Laura Kuenssberg was attacked on Twitter for quoting a shadow cabinet minister’s use of the term “long Corbyn” to explain why the Labour Party did not do well in the local elections outside London. Sebastian Payne’s tweet, for example, gives the context:
Many commentators objected to the implied comparison of Corbynism with a serious disease – ‘long covid’ – and many tweeted in support of Jeremy Corbyn. The unnamed politician was careless to risk offending all those voters. Corbyn’s successor as the leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, needs to retain the support of party loyalists (who can be thought of as ‘Old Labour’) whilst winning back those who have deserted the party since Tony Blair’s impressive election victories under the banner of ‘New Labour’.
Matthew Payne’s tweet attacked Kuenssberg personally, describing her as a “Tory propagandist, tittle tattler”, and many other Corbyn supporters seemed to think that she was expressing her own views rather than reporting what had been said to her. The more interesting phenomenon, though, was how careless labelling has distorted political discourse: there are several strands of ‘Corbynism’, any one of which might deter someone from voting for the party.
Many tweets argued that it was illogical to blame Jeremy Corbyn for results which were bad in some places but not others. This line of argument is unsound. It fails to recognise what lies within the label ‘Corbynism’: his pacifism, his perceived lack of patriotism, his alleged antisemitism, and his socialism/Marxism. Starmer has been determined to distance the party from antisemitism, which hopefully will have gained him votes rather than losing them, but he cannot afford to offend all those who support Corbyn for other reasons.
The term “long Corbyn” was used in relation to Corbyn’s pacifism, specifically his opposition to NATO. Most British people support the country’s membership of NATO as an important part of national security, so Corbyn’s position was unpopular and will have cost the Labour Party some votes. Starmer has voiced support for NATO and the policy of sending weapons to Ukraine, and was anxious to reassure voters that Labour would not slip back into Corbyn’s pacifism. Some voters would find it hard to believe Starmer’s assurances on NATO though, given the strength of Old Labour’s historic support for unilateral nuclear disarmament (an issue upon which Corbyn was far from a lone voice).
Corbyn antagonised many people by his support for a united Ireland at a time when the IRA was committing acts of terrorism (although he also condemned all acts of violence). That was a sufficient reason for some voters to reject the party under his leadership, but is no longer relevant now that he has been replaced.
Many Corbyn supporters like his brand of socialism, as this tweet from ‘Dylan the Hermit’ suggests:
“I also suffer from Long Corbyn. To my dying day I will never forgive the smearing, traitorous New Labour ghouls who vilified a decent, compassionate man and actively sabotaged the chance of a socialist govt that would have delivered real, desperately needed change.”
Corbyn’s socialist policies attracted a surge of support in the 2017 election (although that evaporated in 2019, causing him to resign). At a time when there is a cost of living crisis in Britain, it is particularly important for Starmer to offer credible policies for resolving it. It could be an opportunity for Labour to make an attractive offering to what used to be its traditional heartlands outside London and the South East; the party’s policies could be targeted at those who are struggling to make ends meet, without necessarily being socialist.
The unnamed politician who blamed “long Corbyn” for Labour’s less than impressive results was wide of the mark. He was right to note that the party needed to rebuild its trust with those who used to support it – but wrong to offend all of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters. And that lack of trust also stems from Starmer’s history of campaigning against Brexit (“long Starmer?”) and from the party being seen as only serving the metropolitan elite. The ‘New Labour’ label is damaging in both those aspects, even though it had attracted centrist support from people who had not previously been Labour supporters.
Sir Keir Starmer cannot achieve electoral success merely by trying to distance himself from Corbynism. He needs to clearly articulate policies on how to improve relations with the EU (without fantasising about re-joining it), and to offer a Social Democratic economic programme to attract people who felt left behind by the rapid economic and social change under Thatcherism and ‘New Labour’.