What is going to happen in the next hundred years?

The world is back to where it was in the late 19th century — no one great power controls everything on the planet, not the US and not China. And that makes the threat of war inescapable.

In The Great Illusion, a bestseller in 1913, the Labour MP Norman Angell distilled the ruling wisdom of the time: the immense productivity of global markets had made war a destructive anachronism. A new phase in human history had arrived, a period of continuing growth and prosperity, bringing with it an era of peace. In fact, it was the long peace that Angell and so many others expected that turned out to be the great illusion, and the century that followed was shaped by violent global conflicts.

When the first issue of the New Statesman appeared, 14 months before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, European states controlled much of the globe. The culmination of many years of geopolitical rivalries, the First World War destroyed Europe’s primacy and led to another world conflict from which the United States emerged as the global hyperpower. Today the US can no longer claim any all-round pre-eminence; but that does not mean that China, or any other country, can occupy the position in the world that the US once did. Instead, we have entered an era in which no great power is predominant. For the foreseeable future, no one will rule the world.

In this, as in other ways, the next 100 years seem likely to resemble the late 19th century more than the late 20th. There have been significant changes in social and political structures, with women and gay people achieving partial emancipation, and varieties of democracy spreading across many countries. Yet the projects of inter­national peace and world government that many cherished a century ago have not been realised and the pattern that is emerging at a global level looks likely to be another round in a remarkably familiar kind of human conflict.

If geopolitics is the struggle of states for power over natural resources, we find ourselves in an era of geopolitical rivalry similar to the one that existed a century ago but with new players and higher stakes.

The most obvious shift that has taken place in the past 100 years is also the most clearly irreversible. A trend since 1914, the dwindling significance of Europe as a global player has become an unalterable fact. If Britain has yet to acquire any coherent post-imperial role, Europe has consigned itself to impotence by trying to turn itself into a super-state. Writing in 1927, the visionary French poet Paul Valéry observed: “Europe visibly aspires to be governed by an American commission. Its entire policy is directed to that end.Not knowing how to rid ourselves of our history, we will be relieved of it by a fortunate people who have almost none.”

Being ruled by the US may have been the secret European dream during the interwar years, but the course of events after 1945 was rather different. Europe’s peace was guaranteed by US power (without which Nazism could not have been defeated or Stalin kept at bay) but the European elite were unhappy living in the shadow of the American shield, and from the late 1940s a movement developed aiming to reassert Europe in the world. Its goal was to escape from American rule by becoming like America – a federal state – but one held together by European values and a distinctive type of social market capitalism.

The resulting European project produced 40 years of peace and prosperity. But the goal of forging an American-style polity on the European continent neglected basic differences – not least that the US became a modern state only after a savage civil war and generations of sometimes coercive nation-building. There is no way Europe can replicate the US’s achievement.

A single European currency created in the absence of anything resembling a functioning European polity, the euro has divided the EU and plunged the southern half of the continent into a state of permanent depression. Under pressure from the austerity policies required to shore up the banking system, the social market economy that was meant to mark out European capitalism from the Anglo-American variety is being shredded relentlessly.

The classic toxins of European politics – xenophobia, anti-Semitism and hatred of migrants, gypsies and gay people – are re-emerging as strong forces in a number of countries, together with new forms of populism such as Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy and Spain’s indignados. With its political elite fumbling in the face of continuous internal crisis, Europe has forfeited any prospect it may have had of becoming a global player. Peering ahead one or two decades, it is possible to glimpse a future in which the eurozone has disintegrated and Germany has re-emerged as a mid-ranking power whose chief focus is on Russia and the emerging economies. In any event, the supposed European superstate is out of the game. In geopolitical terms, Europe does not exist.

Europe is not the only player in world politics whose position has altered irrevocably over the past hundred years. Russia entered the First World War as the centre of one of history’s largest empires, but its importance today derives chiefly from the natural resources that it commands. The principal legacy of communism is that the country is ruled by the intelligence services intertwined with organised crime. The Putin regime is one of the clearest modern-day examples of the rise of the extractive state – a phenomenon that has appeared in countries with widely differing political systems. China has many of the characteristics of an extractive state, but so does India; with any increase in prosperity being distributed narrowly among the banks and the top few per cent, the US, Britain and the eurozone also qualify to some degree. Putin’s regime fits the model not only in the sense that its wealth derives chiefly from the extraction of natural resources, but also because one of its core functions is to transfer a large part of that wealth into the hands of a small elite.

