There is no guarantee that the Labour leader will resign if his party losesby Alex Dean / April 21, 2017 / Leave a comment
Bar an unlikely upset, Labour is headed for defeat on 8th June. A recent YouGov poll, the first released since this election was announced, put the party on 24 per cent to the Tories’ 48. This is the biggest Conservative lead since May 2008, in the heat of the financial crisis. Jeremy Corbyn has argued that the result is not a “foregone conclusion”—but frankly that sounds more like hope than real belief.
In light of this, you might expect the centrist wing of the party to be in despair. But many anti-Corbyn MPs have started talking about a silver lining. Their argument runs something like this: “Corbyn is leading our party to its worst defeat since the 1980s—but when we lose, he will resign. Then, Labour’s recovery can finally begin.” There has been discussion in recent days that Yvette Cooper—boosted by her incisive questions at PMQs and the publicity from her husband Ed Balls’s Strictly success—could take the helm when Corbyn finally throws in the towel.
I sympathise. As someone who would like to vote Labour, I want them to be right. But I fear they are not. For two reasons, there is no guarantee that Corbyn will resign if he loses in June.
First, consider the evidence from last year. Corbyn was torn apart by his party in a brutal vote of no confidence: 172 of his MPs voted against him, only 40 backed him. The infamous “coup” followed: dozens of his front benchers stepped down. Hilary Benn, a ringleader who was sacked for insubordination, summed up Corbyn: “He is not a leader.” All the while, Labour continued to plummet in the polls. Most normal leaders would have stepped aside. But Corbyn is not a normal leader. Citing his support among Labour members he stood his ground.
Granted, a catastrophic defeat in June’s general election would be a humiliation beyond even this. But all bets are off when it comes to Corbyn’s ability to endure torrid times. He defied conventional wisdom before, who’s to say he won’t do so again?
There is another reason to doubt whether Corbyn will go, and it boils down to the so-called “McDonnell amendment.” During the next Labour conference, in September, the party’s National Executive Committee will vote on an amendment to Labour’s constitution. It will decide whether to lower the nomination threshold for MPs standing for leadership. Currently, if a Labour MP wants to make the leadership ballot, they must first be nominated by 15 per cent of MPs—about 50 at present. The amendment would lower this to 5 per cent.
The NEC is divided between Corbyn supporters and opponents and there is no guarantee it would pass. But the Left will do its utmost to get its way. As it stands, they have little hope of getting one of their candidates onto the ballot ever again. Most MPs will run a mile from any future candidate who resembles the incumbent. Remember: only 40 of them backed him in June. The Corbynites simply don’t have the numbers. And if they can’t make the ballot paper, that’s it. The leadership bid stops dead.
Now imagine that the amendment passes. If Labour were reduced to 150 MPS, this would mean it take as few as eight left-wing MPs to get their candidate on the ballot. There a dozen or so die-hard left-wingers in the party: the Diane Abbotts, the Cat Smiths. No matter what happens in June, the Corbynite programme will retain the backing of this group. And that means a future Corbynite candidate could make it onto the ballot paper. Once he or she reached this stage, the rest would be easier. The membership, which has the final say, is—for the moment at least—overwhelmingly pro-Corbyn.
All this in mind, it seems unlikely Corbyn will stand down before the amendment has a chance to pass. To do so would be to admit total defeat: all the pain of the last two years would have been for nothing. The moderates would reclaim their party, and the hard left would be banished to the fringes once more. Corbyn and his supporters have been desperate to control the Labour Party for decades. The idea that they could willingly relinquish control in this way simply isn’t plausible.
So I am increasingly worried that Corbyn will cling on in the hope that the amendment passes. Then, his camp will be able to guide through the election of a chosen hard-left successor, before Corbyn steps aside. If that happens, then a split in the Labour Party, as discussed by Ross McKibbin in April’s Prospect, becomes a whole lot more likely.