Last week’s YouGov poll of Labour members, registered supporters and trade union affiliates giving Jeremy Corbyn a 62% to 38% lead over Owen Smith in the party’s leadership election will have surprised few, except – perhaps – Don Brind and Saving Labour (though how much they really believe the contest is too close to call is a moot point). As someone implacably opposed to Corbyn’s leadership, I have always expected him to win on 24th September with around 60% of ballots cast and from conversations I have been having since June I don’t think I am alone. For me, this vote has always been part of a process, not an end in itself – again, I think many others share that view.
In his piece on Political Betting on Wednesday, Nick Palmer argued that following Corbyn’s win we will not see a Labour split or mass deselections of MPs. I agree with him. Where I think Nick has got it wrong, though, is in stating things are likely to settle down – albeit grudgingly – after 24th September. From where I sit that looks like a very optimistic call. Here’s why:
- Although Corbyn will win by a wide margin, a lot of people will vote against him. If turnout is high, it could be as many as 200,000 or so. That would make the anti-Corbyn Labour party the second biggest paid political grouping in the UK. It may not be a majority in Labour, but it would be a sizeable minority – and composed largely of people who have stuck with the party through good times and bad, who turn up to CLP meetings and who do the electoral donkey work. They are Labour’s true lifeblood. Of course, some will walk away once Owen Smith’s defeat is announced. Most, though, will not. They will stick around, they will watch and they will wait.
- This feeds into my second point: to see Corbyn v Smith as the Labour membership v the parliamentary Labour party is plain wrong. It suits the Corbyn side to say that, of course, but in reality there are huge numbers of longstanding members who think the leader is not up to it, as well as elected Labour representatives at every level: council, mayoral and devolved, in addition to national. Beyond that, Labour has a deeply divided NEC and unions at each other’s throats – the two biggest, the GMB and Unite, are in almost open warfare. None of this can be rebottled, especially when it seems that some in Corbyn’s team (John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, for example) are clearly spoiling for a post-election fight, with Labour HQ staff and the general secretary Ian McNicol the first in their sights.
- Then there are events. At some point the government is going to trigger Article 50 to begin the countdown for EU withdrawal. Labour members and the trade unions will be expecting an effective, dynamic Labour response – good luck with that with EU-sceptic Jeremy Corbyn at the helm! There are also local elections next year across England, Wales and Scotland, as well as a series of mayoral contests. If opinion polls are correct Labour is unlikely to secure results indicating it is even close to being able to challenge the Tories. Then in 2018, there are not only more local elections, but the battle among MPs to get seats under the redrawn constituency boundaries will begin. There is also the small matter of the Unite leadership election to be fought. None of this is likely to bring the Labour party together.
- What’s more, with every passing week and month the next general election draws closer. Theresa May’s government is undoubtedly far more right wing than any we have seen since the time of Margaret Thatcher and we can expect that to be reflected in the legislative proposals it comes up with. A right wing government, passing right wing legislation and remaining ahead of Corbyn’s Labour party in the polls is not going to engender Labour unity.
In sum, what I envisage over the coming months and years is ongoing hostility at all levels inside Labour, with periodic explosions of open conflict. But, as a non-Corbynite, I also have hope.
Despite the mass rallies and the YouGov poll lead, this has not been a great leadership campaign for Corbyn. His many flaws have been exposed for all in the party to see. The vivid testimonies of women MPs such as Lilian Greenwood, Angela Eagle, Sharon Hodgson, Thangam Debonnaire, Angela Smith and Chi Onwurah all speak of a man who will not engage with colleagues or listen to their concerns – something seen starkly when, without consulting anyone, he called for Article 50 to be invoked “now” the morning after the EU referendum.
The Traingate fiasco, his trumpeting of a Communist digital policy adviser, the after-work drinks fiasco and his claim not to be wealthy despite earning over £137,000 a year have shown him, at best, to have a tin ear when it comes to PR. His past support for groups such as the IRA, Hamas, Hezbollah and Stop the War have been given an airing as a preview of what would come during a general election campaign, and that’s before you consider his views on NATO and paid TV work for the Iranian government. The boorishness and aggression of some of his most vocal supporters have been topics of wide discussion, as has his refusal to do anything about it. All of this has set parameters against which Corbyn’s future performance can be measured.
Corbyn supporters are sometimes referred to as the Cult. I have been guilty of doing this myself, but over the last few weeks of talking to many Corbynistas I have come to realise that it is wrong and it is unfair. Some of his followers clearly back him rather than the Labour party, but many (most) others are Labour supporters above all else. They are angry with the PLP, they think Corbyn should be given more time, but they want Labour to win. They have seen and heard how the campaign has gone, they know Corbyn as leader has awful downsides, but right now they are prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. In the coming months and years, Corbyn has to demonstrate to them that they were right to show such confidence. All the evidence shows he is incapable of doing so. And as that becomes apparent, I believe more and more Labour members will abandon him – just as many pre-2015 members are clearly doing this time around.
It is going to take some time, it is probably going to be brutal, it will almost certainly hand the Tories the next general election on a plate, when a united, reasonably moderate Labour might well have made significant gains; but today I am more convinced than I have ever been that Labour will survive as a serious force in British politics. Now pass me the smelling salts.
Joff Wild posts as SouthamObserver on Political Betting and is on Twitter at @SpaJW