Who, in Britain’s Labour Party, still says “never Corbyn”? And why?
Tony Blair, former prime minister
The closer you get to power the easier it is to make friends. The transformation in Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s fortunes over the past 12 months is a testament to that. Many politicians and commentators who a year ago were gracing the airwaves calling for Corbyn to step aside have re-emerged as zealous converts to Corbynism.
But the jury is still out on whether those who’ve ventured inside the tent are exerting any more influence on the Labour leader than those who stubbornly remain outside. For those on this list who are writers, commentators and former MPs, it is perhaps easier to hold firm to one’s principles. There is arguably less to lose in remaining hostile when there’s little chance of a promotion to the front bench and when the leader’s supporters probably don’t read your columns anyway.
As for MPs, those who’ve made their peace with Corbyn – at least for the time being – appear to be exerting a greater degree of influence on the leadership than those still in the ‘Core Group Hostile’ column. In its social democratic outlook, Labour’s 2017 manifesto was closer to Ed than Ralph Miliband, while Labour has moderated its Brexit stance in recent months to accommodate some of the (Corbyn-friendly) Remainers in the parliamentary party.
Despite those overtures, however, it seems that few on this list are going to fall silent in their criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn any time soon. Our list of short profiles starts with Tony Blair.
The former Labour Prime Minister cuts something of a tragic figure these days. A few on the centre-left still carry a flame for Tony Blair and take notice when he has something to say, but they are dwindling in number.
The hostility to Blair stems most notably from the 2003 invasion of Iraq, though the political art of triangulation has always been synonymous with treachery for a section of the left. Blair’s musings in more recent times have alienated supporters of Jeremy Corbyn even further. During the 2015 Labour leadership election Blair forecast “annihilation”
for Labour if Corbyn was elected leader. In 2016, Blair told Labour members to “get a transplant” if they felt their ‘heart’ was with Corbyn even when their intellect wasn’t.
Of course Blair wasn’t the only person proven wrong by the result of the 2017 election (though Labour did still come second). Yet it undoubtedly tastes sweeter for Corbynistas to see their opinion of Blair increasingly reflected in wider public opinion. A 2017 OBR survey found that just 21% of the public had a favourable opinion of the former Prime Minister.
Since 2016, Blair has increasingly dedicated his energies toward reversing Brexit, which he believes will do “profound damage” to Britain. That hasn’t stopped him from directing barbs at the Labour leadership, however. Blair recently said there was a “void at the heart” of Labour’s Brexit strategy under Jeremy Corbyn.
Philip Collins, columnist for The Times
Twelve months ago the Times columnist and former speechwriter to Tony Blair declared that Jeremy Corbyn was “leading his party into the grave”. A year on and, while many others on the centre-left have fallen in line behind the left-wing leader, Collins has held his ground. This is perhaps unsurprising for a writer who, shortly prior to the election that saw Corbyn dramatically increase his stock, was announcing that the time had come to launch a new party of “enterprise and equality”. Retreat at this point would, one suspects, have been an about-turn too far.
Of course, Collins’ position as a columnist rather than a Member of Parliament – he was put forward as a Labour candidate for the seat of Bolton South East in 2007 – allows him to remain fiercely independent. But this itself is a mark of his independent-mindedness at a time when so many left-leaning writers have swallowed their doubts and fallen in line obsequiously behind Saint Jeremy. While one may disagree with what Collins writes, it is refreshing to read a columnist who is more than a one-dimensional megaphone for a particular party or ‘ism’.
Nick Cohen, polemicist and columnist for The Observer
Nick Cohen’s ongoing relevance as a writer is discernible in the sheer bilious rage he invokes in supporters of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Cohen is the permanent sceptic, a heretic whose public role is to prick a hole in the illusions of the faithful. And besides, it is better – as a writer at least – to be disliked than to be ignored altogether.
