"If Labour has a real disaster, pro-Corbyn MPs will hold on to more than three quarters of their representation, while the larger Corbyn-sceptic group will be cut in half."by Alex Dean / May 4, 2017 / Leave a comment
The phenomenon of party leaders stepping down after a defeat is a relatively new one. Robert Peel lost in 1835, hung on and had another—successful—crack in 1841. William Gladstone clung on through two defeats, and ended up being PM three times, finally throwing in the towel in 1886. In the 20th century, Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill both stuck around after election day humblings. More recently, Neil Kinnock stood his ground after a routing in 1987, though he never made it to No 10.
It is difficult to imagine any normal leader, at least from one of the two main parties, doing this now. Resigning post-defeat has become standard practice. Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and David Cameron all backed off after humiliation at the polls.
Jeremy Corbyn, though, is not a normal politician. The evidence suggests that Labour will be pummelled on 8th June: according to ICM, the party is 19 points behind the Tories. But there are good reasons to think that however bad the result, Corbyn will break with recent precedent and cling on to power. The first such reason, which I explored in a recent blog, concerns the so-called “McDonnell amendment.” The second reason—which is related to the first—I want to explore here.
First, some background. In September, Labour’s National Executive Committee will vote on an amendment to the party’s constitution: currently, 15 per cent of MPs must nominate a leadership candidate for them to make the ballot paper; this would change the number to 5 per cent. There is incentive for Corbyn to wait for this amendment to pass before stepping aside. His allies will find it easier to meet the 5 per cent threshold, and so if he wants a successor from his wing of the party, delaying until September makes sense.
Already the MP for Islington North will be tempted to try his luck, but the reasons for hanging on do not stop here. Look at the electoral map, speak to the experts, and another becomes clear. The picture for Labour moderates starts to look very grim.
If—when—Labour loses in June, its right wing MPs are more likely to lose their seats than its left wing ones. Corbynites tend to occupy safer seats than moderates. Charlie Cadywould, a researcher at think tank Policy Network and author of a recent report on Labour’s parliamentary make-up, told me: “Because they tend to represent safe Labour seats, the worse Labour does at the polls in June, the stronger the Corbynites will become.”
To get a flavour of this, consider some of the big names. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s majority in Hayes and Harlington is over 15,000. Diane Abbott’s majority is even chunkier, at 24,000. For Richard Burgon, shadow justice secretary, the figure is 12,533. The only hardcore Corbynite in real trouble is Cat Smith, shadow minister for youth engagement and voter affairs, who used to work in Corbyn’s office. Her majority in Lancaster and Fleetwood is just 1,265.
Now look at the right of the party. John Woodcock, a former chair of Blairite pressure group Progress and vocal critic of Corbyn, has a majority of just 725. Wes Streeting, also strongly opposed to the leader, is in even rougher shape: his majority is 589. Mary Creagh, branded “hostile” in the leaked Corbynite loyalty list last year, is on 2,600. Liz Kendall’s is 7,000: better, but far from Diane Abbott territory. Rumour has it that the Conservatives think their candidate, 24-year-old Jack Hickey, can push her out. There are some opponents of Corbyn with large majorities, but the overall pattern is clear.
The implications are troubling. Corbyn already has incentive to cling on while he waits for the passage of the amendment. But if Labour winds up losing badly, the incentive will increase. The proportions will swing such that a hard-left nomination onto the ballot paper becomes simpler. 5 per cent of, say, 200 MPs is not a lot. When you factor in the party swinging in its direction in June, the hard-left will have little problem securing its votes.
There is one other possibility worth exploring. If the swing against the right of the party is really substantial, it could render the McDonnell amendment superfluous. It may be that after 8th June, the numbers stack up so in Corbyn’s favour that a Corbynite can make it onto the ballot straight away—amendment or not. Cadywould explained: “A loss of around 50 seats would probably be enough to ensure that a ‘continuity Corbyn’ candidate could get the nominations of the 15 per cent of Labour parliamentarians they need.”
This would clearly give Corbyn less reason to hang on until September—but only because his long-term objective, left-wing takeover of the Labour party, was already achieved. That’s not much of a silver lining.
Cadywould continued: “If Labour has a real disaster, losing 100 seats, pro-Corbyn MPs would hold on to more than three quarters of their representation, while the larger Corbyn-sceptic group would be cut in half.”
Things will become clearer as Labour finalises its candidate list. The allegiances of the newcomers could determine the result of the party’s future leadership elections. Emma Hardy, not a Corbyn insider, pipped hardliner Sam Tarry to the post in Hull West last week, and will now be Labour’s candidate. But there is still much on the line: Katy Clark, Corbyn’s political secretary, has been linked with the Rochdale vacancy.
One thing is certain: if the Corbynites cement their grip on the party much further then Labour centrists, who blame the left for the party’s electoral woes, will start thinking even more seriously about splitting off.