Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

His supporters say this is simply a reflection of the fact that Labour MPs haven’t given him a chance, and have been undermining him. Whilst it is true that some MPs refused to serve under him, the majority have respected his mandate and have tried to help him succeed. But an alarming number of them have drawn the conclusion that it won’t work.

Lilian Greenwood is a typical example. By no means a Blairite, she told her local party, more in sorrow than in anger, “I wanted to make it work and I promise you, I tried to make it work. In the 9 months I spent in the Shadow Cabinet I never briefed against Jeremy…But through my own personal, direct experience I know that Jeremy operates in a way that means progress…is impossible. He is not a team player let alone a team leader”.

Similarly my colleague Nia Griffith – who has never said a single negative thing about Jeremy Corbyn to me, even in private – felt it was impossible to carry on in his Shadow Cabinet after getting nowhere in trying to persuade him to come up with a plan to keep the party together.

Even Mr Corbyn’s own economic adviser, Richard Murphy, has described what he saw within the inner sanctum as ‘shambolic’; “there was no policy direction, no messaging, no coordination, no nothing” he said. “ All that I have got so far from the Labour left is a message of what it is opposed to. That’s something. But it’s a long way from being enough” he wrote.

These can’t all be dismissed. These are all people who have tried to work with Jeremy, and even they’ve thrown their hands up in despair.

We are letting the Tories off the hook. The last time a Conservative Government was still ahead 12-18 months after an election was in 1984 during the miners strike. And the Tory fresh start under Theresa May is boosting them further still.

The voters, and his close colleagues, have drawn the same conclusion – for all his merits, and his sincerity, Jeremy Corbyn can’t beat the Tories.

And yet, the more he is attacked, the more his supporters feel vindicated in backing him. People are still joining Labour in their droves to show they believe in him.

There is a gulf between the Labour Party and the people it was created to represent; a gulf between new enthusiastic members and the people who have traditionally supported us; and a gulf between the Leader and the rest of the party in Parliament.

This is a grave moment in the history of the Labour Party. Our new Government is the most right-wing in living memory and they are going to be creating a new settlement for our country outside the EU in the face of an imploding opposition.

We can recover. But to help the people we were created to help we need more than posturing and slogans. The first step is to elect a Leader who can regain our credibility in the eyes of the public, can unite the party in Parliament and can start to put together an ambitious policy vision for healing our society.

I know Owen Smith, he is one of the brightest talents of his generation. He combines a genuine passion to change society, and a rich understanding of our party’s history and mission, with a political sophistication to make the most of our opponents weaknesses.

I don’t agree with him on everything, but I genuinely believe he represents our best chance to reconnect, and re-think our purpose.

Lee Waters is the Welsh Labour & Cooperative AM for Llanelli

15 thoughts on “Labour’s problems go way beyond Jeremy Corbyn

  1. Most ppl who voted for out really did not understand the issues involved. It was a clear example of the lack of relevant information available to ppl and a poll revealed that most graduates voted to stay in.

  2. Interesting analysis but I don’t agree. The biggest disconnect between the Labour Party and ordinary working people comes from divisions created by a largely right-wing media. The misinformation fed before the referendum is almost certainly what swayed large numbers of people to vote, especially on issues such as immigration (issues that are widely misunderstood).

    It doesn’t help when one minute Angela Eagle is saying that Jeremy campaigned tirelessly, with an iternery that would tire a 25 year old but stated that it isn’t helped by the fact it’s not reported in the press. Then a week or so later she said he lead a lack-lustre campaign. One of those statements has to be a blatent lie.

    Even if the perception is that Jeremy’s Remain campaign was half-hearted, Theresa May was accused of the same stance, particualrly towards the end when she appeared go ‘missing’, and yet she was crowned unelected Prime Minister. It obviously didn’t do her any harm!

    And there lies the problem. Instead of being united behind Jeremy and tearing strips of the Tories that were in complete disarray after the Brexit vote, the back biting from the PLP continued. Not only did it continue, it got worse and more underhand.

    The Tories did what Labour couldn’t – they re-grouped and united (albeit farcically) and made Labour look even more of a shambles.

    People believe in Jeremy. I’m pretty sure most Labour members don’t have the same level of faith in loyalty in Owen Smith. In fact if Owen Smith gets elected (by some miracle), then I hope Jeremy goes it alone and takes 100,000s of supporters with him.

    I for one will be with him!