When Cohen’s book What’s Left first came out in 2007, he was criticised for obsessing over what some critics of the book called a “leftist fringe”. The left – and by extension the Labour Party – had by that time moved on, and was no longer interested in romanticising the Soviet Union or fawning over anti-American leaders in the developing world. Or so it was argued. Those who still carried a torch for the tyrants and failed causes of the past had been driven back to the dusty rooms above pubs where they still gathered forlornly with their archaic newspapers, their little boxes of foil-wrapped sandwiches and all that mechanical blather about the ‘rank-and-file’.
Cohen meanwhile was treated as a sort of dyspeptic uncle for continuing to write as if these people still mattered. The ‘leftist fringe’ that Cohen expended so much ink in attacking in What’s Left included people like George Galloway, Ken Livingstone and… Jeremy Corbyn – politicians who more fashionable commentators had long since declared finished.
Yet as Cohen wrote on the 10-year anniversary of the Euston Manifesto – a brief attempt to revive a left-wing internationalism – “the tyrannical habits of mind it [Euston] condemned…are everywhere now”.
As are the politicians and activists who hold them.
Chris Leslie MP, former Shadow Chancellor
A mere three years ago Chris Leslie MP was working for Ed Balls as Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Nowadays Leslie cuts a more forlorn figure, opposing Corbyn from the backbenches at a time when most of his colleagues have buried their doubts and rallied behind their party leader.
While many MPs who had previously opposed Corbyn penned obsequious apologies for their heresies in the aftermath of the June 2017 election, Leslie was on hand with a reality check. Labour had missed an “open goal” in not winning the election outright, said Leslie as the results came in, and it “shouldn’t pretend that this is a famous victory”.
For this he was labelled a “sad, lonely, bitter man” by Corbyn ally Clive Lewis. Leslie had previously refused to serve in the shadow cabinet under Jeremy Corbyn “on principle”, while branding Labour’s leftward turn “implausible” and of the “starry-eyed hard left”.
More controversially perhaps, Leslie recently claimed at a ‘Labour First’ event – an anti-Corbyn Labour faction – that Marxism had “no place in the modern Labour Party”, a claim which many even on the soft left of the party would probably reject. It was after all the revisionist Labour politician Tony Crosland who once described Marx as someone who “remains a towering figure among socialist thinkers”.
Jess Phillips MP, Labour backbencher
“For those of us who always worried about Jeremy Corbyn’s electability,” wrote Jess Phillips on June the 11th – shortly after Theresa May unexpectedly lost her majority in the House of Commons – “it is time to stand up and say that we got some of that wrong”.
But this was more than a run-of-the-mill mea culpa from the MP for Birmingham Yardley. Phillips, who backed Yvette Cooper (as seen above) for the Labour leadership in 2015, may sound reflective on the tumultuous politics of recent times, but she is less than apologetic about her opposition to Corbyn’s leadership. “No, I don’t feel sorry for saying what I did. I wouldn’t ask Jeremy to say sorry for all those years when he said what he thought,” she told the Sunday Times in August 2017.
Phillips’ antagonism to Corbynism is political but also temperamental. She is on the left of the party – she resigned her membership under Tony Blair over the Iraq War – but is not someone who can easily be shoved into a particular box. Phillips is a vocal feminist, which often sets her at odds with some of the male dinosaurs in the trade union movement, as well as with the younger ‘brocialists’ who seem to flock around Corbyn like “bluebottles to a dead cat”, as Orwell once put it in another context.
Indeed, it is this independent spirit which makes Phillips one of the more impressive MPs, for she is pursuing her own path, rather than simply trying to unseat Corbynite orthodoxy only to replace it with another ideological straightjacket.
Tom Harris, Telegraph writer and former Labour transport minister
It is easy to forget that Harris is a former Labour MP considering he seems to spend most of his time nowadays laying into the leadership of the party. A regular columnist for the Telegraph, the former government minister lost his Glasgow South seat in 2015 to Stewart McDonald of the Scottish National Party.
