Alastair Meeks looks at the LAB leadership
Considering how little support Jeremy Corbyn has in his Parliamentary party, it is astonishing that the subject of leadership succession never comes up any more. Part of this is about airtime: there’s so much discussion about Brexit and the travails of Theresa May that no one has the energy to look at what’s going on in the Labour party.
For the moment, Jeremy Corbyn is safe from challenge. The membership have twice emphatically demonstrated that they support him and his surprisingly good performance in the general election last year has ensured that he is unquestionably the master of the Labour party.
Still, the question needs to be looked at. While Donald Trump has shown that there isn’t an upper age limit to running a democratic government, Jeremy Corbyn turns 70 next year and in the event that he became Prime Minister, a far left leader gripping the reins of power indefinitely would conjure up images of the twilight of the Soviet Union. (For the benefit of those Corbynites currently boasting of their Communist allegiances, that is not a good look.) A succession plan is needed.
As always with such markets, the first question to consider is not “who?” but “when?”. The possibilities are as follows: he steps down before the next election to hand over to an anointed successor; he steps down at some point in the next term after a general election victory; he steps down at some point in the next term after another general election defeat; or he continues as Labour leader beyond the end of the next term (whether or not he becomes Prime Minister after the next election).
How likely is each of these scenarios? Let’s take them each in turn.
Stepping down soon
I suggest that this is more likely than is generally considered. Rumours that he works a four day week have been dismissed but similar rumours that he takes time off in lieu whenever he appears on the Andrew Marr show have not. He certainly believes in a work-life balance, making time to tend his allotment. It seems entirely possible to me that he might have a retirement age in mind and intend stepping down when he reaches it. Jeremy Corbyn is apparently in reasonable health but he does turn 70 next year. If he feels able, he might well step down.
You can form your own view of this possibility but I’d say it’s at least a one in five chance. If Jeremy Corbyn does step down, he will presumably be confident of handing over to someone who he is confident will continue the project (my biggest reservation is that to date no one has obviously been groomed for the role). The obvious contenders are John McDonnell or just possibly Rebecca Long-Bailey.
The rest of the shadow Cabinet (from where an anointed successor must surely be drawn in such circumstances) either lack sufficient loyalty or lack sufficient ability or experience. Neither defect is completely insuperable. It may be that a loyal if bovine protégé might be chosen to act as a figurehead.
What of the more independent-minded? Well, Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity is uniquely personal and his endorsement of any candidate is likely to be decisive. The winner will don the mantle of his support like a lead cloak and will struggle to move freely. So Emily Thornberry, Jon Ashworth or Angela Rayner might be chosen to carry on the cause, whether or not they fully subscribe to it, if the obvious candidates are in some way seen as unsuitable. Emily Thornberry, being on personally good terms with Jeremy Corbyn and perfectly competent and presentable, might well fit the bill nicely.
Leaving in the next term after victory
This would work quite similarly. The list of potential approved candidates might be longer, though John McDonnell becomes less and less likely, given his own age. Given the turnover in the shadow Cabinet it is far from clear who might be in the mix, even if you take the view that the preferred successor must be drawn from its ranks. To the names already suggested you might add Clive Lewis and Lisa Nandy, who in this scenario have time to rehabilitate themselves with the inner circle.
Again, I see this as a significant possibility given Jeremy Corbyn’s age and given that the Parliamentary Labour party looks likely to be unruly. His age would become increasingly important: he would be 77 at the time of a hypothetical 2027 election so questions of the appropriateness of him being put forward to serve as Prime Minister for a further five years would be ever louder. I make it a 50% chance that Labour will form the next government and a 75% chance that Jeremy Corbyn will step down during that term if he wins. That makes this a 30% chance (allowing for the possibility that he has stepped down by the next election).
Leaving in the next term after defeat
This is the most interesting permutation. Corbynites have followed the old rule that if at first you don’t succeed, redefine success. They treated last year’s defeat as a victory. Will they do so a second time? If so, they will see no need to change course. The non-believers will disagree and if Jeremy Corbyn does not step down voluntarily he will probably be challenged again. My best guess is that he would not stand again but would nominate a preferred successor. In these circumstances the preferred successor would not inevitably win but would have a big head start.
Of those completely outside the circle of trust, the obvious candidate is Keir Starmer, who is Labour’s Remain figurehead. While the Labour membership is much less cult-like than popular myth would have you believe, they are looking to be the foot soldiers of a moral crusade, and no one else on the Labour centre or right currently looks capable of leading one. The far left’s grip of Labour can be broken by a charismatic figure, but charismatic figures are not in superabundance in the Parliamentary Labour party.
Given the greater pressure on Jeremy Corbyn if Labour loses, I make it a higher probability that he will step down in these circumstances, something like a 90% chance. This makes this permutation a 36% chance.
Staying in office beyond the end of the next term
At this point Labour could fairly be labelled a Corbynite cult, with jokes about ageing politburos entirely justifiable. You will see that I make this a roughly one in seven chance. Who might succeed him in these circumstances would be wholly imponderable.
To the betting markets. I got rather excited when I first looked at this, because the Betfair market has an underround. However, when I looked closely, no fewer than seven shadow Cabinet ministers were not listed on the market (they have now been added). Always be aware that the eventual winner might not yet be listed.
Despite that warning, it still seems to me that there is value to be had. Even after all the events of the last three years, the prices on Jeremy Corbyn’s Parliamentary opponents remain far too short. While it is very possible that Yvette Cooper, Chuka Umunna or Hilary Benn might get put before the membership, nothing in Labour’s recent history suggests that they would stand an earthly chance of winning in any currently foreseeable circumstances. I also discount anyone who is not currently in Parliament or likely to be in the next Parliament. David Miliband, Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham all fall down on this basis. All of these figures look like lays at current prices (if like me you have a green book from past gyrations of this market).
So who is worth backing? Emily Thornberry is justly favourite, given her personal closeness to the leader and her seniority. Her price (6.8 on Betfair at the time of writing) looks about right to me in a volatile market: this is not a favourite to lay. Rebecca Long-Bailey is available to back at 21 and that looks like value to me. I first backed her at odds of 320 to 350 in October 2016 and I’ve topped up now.
This is a market where long shots are well worth considering. You can back several shadow Cabinet ministers at three figure odds: for example, John Healey at 300 might well be a better choice than other centre figures, given his decision to work with rather than against Jeremy Corbyn. Kate Osamor is currently available at 100 and that looks worth a flutter. But I continue to believe that Lisa Nandy is the Labour figure who is thinking most deeply about what is needed next and talking about what that might mean. It has to be a better than a 28/1 shot that Labour will alight on the best choice, surely?