I hate to have to quote J K Galbraith’s definition of leadership once more, but for today’s Labour leader and his loyal followers, these things sometimes need saying more than once. “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership”.
Principled and inoffensive is not cutting through with voters
And to that I’ll add another Galbraith observation on leadership, which is particularly relevant to Britain right now: “A leader can compromise, get the best deal he can. Politics is the art of the possible. But he cannot be thought to evade”.
Yet Theresa May evades, and she gets away with it. Consistently. She evaded when visiting the Copland constituency during the recent by-election campaign, and on an issue on which she should not have - the NHS. The local paper was all over it. The Labour campaign milked the evasion for all it was worth. They still lost.
Why Ms May gets away with flouting this cardinal rule of leadership is not hard to explain: she has no credible opposition. Labour does not get its talking points out, rebuttals take hours, and where the leadership stands on issues is to many voters a mystery.
How different Labour looks now compared to the formidable campaigning machine that swept John Major from power and followed by crushing William ‘Ague four years later. Yes, I know, that was Tony Blair. Did I mention Blair? I should go and stand at the back.
But the point stands: Blair and his team won power. The decade following their triumph, up to the financial crash, was a happier and more harmonious time than we have now. And, being in power, Labour could take action to improve the lot of all those who we now class as “just managing”, plus the disabled, the sick, the young, the marginalised.
And yes, I know that those devoted to Jeremy Corbyn will dismiss all of this: it’s all the press’ fault, the polls are wrong, and look at all those policies. But presenting voters with a list of policies, telling them a great grassroots movement is being built, and that they should come and join in - that only causes a glazing over of the eyes.
What about the major anxiety of the people? Where is the leadership on Brexit? Labour loyalists will protest long and loud that it is there and always has been, but that is not how it looks to an increasing number of voters - even, whisper it quietly - in London.
When Sadiq Khan won the Mayoral election, some Corbyn followers were resentful over his apparently distancing himself from Jezza: Khan had, it was argued, won with Corbyn’s help, not his hindrance. Today’s results from the latest Queen Mary University of London and YouGov poll shows that idea to have been utterly delusional.
For Labour, these numbers are beyond bad
The ratings for five party leaders range from Caroline Lucas of the Greens, who manages +13%, through Theresa May on +9% and Tim Farron of the Lib Dems on -8%, to Paul Nuttall of UKIP on a deserved -34%. But way down there at the foot of the table, and on his own patch, is Jeremy Corbyn on an utterly miserable -44%. Sadiq Khan, by the way, had his approval rating polled too. HE SCORED +35%. The defence rests.
These numbers give the lie to one of the Corbyn fans’ most quoted excuses - that it’s all about the press. The Greens get a shitty press, a mixture of patronising, ridicule and dismissiveness. Yet their co-leader is most popular with Londoners. Yes, there may be other factors at work - Ms Lucas and her party are hot on environmental issues, and Londoners are receptive to their view right now. But what about Farron?
The Lib Dems are treated with scorn and contempt by the press, especially the Mail, which takes every opportunity given to it to lay into Nick Clegg - still an MP - especially over Europe. Yet Fallon still manages a reasonable rating, even after the 2015 losses.
Jeremy Corbyn does agreeable, accomplished and inoffensive interviews. He is a deeply principled man. But he is not cutting through with voters. And all the while his party is sinking into oblivion. He and his inner circle - John McDonnell, Seumas Milne and Karie Murphy - must know the game is up with the electorate. But still they sit there, convinced that the fightback will begin soon, and all will be well. But it won’t.
And yes, I can hear the excuses and cat-calling: “you’ve lost all credibility with this post”, “I used to like this blog BUT”, “we won a parish council seat last Thursday”, “why don’t you join us”, “it’s a Blairite/ Brownite/Otherite plot”, “it’s still the press’ fault”. None of that will wash. If Corbyn is so unpopular on his home turf, he’s dead in the water.
Stop blaming the press. Stop blaming previous Labour leaders. Stop blaming those who are pointing out the bleeding obvious. The Corbyn experiment is over. It’s dead. Morte.
Labour needs a leader who is once again willing to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of the people - as opposed to what gives the ideologically inclined a nice warm feeling. It should not need a General Election that puts the party in a worse position than 1935 to bring that reality home. The tragedy is that it probably will.