Labour leadership: Departing Corbyn believes he won the fight

Laura Kuenssberg
Political editor
@bbclaurakon Twitter

  • Published
Media caption,
Jeremy Corbyn said he had made mistakes during his leadership

It is a matter of days before Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of Labour is over.

There is no question that he changed the party. Many thousands of people joined. Its policy platform moved to the left.

But Mr Corbyn also led Labour to its worst election defeat in many decades. The party is further away from power than for a very long time.

Yet as the Corbyn era is drawing to a close, he is - surprisingly, you might think - claiming something of a victory.

When we sat down for an interview on Thursday, it was clear that he believed Boris Johnson's actions in the past few days had rather vindicated the approach he had taken all along, telling me he had been proved "absolutely right", because of the "amount of money the government is now prepared to put in" to deal with the coronavirus crisis.

He told me the epidemic had caused a "change in our politics".

Expanding state

"There's a suddenly a realisation that we're only as healthy as the safety of our neighbour," he said, and he suggested the government had been slow to deal with the crisis because the Tories had both failed to understand just how insecure some people's incomes had become as the economy changed, and also, how stretched public services were after years of a squeeze on public spending.

It is fair to observe this emergency has led this government to intervene in the lives of millions of people in ways they previously would never have imagined. We've witnessed a Conservative government expand the state dramatically.

But does that prove that Mr Corbyn was right all along?

It's perhaps simply too soon to suggest that, because ministers are pursuing dramatic state interventions in an emergency, Mr Corbyn's arguments will find sympathy with the public when this passes, which, while it is hard to imagine in these difficult days, it will.

Media caption,
Jeremy Corbyn says he "did everything" he could to win elections

This is an emergency, not a normal time. Coronavirus has certainly changed our politics in radical ways, and it is hard to see how the actions the government has taken will be unwound, and hard to see how the state will step back from some of the areas it has moved into.

Drastic actions

It is difficult to see how ministers will step back from increased involvement in the railways, for example, which had in some areas already been failing.

And it is hard to see how, in a very likely recession, the government would peel back financial support for those in hardship - and particularly hard now to see how any minister could do anything other than promise to fund the NHS handsomely.

But drastic government actions in something like wartime don't necessarily stick around during the peace. They do not mean a decades-old political battle has been permanently won.

It is, however. the case that Mr Corbyn's comments will rankle his many internal Labour critics. The personal vindication he now clearly feels doesn't mean the party is any closer to power.

Media caption,
Jeremy Corbyn: "We don't have to be unequal. It does not have to be unfair, poverty isn't inevitable. Things can, and they will change"

It may also raise eyebrows that he has used the stresses of this crisis to make his political case.

And he seemed reluctant to fully confront how fractious things have actually been for the party he ran.

'Very tolerant'

He had many thousands of devotees in the party's membership, but from the off, vocal detractors too. That is not just a question of the "framing" of the debate he was keen to blame in our interview, but simply what happened.

Rightly or wrongly, and no doubt maddeningly for the his supporters and many Labour voters, Mr Corbyn never managed to get his parliamentary party fully on board and had very loud critics from the start.

Some of his acolytes reacted with fury, and in-fighting dominated much of his time in office.

It was bitter on both sides. Many MPs struggled to accept his leadership. Nor did he ever manage to win them over.

The question was, from almost the start, if he couldn't unite his party, how could he persuade the public he could lead the country?

The man who once called himself Mr Zen still insists that, even though he was the party's leader during one of its most turbulent periods, he was "very tolerant" and "just wanted to bring people together".

While acknowledging that he might have made some mistakes, after being pressed, he was keen to suggest it was perhaps because he had "put faith in people that don't necessarily return it too well'.

Politics changed during Mr Corbyn's time in charge. As time elapsed after the financial crash, he established the Labour Party as more firmly against the Conservatives' squeeze on public spending.

He enthused many younger, new Labour supporters, and his leadership saw some of the party's traditional backers return to the fold.

But there was fighting and angst, dispute and defeat. In vintage Corbyn style, as he departs, he divides the party's crowd.

But he walks away appearing to believe, in a way, that he won the fight.