  3. Labour members are doing their bit to promote Jeremy Corbyn, the problems within the Labour party are being caused by you and your like going against the membership and not supporting him, the MPs who are trying to oust him want power at all costs even if it means forsaking labour ideals and values and democracy, what is the point of having labour MPs who will not vote against one of the most draconian tory governments in history

  4. That’s a fair analysis, but I can’t help thinking that the complexity that has engulfed almost all political discourse at Westminster increasingly since 1979 – with the Labour / Conservative Tweedledum / Tweedledee Party resulting in a seamless continuum in the minds of most voters. ‘Its all a big game to these politicians – they don’t mind, they have loadsamoney’. You and I know its not the case, but when a party is seen only in terms of its counterpart – if they say black you say white – then little wonder that the voters don’t consider that you stand for anything else.

    I’m afraid that as an outsider, I see in Owen Smith – clever guy though he undoubtedly is – a contemporary embodiment of paternalistic arrogant Labour – the sort that was purged from Scotland. That pattern falls too easily into the binary approach to politics, and would continue to do so, to everyone’s detriment, not least of which their own.

    Jeremy Corbyn does seem to be a ‘difficult’ man, prickly, unapproachable, slightly sneering, but that appears to be outweighed by his principles and how he sticks to them, something that voters will see as refreshing. Pablo Iglesias he is not, but something of the spirit of Podemos is what Labour needs, I would have thought, and should be struggling now with how to use that to their advantage with the cataclysmic situation that now faces us.

    In Wales, these are revolutionary times. Labour should embrace independence and fight confidently for all of its traditional values in the knowledge that it is the view of the majority of the population. Let the British Empire go hang.

    But it won’t.

  5. What you describe as the disconnect between voters and members in the Labour Party can also be directed at other parties, i.e. all parties are scratching their heads at having failed to read this result. But your closing point comes back to who will save the Labour Party in the short term: Corbyn or Smith? The question for those who are outsiders to the world of politics is not who will win but rather what will happen if Corbyn is re-elected? We will not know the answer to that question until September so a lot can happen during the intervening period.

    But the issue of disconnect deserves much wider consideration than the current difficulties of the Labour Party. Just as one example, did the television debate formats really engage with the voters and cover the issues involved? I cannot remember a single programme where the issues involved were discussed at length and made comprehensible to the viewing public. The prevailing media doctrine appears to be to give the public a chance to sound off and a chance for politicians to express their opinion without having to defend it.

    Watching the most recent edition of Week In, Week Out was an enlightening experience. In essence, people in Wales who have apparently benefited from EU funds feel forgotten. They vote Leave because they felt they had nothing to lose by doing so.

    Let me close with at least one positive idea since it’s very easy to be pessimistic given the problems that Wales now faces after Brexit. I attended a conference a couple of years looking at the economic difficulties facing Wales and its communities. Would it not be possible to have a community improvement fund which would have as its focus the engagement of those living there to decide on what the priorities are? Someone may be able to tell me that such a scheme already exists. But if does, it’s not getting through to those who feel left out of their own society.

  6. By coincident Lee, writing this note from your home town the Sosban (Llanelli) and as I was driving into the town, every bridge was covered in posters “Vote for Jeremy Corbin” and most of the people I talk to here, Swansea, Cardiff and on my patch (North Wales), the vast majority are for the Social Justice and Jeremy Corbin as the party leader.

    Whilst standing for the Assembly elections you shared the platform with Carwyn Jones, Nia Griffith and Leighton Andrews who in my view represent the worst of the tribal politics (Welsh Way) and in politics only for self-interests and an agenda to create a ‘Welsh speaking nation’.

    Time for honesty Lee and long overdue to admit that the Welsh Labour is no longer representative of the true Labour values and its ethos and this fact is slowly getting through to people throughout Wales!

    I have every confidence that Jeremy will retain the party leadership but then what – Are people like you still going to pretend that you represent Labour or are you going to be honest and form a new Y Fro Gymraeg ‘Labour Party’ ?

