Brexit has shown Jeremy Corbyn to be an elitist seller of magic beans. But for Corbynistas, the sand looks to be a welcoming place for one’s head.
Britain is divided, the Prime Minister has resigned, the markets are turbulent, and still the governing Conservatives are Britain’s preferred party. The parochial obsession of the eurosceptic lot has been endorsed by 52 per cent of the electorate. Those of us who failed to predict such an event should defer our sanctimony. The only observation truer post-Brexit is that Jeremy Corbyn’s party is broken.
Survation puts support for both Labour and Tories at 32 per cent, despite the Tories being rudderless and causing Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. Even with a failed leader riding out his abridged government, the Conservatives are still likely to be returned to power. Britain needs a plan to extricate itself from the EU. Its opposition leader, invisible during the campaign, has failed equally to carry this moment of chaos. You could be forgiven for forgetting that Mr Corbyn is auditioning to be in charge of the government.
It would be tempting to forgive his sloppiness. He is no ordinary politician. His is a new style, which he readily describes as honest, kind and gentle. His supporters keenly point out that he has brought a refreshing hope and optimism to politics. The crushing mandate that he was given last September to be Labour leader was a reaction to the jolliness of his movement. He was selling some magic beans: Labour lost disastrously at the general election because it was too right-wing (“Tory-lite” the cliché runs). If it could be yanked back to its socialist heyday, all would be fine.
To his supporters – the politically detached youth too young to live through Thatcher, and their elders who want a rerun – this is a refreshing take on a politics bedraggled by soggy centrism and spin. Are they, as Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford, a pair of political scientists, put it, the political “left behinds”? “These voters are on the wrong side of social change,” say the pair, “And are furious at an established politics that appears not to understand or even care about their concerns.”
Squint a bit, and this could well describe Corbyn himself. Mr Corbyn is baffled by being middle-class. He is stuck in the politics of 1983, when Thatcher was in power and he first entered Parliament. There seemed a simple fight between workers and elites. To make this account for Britain today is to misunderstand our political scene. The middle-class has ballooned, and social interests have fractured. Mr Corbyn is from the middle class and is supported by the middle class.
He and his fans live far enough from an extreme income that they can shrug at proposals to cut tax credits and cheer at their defeat, or heckle for higher taxes, but only on the rich because fair’s fair. That makes winning elections passé. Better to rattle through selected classics, rather than address the issues facing Britain.
The wronged type are the urban poor. They are, mostly, angry old white men, as Goodwin and Ford have identified, who left school without qualifications and describe themselves as English more than British. Abandoned for the middle-classes, they are left languishing by politicians indifferent to their lives. They should be the most ardent Corbynites.
But they are Ukip’s crowd. Across Britain, support for Ukip is mobilised by immigration. Ukip supporters, it is true, tend to live in areas with the lowest rates of immigration. These social conservatives worry about getting to know the unknown. Our island of metropolitan social liberals possesses values they neither share nor understand.
And so they voted for Brexit; “Yah boo” to the warnings from elites and, worse, experts. If they have spent a generation ignoring their lives or sneering at their concerns, why listen to their warnings of doom? Nigel Farage, the irrepressibly jolly Ukip leader, barked for national liberation. He got a crowd singing “we want our country back”. And how they roared, outside Parliament with Union Jacks flapping in the wind, when they finally won a vote.
Mr Farage looks on as the people’s yeoman. His party shifted from “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, forced the government to concede a referendum on the EU and won it. Believers in Mr Corbyn must aspire for success on a similar scale, but as an artisan. He will need to win back Mr Farage’s crowd to be prime minister. In order to do so, his is trying populist anti-politics. But he is doing so without the only thing that matters: popularity. Britain is thus left to tend its Brexit tragedy without a government or an opposition. Never mind: Corbyn supporters are feeling jolly.