On Saturday 12th September 2015 Jeremy Corbyn was confirmed as the new leader of the Labour Party, completing what anyone who follows politics must admit, whatever their personal feelings on the subject, is one of the most remarkable political stories of our time. The next day Leicester City beat Aston Villa 3-2 to maintain second place in the Premier League, but with Manchester United four points ahead and Arsenal and Manchester City breathing down their necks no one seriously thought this was anything but one of those early season anomalies which regularly crop up. Nearly seven months on, they have pulled of a feat every bit as remarkable, one of the greatest stories in British (if not world) sport.
People have not been slow make comparisons. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell was quick off the mark on Twitter
Of course the parallels are not exact – Leicester’s title win is an unequivocal “feel good” story, something which all football fans whatever their main allegiance (with the possible exception of Spurs fans) can celebrate. Corbyn’s election meanwhile, whilst certainly being celebrated in some quarters, has left a number of Labour members and supporters feeling somewhat less than good. Less charitable observers making a football comparison might instead mention Aston Villa appointing Remi Garde as manager. I do think that there is at least an element of feeling amongst the public that it’s good to see someone from outside the political establishment getting a chance, but although they might like the idea in principle that doesn’t mean they will like it in practice when it comes to casting their vote in a general election.
But there is one particular parallel, and one contrast, which I would like to draw. Firstly, Leicester’s victory, however richly deserved, can be attributed at least in part to the fact that the usual big players collectively failed to perform over the course of the season. They were either wildly inconsistent (City, Arsenal) consistently only slightly better than mediocre (United) or just generally dire (Chelsea). It’s not supposed to happen like that, in fact one could argue that the Premier League was set up with the intention of preventing it, but as much as Leicester got the essentials right throughout the season the big names got them wrong. It doesn’t take a genius to see the parallel with the Labour party election.
The contrast comes when we look at the reaction of the losers and their supporters. The managers and boards of the “big” teams understand they failed, and (OK, I’m maybe exempting Arsene Wenger here) that their failings were their own. Some of them will (or indeed already have) suffer personal consequences. Between now and next season they will no doubt be examining those failings and carefully considering what they need to do to raise their game and improve their performance. Their supporters will have their own view of those failings and be directing their anger and frustration accordingly, but it will be directed at those in their own team. They certainly won’t be complaining that the outcome was somehow unfair, that Leicester shouldn’t have been able to compete, and generally displaying a complete lack of grace and sense of entitlement.
Now to be fair to Labour’s losing candidates, they have accepted the result and acted graciously in defeat. However, in contrast many other vocal people on the Labour right and their supporters in the media couldn’t be more different. They still can’t admit that Corbyn’s victory was a huge failure on their part, that his success was made possible by their own persistent chronic underperformance and strategic mistakes. They have been like van Gaal’s Manchester United, serving up mediocre, functional stuff designed to get a result and still losing – it’s hardly surprising that people craved sparkle and excitement and went elsewhere. They can’t, or won’t, see that they desperately need to look at their own side and work out how to up their own game. To slightly misquote the famous football chant – they’re shit, and they don’t even know they are.
Out of fairness I should also point out that some Corbyn supporters have hardly been magnanimous in victory, or any more realistic about the party’s current plight. As if Rafa Benitez were insisting that everything is fine at Newcastle and affecting outrage that anyone should doubt him. But they are still the ones who have the upper hand in the Labour Party and it’s up to Corbyn’s opponents to come up with a winning strategy, and to persuade those of us who are not supporters of either side that we should sign up to it.