  7. You state that our government is the most right wing in living memory. This situation started when New Labour lurched to the right claiming to capture the mythical “middle ground” enabling the Tories to edge further right to display their true colours. New Labour attitudes have persisted in the PLP who seem to believe that shadowing the government is to adopt and fine tune Tory policies in the vain hope of appealing to the grassroots Tory voters (a lost cause if ever there was one).
    The only hope for a genuine alternative to right wing government is a party in Parliament that is not afraid to challenge the right wing orthodoxies and convince the electorate that choosing between Tory and
    Labour will not be an “eeny meeny miney mo” exercise between mirror image parties.
    I believe after witnessing the appalling lack of respect from the PLP towards our freely elected leader that the PLP have pandered to the gutter press and done lasting damage to the party. Remember these are the same people who throughout the years since the 2008 banking crash supinely accepted the Tory slur that their spending caused the damage. For me and probably many floating voters, the defining moment before the last election was Ed Milliband being asked by a studio audience member if he could deny that the previous Labour government had overspent. The poor bloke was left floundering for an answer. The impression was that he was afraid to robustly give an honest answer without upsetting the PLP. I feel Owen Smith would do no better than that; and could we really accept a former Pfizer lobbyist as a leader? No thank you!
    Here’s hoping that Jeremy has another resounding vote of confidence from the members and then many of the PLP can decide whether they should stay as wreckers within the party, much like UKIP MEPs in the EU Parliament.

  8. That’s all very well, Graham but unfortunately both yourself and fellow Corbynistas are ignoring the key issue which is Jeremy Corbyn’s ability or inability to demonstrate effective leadership.

    Let me go through the points you make to illustrate what I mean.

    First of all, you complain about the influence of the right-wing media. If you are a politician and serious about winning power then you have to work within the world as you find it. The fact that large sections of the media are sympathetic to the right is no state secret. If you want to win, you have to factor that into your campaigning. That doesn’t mean that you will always win. But moaning about not being reported fairly is another example of how the left paints itself as the victim every time they get something wrong and does not convince those you are trying to persuade that you have the confidence to lead. In terms of campaigning, that means having a media strategy to overcome the difficulties as currently exist. Labour, not just Jeremy, did not seem to have an effective enough plan.

    And in the EU campaign, Jeremy Corbyn could not be accused of not being busy, in terms of occupying his time. But this is not the complaint being made against him. The complaint is that his attitude to the campaign and the tone he struck was half-hearted and uninspiring. Let’s be generous to Jeremy just for a second. When he said he gave the EU 7 out of 10, I believe he was being honest with the voters and he may even have thought that his tone was an accurate reflection of the views of those he was communicating with. So let’s give him 10 out of 10 for honesty. But leadership involves a great deal more that just being honest. You then have to take a position which you believe represents the best interests of the electorate and argue for their support. He did not do this and in his many appearances on television he came over as unpersuaded himself of the case for EU membership. No wonder he failed to persuade his own party supporters to vote with him.

    I would argue there is a good reason for this. Jeremy was not and is not focused on the EU. His agenda is to retain control of the Labour Party as its leader and, should he win, he will resolve the conflict that currently exists between MPs and members by allowing MPs to be deselected by the activists. As long as that agenda is moving forward, he seems to be unconcerned about his ineffective performance at the dispatch box and his lack of appeal to the electorate.

    You make the point about Theresa May’s lack of profile during the EU campaign despite her support for Remain but you miss the key point; Theresa May was not the leader of her party. It was not her responsibility to lead the campaign, it was David Cameron’s. And he cannot be accused of being half-hearted in leading that campaign. There are many things one can accuse David Cameron of in failing to deliver a Remain vote, but lack of commitment is not one of them. In comparison, Jeremy Corbyn looked reluctant at best.

    The other line you take which is often reiterated by Jeremy himself is that you just have to get behind the leader and fight the Tories and everything will be OK. I notice that Jeremy has decided to adopt the persona of a genial Anglican clergyman when dealing with criticism on the media. So he’s no Darth Vader. But his basic line to his fellow MPs when confronted with his shortcomings is, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” However gently put, that is the mentality of a dictator.

    You close by saying that people believe in Jeremy, by which I presume you mean Labour members. And were he in charge of a religious congregation, that would be entirely appropriate. But a political party is not that. It is not primarily a place where the marginalised and forgotten can feel warm, though it can often play that role. A political party and its leader have to persuade those who do not normally vote for them that they can be trusted with power to act in their interests. Jeremy has not done that and does not look like doing so anytime soon.

    I will close by saying this, however. Part of this campaign to unseat Jeremy has been about making him the scapegoat for Labour’s current difficulties which, as Lee points out, started long before Jeremy’s arrival on the scene. Jeremy did not lose the last UK General Election; Jeremy was not responsible for the collapse in support for the Labour Party in Scotland; and Jeremy is not responsible for the break-up of Britain in which the Labour Party invested so heavily as the basis of their politics yet failed to see the ground disappearing from under them. Some still cannot see it. Only last night On This Week, Liz Kendall stated that Labour can win Scotland in 2020. Some never learn apparently.