Some have described Putin’s regime as a mafia state and, given the killings and unexplained deaths of opponents and critics inside and outside Russia, this may not be an unreasonable description. Reports by Russian central bank authorities of vast illegal movements of capital abroad reinforce the perception of a gangster economy, at the same time suggesting that Putin may not be able to control the system of nationalised criminality he has created. And yet, despite some recent weakness, the regime shows no signs of being in terminal decline. Reasserting Russian independence against the west after a period of national humiliation during the Yeltsin era, with lower government debt than most western countries, and presiding over rising prosperity for sections of the population beyond the oligarchy, while leaving the majority with more freedom than it ever had in Soviet times, the Putin regime still has more legitimacy than those that preceded it. If it is unstable, that is not because it faces political opposition but because of its over-reliance on oil and gas.

It is a mark of how interconnected the world is today that the principal threat to Putin’s regime should come not from any internal challenge, but from the Arab spring. Upheaval in the Arab world was fuelled by the loose monetary policies adopted in the US after the financial crash, which produced a speculative boom in wheat prices – one of the main triggers of unrest in Tunisia and Egypt. Upheaval in these countries was, in effect, an unintended consequence of American quantitative easing.

Now, another unintended consequence of the Arab spring is emerging: the cost of buying off mass discontent in the countries where it has not spread is rising. Repressive regimes in oil-producing countries need an oil price high enough to be able to fund the increased levels of public spending that are required to stave off radicalisation of their populations. Nowhere is this more true than in Saudi Arabia, which has headed off potential unrest with a mixture of repression and spending programmes. So far, these policies have worked but the medium-term effect is to raise the price of oil to a point at which other sources of energy become economically viable.

A good deal of hype surrounds the “shale revolution”, some claiming that fracking enables the US to achieve the elusive dream of energy independence, withdrawal from the Gulf and a return to a kind of isolationism. Claims of this sort are at best hyperbolic. The US has other reasons to remain in the Gulf aside from securing Saudi oil supplies – the prospect of rapid nuclear proliferation in the region if Iran acquires nuclear capability, for one. Outside the US and China, shale oil and gas are unlikely to be exploited on a large scale. Most European countries (including Britain) are too densely populated for the technology to be applied widely. Rapid depletion and environmental risks are daunting obstacles everywhere. There seems to be no firm, expert consensus on the technology’s potential but fracking is clearly no answer to the world’s energy needs.

The shift to unconventional energy may still be a game-changer, as the effect is to make the position of oil-producing countries increasingly untenable. If higher oil prices are needed in order to appease their restive populations, these same prices will boost other energy sources; at the same time, shifting to other fuels could force the oil price down to a point where the spending programmes that buy off unrest will become unaffordable. Some have forecast that oil-producing countries will be left destitute when reserves run dry – a prospect sometimes linked with theoretical projections regarding “peak oil”. The actual threat to oil-producing countries is less speculative and nearer at hand. By putting upward pressure on the oil price only to flatten it later, the Arab spring has left oil-dependent regimes in a bind that could entrap Russia as much as Middle Eastern producers. Simultaneously, it points to one of the reasons the US may be entering a rebound.

If the US was at the centre of the largest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s, it is also the first country to show signs of renewal. The recovery is slow and sluggish and is occurring against the background of a continuing decline in the living standards of most Americans, which began to stagnate decades ago. The period between the end of the cold war and the eruption of the financial crisis, which many celebrated as confirming US hegemony, paradoxically marked its end. With its wealth founded on unsustainable levels of debt and the country’s chief exports dangerous financial derivatives and ruinously expensive wars, much of the US’s prosperity in the post-cold-war period was delusive.

The US claim to embody a universal model was empty, partly because of the country’s manifest failings – vast inequalities, poor standards of education outside the top universities, the world’s most overpriced medical care and a prison system larger than that of any other country – but also because the US was profoundly divided. As imagined by the Tea Party, it is a different country from the one represented by Barack Obama. If the world was becoming American, which America would it be? The near-collapse in 2007-2008 only emphasised the extravagance of the claims that had been made on behalf of the US. Ironically, the impact of the debacle has been to quench anti-Americanism. Now that Washington is no longer the centre of things, hostility has changed to indifference. With US power deflated, the rest of the world has largely lost interest.

Partly because of this loss of interest, the US rebound has not yet been sufficiently appreciated. One source of the comeback may be the new energy technologies, which enable firms that have been offshored to “reshore” and come home, and could eventually help to restore the US as a major manufacturing economy. Another reason may be that the policies of the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, have contained some of the largest threats to the US financial system, which is now safer than the financial system in Europe. It may be that the dollar is being slowly replaced as countries opt to trade in other currencies, but there is no alternative world reserve currency on the horizon. For all its problems, some of them probably insoluble, the US remains the world’s haven for capital.

