Corbyn’s failure

Corbyn’s failure

I’m going to stick my neck out here and I’m very sorry to say this, but Jeremy Corbyn has lost my support. He did so with this statement responding to the vote of no confidence from MPs in his leadership.

“Labour has the responsibility to give a lead where the Government will not. We need to bring people together, hold the Government to account, oppose austerity and set out a path to exit that will protect jobs and incomes.”

With this statement he has betrayed the hopes and interests of the young people who formed the core of his support, and who have been so badly let down by Cameron’s referendum. It’s an abysmal failure of leadership.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Corbyn. I supported him because unlike the other candidates for the Labour leadership he was the authentic voice of opposition, the necessary antidote to the hopeless platitudes of the Blairites, though for pragmatic reasons I always wished that voice could have come from the mouth of someone younger, someone without his baggage, someone who would be a harder target for our rabid right wing media.

When Labour MPs responded to the Brexit debacle by turning on Corbyn I wanted to put my head in my hands. But now I fear they have little choice. (Labour might well be finished anyway – this really is the Last Chance Saloon.)

Owen Jones, as committed a Corbyn supporter as any, has put his finger on the immediate problem. He’s admitted frankly that for him there was a plan, that Corbyn would continue to articulate and influence the necessary opposition to the Tory government, but as we came closer to the election set for 2020, he would step down in favour of a younger more compelling candidate, also from the left of the party.

But now, with the distinct possibility of a snap election, it seems unlikely that there will be time for all this.

It’s not that I think Corbyn would be an electoral disaster in these circumstances. The media is very sure he’d be a disaster, while for the rest of us the truth might be a little less cut and dried. But if in that defiant statement he’s setting out his stall for such a campaign then I couldn’t support him anyway.

The only person to blame for the Brexit debacle is David Cameron, not Corbyn. Nor do I blame Corbyn for refusing to share a platform with Cameron. I’m glad he refused. It’s more what Corbyn didn’t do.

He didn’t set out a clear alternative, progressive and positive case for the UK’s continuing membership of the EU. He unequivocally urged supporters to vote Remain, but that’s not the same thing. It was left to the likes of the Green’s Caroline Lucas, who for my money remains the most cogent and impressive voice on the left.

Now it sounds as though Corbyn has no intention of pushing that progressive vision, that he has indeed fallen back on the old hard left antagonism to the EU, suggesting we might still create a workers’ paradise right here on our own.

It’s crap. There is no path to exit that will protect jobs and incomes. If we leave the EU and the single European market there will be considerable, unavoidable short and medium term pain. It’s a version of the same bollocks peddled by the Leave campaign.

I suppose too you could argue that Corbyn was being no more than a proper democrat, acknowledging that “the people have spoken”. But there’s far too much wrong with what’s happened for the referendum verdict to be taken at face value, and no political leader who thinks it’s ok if we’re all screwed by Cameron’s biggest screw up is going to get my respect, let alone my vote.

Because it is a matter of leadership. Good leaders seek to change and lead opinion, not follow it, and then be ready to be held to account for their decisions at the end of their term. That simple idea seems to have been largely lost in a political culture driven into the ground by the fake wisdom of focus groups and Clinton’s “triangulation” of left and right. Labour is where it is now substantially because of its failure in the wake of Gordon Brown’s notorious “bigot” gaffe to address the growing resentment of immigration among many of its traditional supporters. It was never going to be an easy task, but then nor was saying “we hear your pain” ever going to cut it. Corbyn has said a little more than that, but he’s done nothing to confront or counter the Conservative suggestion that there was nothing to be done, that this was all the EU’s fault.

(The Tory remainers would no doubt say that it was the EU’s fault but was a price worth paying for the prosperity brought by the EU, a prosperity not felt by many in the traditional Labour fold. The Tory leavers would just say it was the EU’s fault, end of story.)

The political world is in a state of unprecedented turmoil. It’s not clear what incoherent stance the Conservatives are going to take next, but it is pretty clear that this is no time for the same old shit from everyone else. In a week or so’s time the Chilcot report is expected to destroy the last shreds of any credibility Tony Blair might once have had. At least this should at a stroke rule out the tainted likes of Hilary Benn or David Milliband (god help us). There is a glimmer of opportunity for the UK’s progressive parties if they can put their heads together, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

In the meantime Corbyn should already be yesterday’s news, because he’s never shown any interest in such a project, and in these last ten months failed to build the bridges even within the Parliamentary Labour Party that could have taken him through this crisis. I’ve loved his integrity, his refusal to play the PR games, but he’s never framed a bigger vision, a vision that could give people hope of something different from the past, and more than the failed neoliberalism of the Blairites and the Tories alike (not to mention the Orange Book LibDems).

I see little hope of that from the likes of Angela Eagle either, and maybe that’s why Labour really could be finished, its vote likely to continue to bleed out to UKIP, the Greens, the SNP and perhaps even Tim Farron’s newly leftish LibDems. I hope not, but while the Tories currently present an open goal, Labour has only a few weeks to sort itself out. It’s not a cheering thought.


Almost immediately after I’d posted this Caroline Lucas published her open letter to Corbyn, inviting him to join her in a progressive coalition. To me such a coalition offers a potentially mould-breaking way forward, a chance to break through the stagnation of party politics that in part has brought us to this miserable place, where for all the terrible things they have done, and their current complete disarray, the Conservatives are still showing at level pegging with Labour.

