In last year’s leadership election in Britain’s opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn was the rank outsider who defied the odds. This time, he started off as the red-hot favourite. His triumph seemed inevitable almost from the get go. Corbyn’s victory over Owen Smith, who challenged him in the summer following a vote of no confidence in the leader by Labour MPs, was decisive.
A total of 506,438 party members, trade unionists and registered supporters (the latter paying £25) voted. That was despite thousands of members being refused a vote because they had joined too recently. Overall, Corbyn was supported by 59% of members, 60% of trade unionists and 70% of registered supporters, giving him a hefty 62-38 victory over Smith.
Despite the deep opposition to Corbyn in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the leader’s base of support among the grassroots remains solid. A surge in new members transformed the very nature of the party. Most of the new intake are left wing and, more importantly, appear reluctant to trade off ideological principles for electability if that entails tacking to the centre. Arguably, their greater loyalty is to Corbyn and the radical-left policies he represents than to Labour as an organisation (many have previously voted Green).
For these members, Corbyn is the authentic voice of their political ambitions, seeking to mobilise non-voters and persuade Greens, Liberal Democrats and Celtic nationalists to support Labour’s left-wing platform, rather than shifting Labour closer to centre-ground voters.
With Corbyn’s re-election, the takeover is complete. Not only does the left enjoy weight of numbers in the constituency Labour parties (CLPs), it has a well-drilled grassroots organisation, Momentum that has been mobilising supporters and defends the leader. Some of its members have raised the prospect of deselecting MPs who consistently oppose Corbyn.
The left also has majority support in Labour’s affiliated trade unions, including the two biggest, Unite and Unison. Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, is a key Corbyn backer, periodically warning recalcitrant MPs of the risk of deselection. However, two other unions, GMB and USDAW, backed Smith, indicating that union support for the left, while strong, is not monolithic.
Union and CLP votes are important at the party conference, where policies are set, and in elections to the National Executive Committee (NEC). The latter has become the main site of conflict between pro and anti-Corbyn forces, although it now leans towards Corbyn after the left swept the board in the election of the six CLP representatives (out of 33 members).
It was the NEC that chose to interpret Labour’s constitution favourably for Corbyn when it ruled that, as the incumbent, he automatically qualified as a candidate in the leadership election.
The PLP is the last section of the party that remains estranged from Corbyn. Smith’s leadership challenge, mounted in the days after the EU referendum, when anger among the MPs towards Corbyn was at its peak, was a desperate attempt to destroy Corbyn, but ended up entrenching him.
Although Labour’s poll rating is anaemic, the party has not yet suffered the degree of electoral damage that would weaken support for Corbyn among the unions and members. It has won parliamentary by-elections and the London mayoralty, and while its performance in the local elections was below par, it was not catastrophic.
Time to choose
Labour MPs now face an awkward choice. They could continue resisting Corbyn, but they would do so without much assistance from the party outside parliament. The leadership challenge has seen their bluff called. There is unlikely to be another one until they believe there is a good chance of winning.
In the meantime, disloyal behaviour is likely to attract the attention of Momentum, whose activists may seek to replace them with more supportive figures. Mandatory reselection is being freely discussed and while there appear to be no immediate plans to re-introduce it, the proposed changes to parliamentary boundaries are likely to see lots of sitting MPs needing to participate in selection ballots.
That is likely to concentrate minds. The Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy – one of whose leading figures was Momentum founder Jon Lansman – used to insist that selection ballots were not merely a device for sacking MPs but for changing their behaviour.
The PLP could of course leave to form a new party. The fate of the Social Democratic Party – which saw centrist MPs defect from Labour to form an ill-fated moderate rival in 1981 – offers a cautionary tale of what can happen to those who leave the safety of an established major party to go it alone in the British electoral system. Talk of a split has died down in recent months, although it could bubble up again if MPs start to find themselves being deselected. At that point, the costs of defecting would fall dramatically.
The most likely option for now is to attempt to make peace with Corbyn. That has led to suggestions that some MPs will return to the shadow cabinet after their mass walk-out in June.
Holding on to power
But for the left, this might be the moment to force through the current advantage. Some concessions to MPs are necessary – it’s impossible to run a shadow cabinet and hold the government to account in parliament in the face of a mass boycott by senior MPs – but there are ways to shore up power for the future.
Mandatory reselection is one option but another would be changes to leadership selection rules. Currently, candidates must be nominated by 15% of MPs and MEPs when the leadership position is vacant. That could make it hard for the left to replace Corbyn after he steps down. Decreasing it to 5% would make it much simpler. Similarly, introducing membership ballots on policy matters could help to shift policy to the left.
The danger would be in antagonising the unions, whose prerogatives might be threatened. Indeed, the PLP’s last hope is that the unions will eventually turn against the left and ride to the rescue. With their votes at the party conference, they could help to push through rule changes that assisted the centrists – perhaps to reintroduce the old electoral college for choosing leaders – and overturn the left’s majority on the NEC, as they did in the early 1980s.
It’s difficult to see that happening while McCluskey remains leader of Unite. He is up for re-election in 2018 and many in the PLP will be hoping that could be their chance to start the fight-back. But who knows what will have happened in the Labour party by then?