“I don't know what Jeremy’s got, but if we could bottle it and drink it, we’d all be doing very well,” declared Labour MP Owen Smith on the Friday morning after the election. “He’s proved me wrong and lots of people wrong.”
Proved wrong on what exactly? Are the accusations Smith levelled at Jeremy Corbyn over his lenience towards anti-Semitism now irrelevant? Have the election results convinced Smith that the Labour leader and his shadow chancellor’s deeply radical policies are now sensible?
If so, Labour’s socialists had a more impressive election than the pundits have given them credit for. Not only did they exceed expectations, but they’ve also managed to completely erase and rewrite history as it was laid out by their critics.
Smith – who is seemingly so swayed by Corbyn that, despite pledging to never sit on the front benches with him as leader, he has now taken up the role as shadow Northern Ireland secretary – is a near-perfect example of a U-turn. But he is by no means alone. There has been an eerie reticence from centre-left Labour MPs who, just weeks before the election, were rumoured to be plotting a full-blown walkout if Corbyn refused to resign after losing. Their silence now speaks volumes.
If you’re going to sell out, you’d think one would consider settling for a bit more than what Corbyn delivered. Contrary to the tidal waves of praise Labour has generated, the party didn’t actually win the election. Its vote share was impressive, as was the Conservatives’, but it sits 55 seats behind the Tories. The mandate for a Prime Minister Corbyn and his policies, as of now, remains distant.
And what about those socialist policies? The Labour manifesto was not nearly as moderate as Labour MPs want to claim. By rallying behind it post-election, MPs will be implicated in Corbyn’s bid for a full-blown spending spree. Does the moderate wing really think that a £250bn infrastructure project, financed solely on borrowing, is financially responsible? Are they comfortable with the move towards pay-caps and maximum wages? They need answers to these questions – they’re going to be asked far more frequently.
I don’t pretend it is easy to distance yourself from a leader who has mobilised the base. But we don’t need to guess what the alternative looks like – we’re watching it play out in real time over in the US, as Republican representatives over the past two years have one by one lost credibility by endorsing then-candidate, now-President Donald Trump.
Siding with a leader on an issue-by-issue basis is one thing, and respecting their democratic mandate to lead is a given. But this is achievable without hitching your bandwagon to them, tossing out principles to feel a bit closer to the current political trends. While there are some exceptions like Senator Rand Paul (who voted with the Senate Democrats to try to reform the Saudi Arabia arms deal earlier this week), too many Republicans have fallen down the rabbit hole of protectionism and anti-immigrant sentiment, straying far from their party’s core values.
Labour shouldn’t follow suit. Pandering to radicalism and populism is not worth the short-term power play. The failures of socialism are always exposed. Going down with it will sting even more if it was never your ideology to begin with.