Harris has long been someone from the ‘Blairite’ wing of the Labour Party, calling for Gordon Brown to resign as Prime Minister in 2009. Nowadays Harris writes in support of Brexit and has branded the Shadow Chancellor John McDonald a “deluded huckster posing as your friendly socialist uncle”.
Unlike several other anti-Corbyn figures who make this list, the enigmatic Harris is not in favour of the creation of a new ‘centrist’ party, which one suspects is down to his pro-Brexit views – something of an anomaly on the anti-Corbyn centre-left.
Many of Harris’ arguments revolve around the contention that Labour should be performing better in the polls considering the disarray at the heart of the government. This is not an unreasonable point to make. Yet with politics increasingly divided on the basis of pro or anti-Brexit – rather than right or left – one suspects many of Brexiteer Harris’ natural allies in the centre have ceased giving him a hearing.
Lord (David) Blunkett, former Home Secretary
The former Home Secretary under Tony Blair was another of those who sought to dampen the enthusiasm of die-hard Corbynistas in the aftermath of the June election, telling Labour activists that the party still had “a mountain to climb”. “We must never forget that glorious defeat is never the same as victory,” Lord Blunkett added. Six months earlier the former Home Secretary had described the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader – seeing off the challenge of Owen Smith MP – as a “catastrophe”.
Like many Labour grandees, Blunkett has sounded more conciliatory since the June election result, yet behind the scenes he still appears to be planning for a post-Corbyn future. Blunkett is currently a board member of Labour Tomorrow, an anti-Corbyn group funded by a former spin doctor to Tony Blair. “The truth is that Blunkett’s dog would make a better leader,” said Reg Race, the former Labour MP for Wood Green in north London, who founded the group last year.
Luke Akehurst, organiser for the anti-Corbyn faction Labour First
If Jon Lansman is the brains behind left-wing campaign group Momentum, Luke Akehurst is the organising talent bringing activists on the Labour right together under the umbrella of Labour First. Akehurst is from the old Labour right rather than the Blairite wing of the Labour Party, and is not someone who simply wishes to re-enact the New Labour years. New Labour’s “was an approach to public services that put too much faith in marketisation,” Akehurst wrote in 2016.
Many Corbynistas would undoubtedly agree. Yet Akehurst went on to say that he would not be “taking any lectures about socialism” from Momentum, whom he accused of “destroying, demeaning, diminishing” the Labour Party.
With Corbyn apparently secure in the leadership of the party, Akehurst is already manoeuvring behind the scenes to thwart the left’s ability to keep control of the party long-term. “There is no point trying to re-open the question of Corbyn’s leadership – that is settled until he wants to retire or loses another election. But there is every point trying to stop Momentum from getting further influence and to drive them back at every level of the party structure,” Akehurst recently wrote in a column for the activist website Labour List.
JK Rowling, author
It may seem peculiar to include the author of the Harry Potter books in this list, but such is the reach of a large social media following these days that a vocal Corbyn critic like Rowling can wield real influence among left-leaning activists. And with 13.7 million followers, any online criticism of the Labour leader by Rowling is quickly picked up far beyond fans of Harry Potter.
Rowling has never been particularly enamoured with Corbyn. “I don’t believe in political messiahs, but even if I did, Corbyn would not make my long list”, Rowling tweeted in September 2016.
Since Corbyn’s impressive showing at the June 2016 General Election, Rowling has been much quieter. And yet she will still occasionally pop up with a barbed comment directed at the Labour leader and his allies. “Jeremy had the biggest win. Only losers and haters pretend he’s not Prime Minister, believe me,” she recently tweeted mockingly at the Unite boss Len McCluskey.
Predictably, many online Corbynistas can’t stand Rowling. In a recent column for Vice, one young Corbyn-supporter denounced Rowling for “her utter inability to conceive of a Labour party not run by Tony Blair or Gordon Brown”.
Tomorrow, Michael Brendan Dougherty will profile some key figures in the ‘Never Trump’ movement and on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday he and James will compare and contrast the phenomena.