After a bruising week, Jeremy Corbyn has emerged stronger than ever writes Keiran Pedley leaving Labourâ€™s moderates with plenty to think about.
Every now and then a week comes along in British politics that is genuinely important and shapes what is to come. Last week was one of them. All of the ingredients pointed to a disaster for Jeremy Corbyn. From allegations that the leadership was â€˜bullyingâ€™ MPs with farcical â€˜consultationsâ€™ to a divisive Syria vote and THAT Hilary Benn speech the Labour leader was pummelled from all sides. Yet at the time of writing, Jeremy Corbynâ€™s grip on the leadership of the Labour Party is probably the strongest it has ever been.
There are two main reasons for this. The first is the Oldham West and Royton by-election. In a result that surprised pretty much everyone, Labour increased its share of the vote and convincingly held the seat.
The importance of by-elections are almost always overstated.Â They usually tell us very little about the wider political landscape and it would certainly be wrong to somehow conclude from Oldham that Jeremy Corbyn is â€˜electableâ€™ in the country as a whole.Â After all, with leadership ratings of -41 he is one of the least popular opposition leaders on record.
Nevertheless, the political significance of last Thursday is actually very important. In surpassing expectations, Corbyn enters 2016 with a spring in his step and his leadership very much intact. Next May promises to be much more challenging of course but if Sadiq Khan (currently 6 points ahead in the polls) can win back the London Mayorality for Labour we could find that Jeremy Corbyn is around a lot longer than many originally thought.
This brings us to the second point â€“ the Labour Party membership. Recent polling by YouGov has shown very clearly that Labour Party members remain overwhelmingly behind the man they chose in September.Â 65% think that he is â€˜doing wellâ€™ and his policies on issues such as Syria and Trident chime with the majority of members too. There are vocal critics of course, both in the membership (35% think he is â€˜doing badlyâ€™) and the PLP but the point is that the majority are behind him. As long as he can point to progress â€“ in Oldham or perhaps in London next May â€“ it is hard to see that significantly changing.
The challenge for Labourâ€™s moderates
All of this represents a big challenge for Labour moderates as they see their now tenuous grip on the party slip further away. For Corbyn to be vulnerable they need him to be such a transparent electoral disaster that even his believers start to doubt him (and ideally start fighting amongst themselves). His critics can point to his poor personal poll ratings, perceived weaknesses on defence and double digit poll deficits on voting intention (and they would be right to do so) but it is Labour Party members and the unions that need to be convinced if he is to be replaced.
In any case, even if Corbyn was replaced the likelihood right now is that it would be with someone from the same wing of the party â€“ perhaps with less baggage from the 1980s to hold them back.
The truth is that if Labourâ€™s moderates ever hope to lead the party again then they need to use the time they have now to do some serious thinking about what they are for, why it matters and how they can articulate that in a meaningful way. For too long the Labour Party has been about â€˜not being the Toriesâ€™, supporting the NHS and talking about the minimum wage. This is all fine but it is wholly insufficient in meeting the challenges the party now faces on issues such as immigration, Scotland and how a party of the left governs with less money to spend.
Ever since Tony Blair stood down there has been a vacuum where the next big (moderate) Labour agenda for the future should be. Jeremy Corbyn has filled that vacuum with ideas that are not especially new but are at least easy to â€˜grab hold ofâ€™ and define. This (along with a new membership) is why Labour is where it is now. At some point this parliament I still expect Labour to face a leadership contest. Perhaps Corbyn will end up deposed, perhaps he will stand down and let someone else face the 2020 General Election or perhaps he will submit himself to the Labour Party for re-election in the spirit of the â€˜new politicsâ€™ (or to set a precedent for re-selections)! Whatever the scenario, Labour moderates need something to bring to the table when it happens. â€˜Not being Corbynâ€™ â€“ however desirable â€“ will not be enough just as â€˜not being the Toriesâ€™ hasnâ€™t been since 2007.
Keiran Pedley is a polling and elections expert at GfK and tweets about polling and politics at @keiranpedley