A populist, anti-media remake for the Labour leader won’t hide his party’s divisions, says Paris Gourtsoyannis
Delve to the back of the wardrobe for the battered old pair of trainers, pour the half-drunk bottles of wine down the sink, and get that gym membership form filled in.
It’s a new year, and a shot at a new you.
Exercise more, cycle to the office, cut down on the booze, quit smoking, go running, eat spelt. It’s what the mop-haired, smooth-skinned personal trainer with a book deal commands from every bus shelter advert.
For politicians, too, the return to work offers a brief window of opportunity for reinvention, and like the rest of us, they cannot resist the rip-tide of good intentions.
So Nicola Sturgeon has started the year by re-branding herself as a conciliator, offering a soft Brexit get-out clause to avoid a second independence referendum, and ruling out calling a snap vote in 2017. Six months of talking up the imminent and likely threat of indyref2 have been forgotten.
Theresa May, too, yesterday put six long years in government behind her to set out a social reform agenda to make the UK economy work for everyone.
Today it is the turn of Jeremy Corbyn, after what seems like several months of vacation for the Labour leader, to turn off his out-of-office and start remaking his image for 2017.
His advisers have been briefing the media about what Jeremy 2.0 will look like, and it seems that rather than embracing clean-living, it will draw inspiration from a far less wholesome example.
Never mind getting lean – Mr Corbyn’s New Year resolution is to get mean in seventeen.
Having digested the US presidential election, the Labour leader will shoot out of the 2017 blocks with a harder, populist edge.
His advisers apparently claim the new image will be borrowed from Bernie Sanders, the veteran socialist who ran Hilary Clinton close for the Democratic nomination for US president. In the dreams of the American left, Mr Sanders would have defended the white, working class vote and prevented the current waking nightmare.
So far, however, the only discernible change in Mr Corbyn’s re-brand seems to have been taken straight from the Trump playbook: attack the media, when you’re not ignoring it.
Coupled with an edict to “let Corbyn be Corbyn” and embrace his inner eurosceptic, some argue his new identity plays to his strengths – and weaknesses.
The Labour leader has not enjoyed the best press during his time in office, and the strategy builds on a pre-existing tendency to lash out at journalists.
After fiercely defending his record on the EU referendum campaign trail, the chains have already been loosened somewhat, with Mr Corbyn claiming “people didn’t trust politicians and they didn’t trust the European Union” in his New Year message.
But even though Mr Corbyn’s socialist euroscepticism is a more convincing look, it remains hard to see a London MP from the metropolitan left holding on to what’s left of Labour’s northern, working-class base. If the government gives the appearance of being utterly lost over Brexit, Labour are just as deep in the wilderness in a fruitless search for its response. The party spent the last few months of 2016 keeping up the pretence that it would offer robust opposition over Brexit. But its shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer was outmanoeuvred in the Commons over a vote intended to force the government to publish its Brexit plan, and now its leader has effectively run up a white flag. Nowhere are those divisions worse than over immigration, where the Labour leader no longer seems to agree with one of his closest allies in the shadow cabinet, immigration minister Diane Abbott.
Indeed, Mr Corbyn isn’t even in agreement with himself anymore. At his party’s conference four months ago, he said he wanted “no limit” on immigration.
While Labour now demands access to the EU single market as part of the Brexit deal, which necessarily means a continuation of the free movement of people, it is also happy to bow to the pressure of Leave votes in their constituency with a tough new line on immigration. The tension between the two positions is scarcely more credible than when it is heard from government – and to her credit, Mrs May has now admitted she can’t hang on to “bits” of EU membership.
In fairness to Labour MPs, the same splits exist in the country as well as in parliament. Analysis of the Brexit vote shows that no party has been so divided by the EU referendum. According to figures compiled by Chris Hanretty of the University of East Anglia, of the 100 constituencies with the strongest estimated Brexit vote, 46 are Labour – but the party also holds 41 of the 100 strongest Remain areas, too.
Like Labour in Scotland, which failed to choose a clear path for itself after the 2014 independence referendum and has only now, perhaps too late, arrived at a consistent position on the constitution, Labour across the UK risks being squeezed by a decision that divides its electorate.
In Europe, the collapse of old political certainties has seen a proliferation of new political voices that have troubled, if not toppled established elites. In Greece, Spain, France, Germany and Italy, the duopoly of centre left and centre right has been split by new forces. In Britain, where the collapse of the political centre has dragged Labour down with it, the same pressures risk having the opposite effect. There seemed to be no depth that Scottish Labour could sink to – first losing power, then losing influence, now at risk of being completely usurped by the Tories. Local elections this year will demonstrate how complete its collapse is.
Rather than taking lessons from the US, Jeremy Corbyn should heed the warning from Scotland. Just as it was north of the Border, Labour across the UK risks being squeezed by a referendum that is forcing it to choose between two parts of its political identity. It can’t choose a populist path while claiming to represent both.