More Blimp, less Gandhi: the Corbyn problem

On the doorsteps Labour activists claim their manifesto promises were popular, the problem was Jeremy Corbyn. What led many working class voters to vote Conservative or Brexit, abandoning their traditional voting pattern? The data in this article draws on the comments of some ordinary working class Britons when talking about their voting choices on social media.


Brexit was an issue. Not just that Corbyn proposed a second referendum but that he did not articulate why. Labour failed to clearly set out the terms of the agreement they wished to negotiate with the EU. Instead they tried to sideline the issue and focus on social policy. While this played to their strength it left a weakness as many in the country want the Brexit issue resolved and off the agenda. The simplicity of Johnson’s ‘get Brexit done’ cut through, Corbyn’s vague message and promise to be the honest broker did not.

The two Corbyns

Corbyn’s social agenda was very complex, full of huge promises that inevitably would be high cost. At its heart was a very different plan for the nation, proudly socialist, reforming capitalism to benefit the many. For those living in areas with high poverty and job insecurity – many of the Labour heartlands – this should have been exactly the sort of change they wanted. But many rejected that platform.

Or did they? Many working class voters went to social media saying they could never vote for ‘a traitor’, a ‘threat to national security’ or ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’. His attempts to broker peace in Northern Ireland and represent underdogs in various parts of the Middle East saw him engage with a range of individuals; associations which the Conservative party and their supportive newspapers used to paint him as a traitor and terrorist sympathizer. Corbyn failed to make his own side of this story accessible and fudged many attempts to redress these weaknesses.

Corbyn’s consistent questioning of UK foreign policy allowed an image to be promulgated of him as opposing the national interest. This included his open anti-nationalism, open opposition to most instances of military intervention, and the proposing talks, however unlikely that option. His regret at the killing of Osama bin Laden, as opposed to his arrest and trial, was used to portray him as weak. The working class voters reference many of these principled stances Corbyn adopted as signs of his inability to lead Britain. Britain, to those voters, is a strong and decisive nation. It attacks enemies, it is the country that ‘won’ the Second World War, ‘Britannia rules the waves’, this jingoism which is embedded in British culture, jars with Corbyn’s pacifist political character.

Hence the social agenda was balanced against the notion of a Corbyn premiership. The greater danger was deemed that he would welcome Britain’s enemies into the country, weaken the nation on the world stage, and so undermine the image of the nation many hold dear. The dangers of trade deals that sold off the NHS to Trump became a lesser fear for many of these voters.

Images of nation and the future for Britain

Perhaps Corbyn’s lack of nationalism was also perceived as problematic for him renegotiating Brexit. Would he give up too much control to the EU, painted in these working class areas as having a negative impact on the nation, given his propensity to support the enemies of the country? And we should not underestimate the perception among many working class voters that the EU is an enemy power.

So should a new Labour leader revitalise Corbyn’s social policy or move back to a more Blairite centrist stance? In the modern era nationalism is a powerful force in our politics. It seems these working class voters want on the one hand policies that directly benefit them, alleviating poverty and redressing inequality, while also happily bombing enemies of the nation into oblivion; however unrealistic the latter is. They want their leader to celebrate all that they think of as Britishness. They are also socially conservative, opposing a multicultural, liberal and inclusive society.

This represents a challenge to the values of Corbyn’s Labour as well as the largely young support base he has built. The younger voters are more liberal, progressive and have less interest in a nationalism they see as petty and outdated. Reconciling these different tendencies is going to be a major challenge for Labour as they attempt to return to a position where they are able to think once more about forming a government. A majority in Britain does not want a Gandhi-like leader, the preference is for a flag-waving Colonel Blimp character, their grip on detail and the truth is immaterial, doing whatever it takes to win and showing pride in their nation is the trump card.