Amid the chaos that followed the leaking of Labour’s 2017 election manifesto, it was easy to overlook the most important reaction to the document. That was the delight of the Labour left. Momentum, the pressure group that is strongly supportive of party leader Jeremy Corbyn, emailed its supporters to extol the draft manifesto as “brilliant”. Social media lit up with activists enthusing about plans to nationalise rail and energy companies, abolish tuition fees and build 100,000 council houses each year. It is a manifesto that the left is already rallying around.
None of this changes the fact that Labour are still 15-20 points behind in the polls and facing a landslide defeat. But it may have an effect on what happens after the anticipated election loss. The hope of moderates in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) has been that responsibility for the severity of the coming defeat would be hung round the neck of the left. With a left-wing leader and a left-wing manifesto decisively rejected by the voters, there would be nobody else to blame.
But the mood music has already started to change among some Corbynistas. Their ecstatic reaction to the manifesto, and their insistence that its policy proposals are “wildly popular” (to quote a common description), point to an obvious post-election strategy. A narrative is developing that voters, constantly bombarded with unfair and hostile media attacks on Corbyn, are unable to see him as a prime minister. Sacrificing the leader will be necessary to protect the left-wing policies that Labour has finally adopted. And those policies will be Corbyn’s real legacy.
Trying to keep Corbyn in place indefinitely will merely enable centrist MPs to argue that the leader and his left-wing supporters have their own interests, rather than those of the party, at heart. The case for Corbynism without Corbyn had already been made by the journalist, Owen Jones, before the election was called. It’s likely to be taken up more widely if Labour loses on June 8.
Just one problem
The obstacle to this plan is Labour’s leadership selection rules. Currently, candidates need 15% of Labour MPs and MEPs to nominate them if they want to stand for election when the position of leader is vacant. If they want to challenge an incumbent leader, they need 20%.
Then there is a ballot of the party’s 500,000 members, eligible union members and “registered supporters” (members of the public who pay a fee to participate: £3 in the 2015 contest but £25 in the 2016 contest). This selectorate has already delivered Corbyn two thumping majorities. The left will hope for the same for another left-wing candidate promising to stand by the manifesto.
The problem will be the 15% nomination threshold in the event of a Corbyn resignation. Corbyn managed to surmount it in 2015 only after being “loaned” nominations by centrist MPs thinking he was a no-hoper and wanting to “broaden the debate”. They won’t make that mistake again.
The left fears that a 15% threshold would make it impossible to get any candidate on the ballot, because most Labour MPs are centrist. That would leave little option but to keep Corbyn in place (he would not need renominating in the event of a direct challenge). But that would leave him as a lightning rod for his critics in the PLP and media, undermining the party’s recovery.
So, plans are afoot to change the rules at the Labour conference in September, reducing the nomination threshold to a much more surmountable 5%. With Len McCluskey newly re-elected as leader of Unite, Labour’s largest union affiliate and its biggest vote-wielder at the conference, such a move is a real possibility.
That would require Corbyn to stay on for a few months, perhaps until Christmas. His supporters have briefed that Neil Kinnock stayed on despite losing the 1987 election – although he is the only major party leader of the past 40 years to lose one election and fight the next. Better precedents would be James Callaghan, the former Labour prime minister, and the ex-Conservative leader, Michael Howard, who both stayed on temporarily while their parties debated changing leadership selection rules. Corbyn could do the same. The left has worked hard to capture the party and will not give it up without a fight.
Centrist MPs are in despair. Reports last week suggested that 100 of them could refuse to take the Labour whip and not return until Corbyn had gone. But that would ensure another left-wing leader, as they would no longer be part of the PLP and therefore would not be included in the calculation of the 15% threshold. Corbyn could then resign and it would be much easier for a replacement left-winger to overcome the 15% hurdle when the PLP was much smaller.
Besides, there is also a significant policy fissure within the moderate bloc of MPs, which would undermine attempts to show a united front. Suggestions that Corbyn’s PLP enemies could break away will probably be frustrated by divisions over Brexit. Labour MPs representing metropolitan constituencies may want to adopt an anti-Brexit stance, but MPs for constituencies in the North and Midlands which voted Leave will be keen to reflect local opinion. The traditional left-right factional division within the Labour Party is now cross-cut by Brexit.
The moderates’ unity is thus likely to be weakened just as the party’s direction is again being debated. The left claims its policies are popular, but while nationalising the railways and perhaps energy companies might elicit some support, these are hardly the most pressing issues for voters. Electability still depends on a credible economic strategy, where the sums add up and wealth is created – not just redistributed. That remains the question mark against Labour’s manifesto. But with a demoralised and divided moderate faction, who will make the case that it wasn’t just Corbyn but Corbynism that lost the election for Labour?