Next year, not this, is the best bet for a change of Labour leader, argues Joff Wild
The good news for Jeremy Corbyn is that he is not the most unpopular politician in the UK. The bad news is that the two men who beat him to top spot are Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. With the Labour leader being kept out of view from voters in Stoke and featuring prominently on Tory campaign literature in Copeland, and the party’s overall poll ratings continuing to slide on the back of the highly divisive and utterly pointless decision to three line whip Labour MPs through the lobbies in support of Tory Hard Brexit, it is no surprise that talk of Corbyn’s leadership is once again front page news. As TSE observed today, it’s becoming a question of when he goes, not whether.
Obviously, anyone who like me wants a decent opposition to the Tories, let alone a competitive Labour party electorally, will scream “the sooner the better”, but sadly things are not as simple as that. While Corbyn stepping down immediately would be wonderful, the chances are that he won’t. In fact, the awful truth is that while Theresa May gets on with negotiating the Brexit deal, for the next year or so at least it’s likely that facing her across the Commons floor will be the current Leader of the Opposition, hopeless, hapless and shorn of the last vestiges of whatever authority he might once have had. Thus, unfortunately for the UK, the only serious scrutiny the Prime Minister will need to worry about at this crucial time in the country’s history is that which comes from her own party. Here’s why.
At the next Labour party conference, being held in Brighton this autumn, a vote will be held about lowering the nomination threshold to become a candidate in any future leadership election. Entitled the McDonnell amendment – as it was originally suggested as a means for the shadow chancellor to succeed Corbyn – the proposal is that instead of being required to secure the support of 15% of MPs and MEPs (while they are still around), as is currently the case, a prospective candidate would only be required to secure 5%. Obviously, that would make it much easier for someone from the far left to get onto the ballot, paving a clear path for Corbyn to quit a job he so obviously hates in order to spend even more time making jam and tending his allotment.
Given that the only way for Labour to win and exercise power is to have more MPs than other parties and to be able to organise them effectively, the wisdom of a leader with just 5% support from those sitting behind him or her in the Commons is moot, to say the least. But let’s put that to one side; instead, let’s focus on whether the McDonnell amendment will pass. That is unlikely.
It is now clear that most of Corbyn’s support is derived from keyboard members who never go near a constituency Labour party (CLP). If you look at votes on appointments in which being physically present at a meeting is required – ie, almost all those outside the leader, deputy leader and CLP NEC members contests (which are online) – then moderates win most of the time. What this means is that MPs and Parliamentary candidates will continue to be primarily chosen by moderate members and that CLP delegations to conference are likely to be mostly made up of moderates.
If I am right on this, the McDonnell amendment will not pass. But I could be wrong. What is pretty much certain is that there is no way Corbyn will voluntarily stand down before the vote occurs.
If I have called it incorrectly and the proposal gets through, Corbyn’s resignation is unlikely to follow immediately, especially as he would be succeeded on an interim basis by Tom Watson, who is widely despised by Corbyn’s team. Instead, the far left will agree the candidate it wants to put up to take his place and Corbyn will say he will stand down once the election has taken place in 2018, so leaving Watson in limbo.
But if I am right and the McDonnell amendment fails, Corbyn and his comrades in arms have a big question to ask themselves: does he stay in place and lead Labour to catastrophe at the next general election, so destroying the far left inside Labour for a generation at least; or does he step down and let the soft left or even the centre take the can for a shellacking? I think there is a good case for believing that the far left may well seek to shift as much blame as possible to its Labour rivals for a 2020 defeat, as that may allow for a comeback in the following decade.
On the other hand, if Corbyn chooses to stay, the drift away from him among members is only likely to continue. As polls stay low and real results remain dire, we can expect a challenge after the local government elections in May 2018.
Of course, we could still get a change this year. All that it would take is for Len McCluskey (or Gerard Coyne, if there is a miracle in the Unite general secretary election) to call for a contest. That would then give licence to MPs to gather nominations without accusation of disloyalty. My sense is that we are well past peak-Corbyn and that if there were a union sanctioned challenge in 2017 he would lose. Of course, when he does go, he will take a lot of those keyboard members with him; that can only be good news for Labour and for the country as a whole.
Joff Wild posts on Political Betting as SouthamObserver. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpaJW