For all the controversy over anti-Semitism and Jeremy Corbyn’s curious selection of international friends, there seems little doubt that Corbyn’s position as Labour leader is secure. Losing a vote of confidence amongst his own MPs by 172 to 40 didn’t dislodge him, and since then his position has been strengthened by the GE2017 campaign. Accusations of anti-Semitism and terrorist sympathies are water off a duck’s back.
However, it doesn’t follow that he will remain leader for an extended period. If this parliament lasts the full course, the next election will take place just before his 73rd birthday. If he is still leader then, it seems likely that he will want to step down not too long afterwards. Labour’s post-Corbyn era may be no more than four or so years away, perhaps less.
What then? The populist, hard-left Labour Party of today is unrecognisable compared with the centre-left party of Miliband, Brown and Blair, of Mandelson, Cooper and Darling. After Corbyn, will there be a return to that tradition, or is the party changed forever? Should the moderates hold out hope, or sink into despair?
At the moment, the party is being held together by Corbyn’s personal popularity within the membership. Without that binding force, there will inevitably be a struggle for the heart and soul of the party; there is no charismatic leader-in-waiting who will be able to retain Corbyn’s personal aura. Therefore it is the balance of power within the institutions of the party which will determine the post-Corbyn direction. Given the leftwards shift of the membership, the hard-left’s increasing grip on the NEC, and the organisational heft of Momentum, the route to moving the party back towards the centre looks fraught with difficulty.
We can tease this out further by postulating possible scenarios for Corbyn’s departure:
- Pre-Election: An early departure, before the next election, would mean that the party wouldn’t feel any strong electoral imperative to change course. It would remain a hard-left party, and fight the next election on a Corbyn-style platform.
- Electoral failure: A clear-cut failure by Corbyn in the next election, with Labour going backwards and the Conservatives gaining a majority, would greatly strengthen the hand of the moderates. If Corbyn departs after a poor result, the current Corbynistas, without his personality to unite and inspire them, could splinter and drift off. Further, the unions might decide that a more centrist positioning was a prerequisite for defeating the Tories. It’s a long shot, but this is a possible route for the moderates to regain control. It would be the mother of all battles, though.
- Electoral stalemate: A result which leaves the parties in broadly the same position as now would produce stalemate within Labour as well as in parliament. This would simply postpone the reckoning.
- A minority or majority Labour government: In the short-term, this would be a big boost for the hard-left, who would be able to point to significant electoral success as vindication of their politics. The moderates would be completely sidelined. However, the party would then be faced with actually governing. Expectations from Labour supporters would be sky-high, but with hard-left policies damaging the economy, a front-bench team totally unsuited to government, and probably with the parliamentary chaos of a hung parliament, the most likely outcome would be a very unpopular government which taints the Labour Party for many years. The moderates might eventually get their party back, but only after years in the wilderness.
- A Labour split: There has been much talk of a new party being formed. If this SDP Tribute Band does ever get off the ground, the short-term effect would be to help the Conservatives. In the longer term, if it can achieve critical mass, such a party could lead a realignment which sidelines the hard-left Labour Party and end up as the natural alternative to the Conservatives, especially if the latter go the full Rees-Mogg. However, under our FPTP electoral system, this realignment would be extremely hard to bring off; most probably it would simply hand power to the Tories for many years.
However you slice it, it doesn’t look likely that Labour after Corbyn will be any happier a place for the centre-left than Labour under Corbyn. Despair seems the most appropriate emotion for Labour moderates. Conservative moderates will be watching in trepidation.
Richard Nabavi is a long-standing PB contributor and a member of the Conservative Party.