Jeremy Corbyn’s convincing 62 per cent to 38 per cent victory over Owen Smith in the Labour leadership election ensures that the party continues to navigate uncharted waters in the relationship between leaders, MPs and party members. Debates about the desirability of internal party democracy have often assumed a tension between MPs and activists over ideology and electability. Typically, though, the leader was assumed to stand with “moderate” MPs against radical activists.
Corbyn, by contrast, is the figurehead and delegate of the activists against the overwhelming bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), three-quarters of which expressed no confidence in him in June. Many believed that the PLP would reassert its control because of the practical necessity for a leader to organise a viable front bench and hold the government to account in parliament. Only MPs can do that, not activists (or trade-union leaders). If MPs withdrew their support, the leader would be finished. The no-confidence vote was duly followed by mass resignations from the shadow cabinet.
But Corbyn would not budge. Losing a confidence vote was moot for someone who never enjoyed the MPs’ confidence in the first place. (It’s one reason why comparisons with Michael Foot are misplaced: Foot was chosen to be leader by Labour MPs, not by activists.) Corbyn takes his mandate from the members alone. They in turn noisily demand that MPs respect it.