Joff Wild is puzzled by the half-hearted response of Corbyn’s team. It’s as if they don’t care
The only question from a Labour perspective about the result of the Parliamentary constituency review for England and Wales is just how bad it will be for the party. The most optimistic prognosis I saw was from Paul Waugh in the Huffington Post, who reported that under the new boundaries the Tories would lose 17 seats and Labour would lose 23. But probably more realistic is the assessment provided by Anthony Wells, who put losses at 28 for Labour, 10 for the Tories, four for the Liberal Democrats and one for the Greens. Either way, though, the Conservatives – elected on just under 37% of the vote last year – would have won an even larger overall majority on the new boundaries than they actually managed to.
As a supporter of PR for all my adult life – who believes that the Commons is not there to reflect the results of a series of one-off, winner takes all contests, but the votes of the electorate – the boundary review was always going to be depressing. As a Labour supporter, it fills me with despair. One estimate I saw yesterday was that with Scotland lost to the SNP, to win an overall majority of one at the next general election, the party would need to make 92 gains in England and Wales – something that would involve gaining Tory seats with notional five figure majorities.
Given this, you would expect a full-on assault from the Labour leadership on what has been announced and a detailed strategy to challenge the outcome. There is plenty of raw meat to play with: the review focused on registered voter numbers, not on overall populations; even then, two million additional people who registered to vote in the EU referendum have not been included; as a result of the review the Prime Minister gets the largest notional majority of any MP in the country, while the Leader of the Opposition’s seat is abolished; and, because of first past the post, it will be even easier for the Tories to win overall majorities on even lower percentages of the vote. Of course, there are cases to be built against all of these claims, but for a determined, motivated, well-led organisation there is a lot to get its teeth into and to galvanise concerted opposition. That brings me to Jeremy Corbyn.
The Labour leadership knew that the review results were due to be announced on 13th September, it knew that the outcome was not going to be good for Labour and it knew that yesterday was a major opportunity to begin to frame the consultation period debate. The Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Chancellor and the rest of the Labour front bench could and should have been ready with a powerful message of defiance and a detailed plan to do everything possible to ensure that the final outcome is as positive for Labour as possible. But what we got was a brief statement from Jon Ashworth – who almost no ordinary voter has heard of – and individual reactions from some MPs.
For his part, Jeremy Corbyn pretty much confined himself to expressing disappointment and anger that his own constituency is set to go. Instead of outrage, a prominent Corbyn supporter and newly-elected member of the NEC went onto Radio 4 to say that the review is a chance to get rid of MPs who have not shown sufficient loyalty to the leader; Corbyn has made similar noises in the recent past, of course. In reality, Labour rules (unless changed) mean that mass deselection is highly unlikely; but the very strong impression given was that for many of those around Jeremy Corbyn, and by implication for the man himself, the boundary review is not a disaster for Labour, but a great opportunity to eliminate difficult customers and to consolidate control of what remains of the PLP after the next general election.
In my last Political Betting article I said that although Jeremy Corbyn is set to win the Labour leadership election comfortably, in the end his manifest inability to do the job and to unify will lead to his downfall. A lot of Labour members still giving him the benefit of the doubt, I said, will see how he performs over the coming couple of years and will reach the same conclusion that the majority of Labour’s pre-September 2015 membership already have: Corbyn is a disaster with an agenda that does not include leading Labour to victory at the next general election. That will become clear in the way he interacts with the PLP, in his handling of the Brexit debate, in his non-compliance with party policy on issues such as Trident, in his opposition to NATO and in his ongoing refusal to engage with the millions of voters who do not see the world in the way he does, not to mention his past support for the IRA, Hamas et al and his paid work for the Iranian theocracy. We can now add to that list his reaction to the boundary review.
Owen Jones – an influential though not uncritical supporter of Jeremy Corbyn – wrote an impassioned piece for the Guardian denouncing the boundary review. “Our ancestors fought for our democratic rights and freedoms. It would be an insult to this great British tradition if we now remained silent while a political party stitched up the rules in an attempt to keep itself in power forever,” he concluded. Jones, like hundreds of thousands of other Labour members, is about to discover that Jeremy Corbyn is much less bothered about this issue than he is. That will have consequences.
Joff Wild posts on Political Betting as SouthamObserver. Follow him on Twitter at @SpaJW