What Corbyn’s constituencies tell us about the class of 2020

What Corbyn’s constituencies tell us about the class of 2020


Never mind the leadership, the PLP could be transformed

One of the odder features of the Labour leadership election is that the nominations of constituency parties are firstly made and secondly reported. It’s odd because these are almost entirely meaningless given that they play no role in the process. They may be useful to observers if they represent the genuine view of the membership (which isn’t something to be taken for granted), and may help a candidate to build momentum – as, in the case of Corbyn, they have – but it seems like a lot of effort in an election where everyone’s vote is of equal value and cast independently.

However, where they may be a good deal more significant is at parliamentary level. All else being equal, Labour will need 400 candidates to fight seats they didn’t win in May and probably around another 40-50 for seats they did where the MP retires next time. Of the 400 they lost, about 100 would need to be gained in order to win a small overall majority. Put another way, if Labour is to retake power, they’ll do so with half their MPs being newly elected, and – significantly in this context – newly selected.

Not all is equal though. Between now and 2020, the constituency boundaries will be redrawn across the country. That’s going to mean both that Labour needs to gain an even higher number of seats to win a majority, and that many seats that did return a Labour MP this last election will be so affected as to need to select from first principles.

Which is where the constituency nominations may become meaningful. Even though Corbyn’s lead in nominations wasn’t as big as his reported lead in the polls, it was a lead all the same. There has clearly been a leftwards swing in the thinking of Labour members (or perhaps in the priority they give to ideology as against electability). Furthermore, if ideology does matter to a party member, it’s likely to be more relevant at a constituency level where it’s not as important to voters than at a national one.

There are of course many other reasons why people will select candidates beyond their political stance: local sons and daughters, past record, speaking ability, networking ability and many other factors come into play. Even so, a candidate’s responses to key questions on public services funding and provision, tax and the deficit, or foreign and defence policy, will matter at least as much as their willingness to stuff paper through letterboxes or man street stalls. Put simply, it may not just be the leadership that takes a marked jump to the left but the whole parliamentary Labour party.

And this is the big risk for those who think that it’ll be safe to elect Corbyn because he can always be dumped in three of four years, allowing a fresh face to take on the Tories: the party then may be quite different from the party now. Not only that but there’s a feedback effect. A Corbyn-led Labour would encourage those non-members who voted for him to join, while those on the opposite wing lapse their membership. By the time it comes to select candidates for parliament, or to select a new leader, the left may have taken an even firmer grip.

Or not. I’ve not cross-checked the constituency nominations against who holds those seats and by how much. As mentioned earlier, given the boundary review, such an exercise is of limited value. Even so, there can be a tendency for constituency associations in heavily Tory areas to be very left-wing, as social democrat types join the local Lib Dems who often have a stronger presence, leaving the hardliners to debate the relevance of dialectical materialism to the Surrey stockbroker belt in glorious irrelevance.

Even so, whether or not Corbyn wins, the fact that so many activists (not just members, never mind supporters) were willing to back him has to be a sign as to the nature of the cohort of candidates who’ll be selected for 2020: candidates who if Labour is successful will probably make up more than half the PLP.

David Herdson

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