5 December 2019

Life after Corbyn – what next for Labour?

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As things stand, the most likely outcome of the general election next week is a Conservative majority. The polls have narrowed a little in recent weeks but they still give the Tories a healthy lead of around 9 points.

A first outright majority for the Conservatives since 2015 would allow Boris Johnson to get his Brexit deal through the Commons. But what would it mean for Labour? Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has previously said that he could not see Jeremy Corbyn staying on if Labour were to lose the election – “What we’d do is as the tradition, which is have an election for a new leader” – and added that he would probably quit his role too.

Who Labour members choose to succeed Jeremy Corbyn will have huge implications for the direction of the party – and by extension the nation. Despite the bravado of many online Corbynistas, another general election defeat for Corbyn will exonerate the critics who said all along that Corbyn was unelectable. Yet during his time as leader, Corbyn has succeeded in shifting his party to the left (just look at the manifesto). We can thus expect those vying to succeed Corbyn to try to woo the membership by being more Corbyn than Corbyn.

But does that mean party members will faithfully vote for the successor anointed by the outgoing leadership? Not necessarily. Four successive election defeats can do strange things to a party. The cult of personality around Corbyn may also leave a void in its wake, just as the departure of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown hobbled the centre of the party a decade ago.

Corbyn himself is viewed by many in the party as a cypher for what the academic David Hirsh has called the “community of the good”. This explains the unusual vitriol directed at perceived heretics. Corbyn represents social justice, antiracism and an end to all wars, as his supporters never tire of telling people.

This retreat into a simple binary of good versus evil is one of the hallmarks of Corbynism. But it is bound up with the man himself, and thus may not survive the succession. This seems especially true when much of the shine has gone from Corbyn himself since his humiliation of Theresa May in 2017. As Matthew Smith for YouGov put it in July of this year, “The days when Jeremy Corbyn could seemingly do no wrong in the eyes of the Labour membership feel like a long time ago”.

Increased dissatisfaction with Corbyn is largely down to his ambiguity on Brexit. A majority of members (56%) believe that Corbyn has handled Brexit badly. The Labour membership is overwhelmingly pro-Remain while many suspect Corbyn of being a secret Brexiteer. His refusal to say whether he would campaign for Remain or Leave in another referendum has also arguably damaged his party’s chances in this election.

The next Labour leader will be elected on the basis of a one member, one vote system. Under changes introduced by Ed Miliband, supporters who pay £3 can also vote for the next leader. The party’s National Executive Committee is in the hands of the left, and the biggest trade unions (especially Unite) have backed Jeremy Corbyn since he was elected in 2015.

But even with an influx of  newly elected pro-Corbyn MPs, the majority on the Labour benches will likely remain sceptical of the left’s leadership of the party, especially in the aftermath of another defeat. Fearful of their member’s jobs, unions such as the GMB and Unison may also start looking toward a more mainstream Labour figure who they believe can defeat the Tories, even if such a figure is unlikely to give them everything they want.

Moreover, the pro-Remain attitude of the membership may offer a lifeline to a moderate contender – say Keir Starmer – who hopes to dislodge Corbynism’s hold on the Labour Party in any post-election leadership contest. Brexit will still be the most salient issue facing the country next year. It is therefore likely to play a substantial role in any leadership contest. Starmer has referred to Labour as the “party of Remain”, which will stand him in good stead with the membership.

The Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey looks to be the successor favoured by Corbyn and his inner circle, despite her robotic interview style. Emily Thornberry will no doubt throw her hat into the ring too, though she is viewed with a degree of suspicion by both the left and the right of the party. She is openly pro-Remain, as is Long-Bailey.

Momentum’s failed attempt to depose Tom Watson at Labour conference in September shows that they are concerned about the succession. Watson subsequently decided to stand down anyway, and any post-election autopsy in the wake of a defeat will now include an immediate search for a new deputy leader. Conor McGinn is the only staunch opponent of Corbyn to declare an intention to run. A Corbynista of some sort is therefore likely to win the role, even if it isn’t an ultra-loyalist such as the Momentum favourite and MP for Northwest Durham Laura Pidcock.

Whoever leads the Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn will be expected to defend much of Corbyn’s manifesto. The so-called Overton window has shifted decisively to the left in recent years, both within the party and without (just look at Boris Johnson’s spending promises which are strikingly profligate compared to his Tory predecessors).

But while Momentum may exert increasing influence over the Labour Party apparatus, there will be no easy victory for the left in the wake of Corbyn’s departure. For those not enamoured by the fanatical ideology of the far-left, a record of electoral failure grows tiresome very quickly, as they discovered during Labour’s opposition years in the 1980s.

So do not underestimate the appeal of a candidate who looks like they could beat the Tories. This favours a politician who is more associated with the mainstream such as Starmer – or perhaps even Angela Raynor. Corbyn surprised everyone with his ascendancy to the leadership in 2015. But as we move into the dreary months of January and February and reality starts to set in after a period of over-indulgence, it could be a centrist candidate who this time upsets the status quo.

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James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of 'Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain'