When Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, few political commentators knew how he had been elected, or how he would operate in Government. It’s fair to say that this confusion has continued well into his tenure.
Corbyn’s long career as MP for Islington offered a few clues on what he would seek to achieve. Over the past 30 years, he has maintained a consistent focus on foreign policy, and an unwavering opposition to US foreign policy intervention, being a vocal critic of the Iraq War. Predictably, he has criticised the actions of Donald Trump and last year said he would “not be afraid to speak [his] mind” on the President. From his Trade Union background, it was also clear he would pursue a domestic agenda of nationalisation in regard to water, utilities and rail, as well as a push for increased funding of the NHS.
The leader’s lack of an established position in other areas has meant that significant parts of Labour policy have largely been shaped over the past three years by close advisors, including trusted right hand man Seamus Milne and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. Along with Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, this team of people have been crucial in pushing Labour towards a non-committal, “constructive ambiguity” position on Brexit.
However, it has become increasingly clear that a Corbyn Government would be ultimately defined by the leader’s people management: he is clearly guided by both a strong notion of loyalty, and an aversion to debate, and to some extent, conflict.
Corbyn’s fear of heated debate is perhaps most obvious when he is forced to think on his feet during Prime Minister’s Questions, a weekly tradition which is increasingly coming to resemble a personal ordeal for the Labour leader, despite his improvement upon previous efforts. His sense of frustration and embarrassment is obvious when addressing the chamber, as he clearly feels the intense pressure of facing hundreds of MPs and subsequently cannot think on his feet. This is despite the fact that his opponent, Theresa May, is equally bad, if not worse, at defending herself before Parliament. On this evidence it seems he will not become one of the great Parliamentarian speakers and would have trouble if defending himself as Prime Minister.
His inability to address conflict has more recently entered sinister territory, and most strikingly when responding to furious allegations of anti-Semitism from Jewish MP Margaret Hodge. Corbyn’s inability to grasp the extent of outrage within the Jewish community has been compounded by his sensitivity towards Hodge’s heated remarks: he reacted in a hurt manner when called a “anti-Semite and a racist”, and only served to escalate a problem largely of his own making.
His response to opposition is more often than not to pretend that it doesn’t exist.
It is perhaps Corbyn’s sense of loyalty that has led him into dangerous territory as Leader of the Opposition, and it is this which is likely to define his Premiership. His decision to rely on a small team of advisors, and promote longstanding Parliamentary colleagues to senior positions – John McDonnell and Diane Abbott being notable examples – has led to friction within the shadow cabinet, over the leader’s wider management approach and communication. His refusal to condemn ally Clive Lewis over sexual harassment, or old friend Ken Livingstone over anti-Semitism has caused far-reaching damage. Shadow Industrial Strategy Minister Chi Onwurah previously remarked that he would “face an industrial tribunal in any other job”, when discussing his operation of the Shadow Cabinet.
Corbyn in Government
On this basis, it seems that Corbyn’s approach to Government would closely resemble that of Tony Blair, who chose to work closely with now-infamous special advisers, including Alistair Campbell and Jonathan Powell. This method of working meant Blair enjoyed a great deal of centralised control. It is likely that Corbyn would seek a similar end, buoyed by the close relationship he currently enjoys over the wider party, among party members and the NEC. However, it is hard to envisage him winning a parliamentary majority large enough to exert the same amount of authority over his MPs, or even his Cabinet.
He is in his element when surrounded by support. Corbyn is a good campaigner, and performed extremely well in the 2017 General Election, where he spent much time speaking before wildly supportive crowds. He duly gloried in the subsequent results at Labour Party Conference. A Corbyn Government would be hard placed to react, potentially hamstrung and cursed by the task of safely delivering the UK out of the European Union, in an increasingly toxic political climate, and faced with a potential economic downturn. His barely-concealed Euroscepticism will come under greater scrutiny if given the challenge of mitigating the economic fallout of Brexit, and it is perhaps credible that he could employ a similar strategy to Theresa May, who in the face of public pressure, has sought to block it out, and concentrate on reconciling divisions within her own party.
Corbyn’s preferred style of Government is no longer in question, his ability to carry it out remains to be seen.
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