This dismal prospect rather than any Blairite coup is why Labour is turning on itself, and it’s why figures of the left such as Lisa Nandy have resigned from Corbyn’s cabinet. People talking about Blairite conspiracy need to address this.

As far as I know Corbyn has yet to respond, maybe because he has other things on his mind which would be fair enough, but it has to be said that such pluralism goes against everything his strand of Labour has ever done, and I’d be happily surprised if he showed any enthusiasm for it now.

But we are in a changed reality. Labour has for the foreseeable future lost Scotland, which stacks the odds against it ever commanding a majority on its own. It’s hard to know whether in its current form the SNP is a progressive party or not, but I’d have thought it was worth having the conversation. The timing of all this is hardly desirable, but then as Macmillan remarked, politics has always been about events.

Getting it wrong

Getting it wrong

Why do we get things wrong? Obviously we get things wrong when we have only partial information, or we have to make a judgement about unpredictable forces, and that kind of mistake isn’t particularly interesting. On the other hand it’s apparent that we can often get things wrong because we’re half-blinded by our prejudices or other desires. This happens all the time in our personal lives, and it’s often the stuff of tragedy, but it’s more interesting (or at least important) when it happens on a political or business level, when in some respects leaders should always be trying to think beyond these personal drivers.

I’m curious how an organisation like Microsoft, with huge resources and smart people, could have got it so wrong with Windows 8.

To give credit where it’s due I think Microsoft’s judgement, that using touch screens (on phones and tablets) will have a creeping influence on how we interact with computers, is correct and ahead of the rest of the market.

This much is comprehensible, but the resulting product is not. Microsoft clearly recognised that it would need to offer some semblance of its traditional desktop so as not to alienate its huge (and conservative) business constituency overnight, which makes it all the more surprising that it then seemed determined to force all users at every turn into its new touch friendly (and very immature) “modern UI”. Anyone could have told them that this was a big and unnecessary mistake (and many people did): it would have been a trivial thing to let users choose which environment they wanted, and let them stay there while carefully introducing convergent features.

What’s puzzling is not that Microsoft got the execution so wrong, but that it was incapable of seeing what was obvious. Note that this is not the usual problem of disruptive change and market leadership (highlighted by Clayton Christiansen back in the late 1990s), where the incumbent has too much invested in the status quo to adapt to change. Microsoft was reading the writing on the wall, and understanding what it meant, but as if paralysed by Christiansen’s insight it chose to act as if there was no status quo (and still executed very badly even in those terms). CEO Steve Ballmer has paid the price in his forced early retirement.

On on a different level, how did that usually shrewd political operator David Cameron get the parliamentary vote on a military response to the Syrian crisis so wrong? The Tories apparently blame Ed Milliband’s change of heart, but if Milliband wobbled it was because he was trying to take the public and parliamentary temperature, and when he had done so came down firmly on the side of non-intervention. This wasn’t duplicitous: it was the right political decision. Again what’s surprising is that Cameron hadn’t worked this all out for himself in advance, and so been much more cautious in his rhetoric. As it was he seemed transfixed by his admiration for Tony Blair’s calculated performances on the international stage, ignoring the obvious truth that what Blair did over Iraq has become axiomatic for political duplicity, and a total failure in its avowed aim to protect British security.

Cameron survives for the moment. On a bigger stage Barack Obama has been quietly humiliated by the wilier Vladimir Putin, largely because Putin had the advantage (through no virtue of his own) of being substantially right. Obama gave himself a problem he did not need to have, and Cameron went along with it. Again, what’s interesting about this particular crisis is not that the situation was hard to read. Everything was pretty obvious. The blinding factor seems to have been the self-image of some of the actors involved.

Leaders in any walk of life are fallible: this is hardly news. But it’s become worth saying because we seem to have settled on a view that leaders are distinguished from ordinary folk by their ability to read situations with unusual insight, and make the big bets successfully. This might be true of some very exceptional individuals, though even here we need to consider how much of a part luck or circumstance played (Churchill was the man of the wartime hour but a pretty hopeless peacetime politician). Indeed it is hard to name a great peacetime leader in British politics in the last hundred years. The two people with the sweeping self-belief to change the political climate were Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and in both cases their legacy is of unmitigated wrongheadedness.

It seems more likely that the best leaders are not like near-omniscient demigods: they are good team builders, who have learnt how to listen and empower others.

These things are valuable skills, but they are not so uncommon. The damaging cult of the Great Leader in Western business and politics has been embedded by the emergence of a self-serving leadership caste, who tell us that their unique talents require unprecedented financial rewards. This seems part of the same blinding self-image that urged otherwise intelligent people, from Ballmer to Obama, to close their eyes and ears to what sat plainly in front of them and caused them to lead badly (though in a truly grim irony, Ballmer’s resignation, a tacit admission of serious failure, immediately rewarded him with millions of dollars as Wall St welcomed the news and boosted the Microsoft share price).

Leaders are as important as they have always been, or more accurately leadership is as important as it’s always been, and that distinction matters because it detaches leadership from the cult of the individual. We need people of vision to take us forward, but note the plural: the vision is unlikely to emanate from any one person. We need this detachment of vision from the idea of the visionary, not just for better leadership, but better governance across enterprises and politics.