    It’s not my fight, Graham, and I don’t have a vote so I wish you well with your campaign. But if I were Welsh Labour, currently in government, I can see very little to be gained from getting involved in the implosion that is Westminster Labour politics. There is more to be gained from strengthening the Welsh Assembly and addressing the drop in electorate support they suffered at the last Assembly elections. At least there can be found a credible option of holding on the levers of government, but it will mean a gradual distancing from the politics of Labour in Westminster.

  9. It’s not that Labour CAN’T understand the working class voter (is there a working class?) it’s just that it doesn’t want to. They aren’t alone of course…Leanne Wood, secure in her profound knowledge of the Welsh people, said that they wouldn’t embrace UKIP and its values. Carwyn and Leanne deluded themselves the way that we all do.
    Society has a code of conduct; a liberal belief system for the most part that embraces all those things derived from the Christian religion that make us feel good about ourselves. Jeremy Corbyn embodies the ideal of non aggression and a caring society, a society that makes provision for its less fortunate and less wealthy a primary not secondary consideration. Labour party members embrace those attitudes wholeheartedly and they embrace Jezza along with them.
    Unfortunately we, the Labour voters, have less idealistic viewpoints. I for one am fiercely tribal…I want my side to win although I’m often disappointed with what they do with victory. Nevertheless, when I vote I vote for success at almost any price; I vote to ensure that Conservatives, with their anti-society-devil take the hindmost, selfish view of life, do not get an opportunity to sell off the NHS to shady US “management firms”. I vote to keep democratic control of education not see schools become cash cows for Academy trusts interested only in making a quick profit. In short I vote for Democracy not Autocracy.
    Am I pleased to see my “team” condemn themselves to becoming an idealistic pressure group?
    I bloody well am not!

  10. @J.Jones
    It was the last Labour Government, with what you call an anti-society-devil take the hindmost, selfish view of life that opened the doors to the privatization of various functions of the NHS and created those cash cow Academy schools.
    Were you pleased to see your “team” being a non-idealistic government?

  11. On Thursday Dianne Abbot condemned her fellow Labour MPs for their less than enthusiastic support of their Leader during PMQ`s. This is the same Dianne and the same Jeremy who showed such scant enthusiasm for Neil. Tony, Gordon or Ed. Dianne and Jeremy and their supporters would deny a charge of hypocrisy since they acted according to their principles Clearly exclusive principles which their colleagues lack. Having so may principles leaves little room for judgement and yet governance is almost always about the distinction between shades of grey, rarely between black and white. There were 139 of us as Labour MPs who voted against the Iraq war. Most of us exercised our judgement but a few acted on principle and always voted against military action even when in Kosovo and Sierra Leone it clearly saved lives and brought about peace.
    I agree with Lee; Corbyn`s leadership is more a symptom than the malady. Globalization has many benefits but it is leaving behind much of the traditional working class in the developed world .Everywhere there are leaders from the left and right offering simple answers and crass slogans. Jeremy clearly has enthused many to join the party but as our membership soars it becomes even less representative of those it was created to serve. I hope Owen Smith can convince enough of these to win in September and if he does i hope he has allowed himself room to exercise judgement.

  12. Plea to Lee – we are still Yma o hyd in Wales – let us separate from the English Labour Party and try and save ourselves. If I have learnt one thing from the Remain campaign, it is that the differences with other progressive parties are pretty small, we need to build a broad left coalition in Wales to fight the twin evils of Brexit and a crushing Conservative Government. We must listen to the messages from the EU Referendum, not the least being that voters feel abandoned in many parts of Wales. We need radical regeneration not only in the Valleys but in the many forgotten small towns. Living in one on the border, we have lost 90% of our jobs in the past 20 years, our education system is falling apart, we have qualification levels among adults as bad as the Valleys, parents bus their children to English schools, the independent schools are poaching many children and our ‘services’ largely come from England now.

  13. A good read.

    As an outsider what really puts me off about the Party are those within it who are former advisors/journalists/lobbyists who proclaim to know what the ‘working classes’ think or want. Those worst of these are those which are so party focused they don’t even live in their constituencies.

    Conversely when I think of what the ‘real’ Labour Party is, I think of the likes of Corbyn.

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