However, the chief significance of the US’s rebound may be political. Obama has not been able to rid his country of its deep polarities and now faces a succession of spending cuts as a result of intransigent Republican opposition. Even so, he has prevailed over the messianic right and gone some way towards renovating government. With very high levels of inequality, a middle class that can no longer afford a middle-class lifestyle and large sections of the population with no real assets, the American version of capitalism remains badly flawed. Yet the system continues to command deep support, and although the US cannot regain the hegemony it has lost it is in a better position to cope with an era of low growth than any other great power.

Ever since the end of the Second World War, the stability of democracies has rested on economic expansion. The importance of continued growth is not simply that people are better off than they were in the past – in that case, it would not matter much if growth rates slowed. Rather, in the absence of growth at something like the pace to which most people have become accustomed, the tacit compact on which democracy has been based risks breaking down. When the social product is no longer increasing, issues of distribution can easily become politically explosive – particularly where there is a widespread perception that a government operates chiefly to transfer wealth to the few. And it is not only democracies that are threatened in this way. Authoritarian regimes are just as much at risk – in the case of China, more so.

There are several reasons why the future rate of growth in the world economy is unlikely to match that of the past. Some have argued that the rapid expansion of the past couple of centuries was a one-off episode, triggered by technological innovations such as electric light, the internal combustion engine and indoor plumbing that transformed life on a scale that cannot be repeated. Others – more plausibly, to my mind – point to rising human numbers, Malthus-style resource scarcities and rising climate change as the chief obstacles.

There are also demographic factors at work. While the population of countries such as Egypt will double over the next 20 years or so, many societies are ageing fast; this has implications for the debt burden that has been inherited from the crash. In Europe and Japan, as well as the United States, debt has been transferred to future generations – a policy that (whatever its morality) can be maintained as long as the next generation is large enough to shoulder the burden. When the next generation is smaller than the last, the merry-go-round slows down or stops.

Nowhere is slow growth potentially more destabilising than in China. The scale and pace of growth over the past three decades have been unprecedented, with hundreds of millions of people rising out of poverty more quickly than at any other time in history. Yet this achievement is also a source of vulnerability, because rapid expansion is the regime’s main source of popular support. China is not a democracy but it does have a form of popular government. Aside from anti-American and anti-Japanese nation­alism and painful memories of the Mao years, it may well be only the expectation of further expansion that protects the regime from mass unrest. Endemic corruption and the role of the Communist Party as a vehicle for elite enrichment have hollowed out the Chinese state. Chinese officials say that order could break down if the rate of growth fell much below 5 per cent annually for a few years in a row, and it is impossible to envision China repeating Japan’s ex­perience in suffering decades of near-zero growth while preserving social peace. With a Communist Party apparatus that is deeply distrusted and social bonds having been torn up repeatedly, China is more at risk from protracted economic slowdown than any other major state.

This is not to say, as some Chinese dissidents have done, that the current Chinese regime is facing a pre-revolutionary situation. Whatever else may happen, China is not going the way of the former Soviet Union. Its ethnic problems are not on anything like the scale of those of the USSR and it has not suffered military defeat as the Soviet Union did in Afghanistan. Again, Chinese institutions are not highly centralised and protest has so far been driven mostly by local issues. Nor are the Chinese elite anything like as demoralised as those of the former Soviet Union in the period leading up to the country’s implosion in 1991. Wealthy Chinese may be hedging their bets, moving capital abroad and acquiring property and residency in foreign countries, but China’s ruling class shows no sign of having lost its taste for power. If its authority comes into serious question, there is little doubt that it will respond with heavy-handed repression.

There has been a tendency to think of world politics as reverting to something like the bipolarity it exhibited in the cold war, with China replacing the Soviet Union as the chief adversary of the US and the west. This is a flawed analogy and not only because there is no likelihood of China collapsing later like the Soviet Union. China’s rise reverses the trend of the past several centuries, returning the world to something more like its condition before Europe began to assert global primacy. The emergence of India as a global power is part of the same pattern, along with the advancing roles of Indonesia and Brazil. Viewing the world today on the model of the cold war shows a parochial lack of perspective.

Russia did not become western when communism collapsed but reverted to its long-existing ambiguities as a Eurasian power. China is no more likely to embrace liberal democracy if the current regime falters. Western commentators are adamant that the values they associate with democracy are universal, and it is true that some values are generically human. Torture, slavery and persecution are bad for all human beings; peace, freedom and tolerance are universal goods. But universal values can be promoted – and subverted – by a variety of regimes. It has been forgotten that democracy can work against humane values, a lesson that the liberals of an earlier generation spent their lives teaching.

Would a democratic China be more restrained in its relations with Japan than the current Chinese oligarchy? Or a more democratic Russia that was no longer led by Putin less inclined to persecute gay people and other minorities? Would an Islamist democracy in Syria be less oppressive or bloodthirsty than Bashar al-Assad’s secular dictatorship? The answers are not obvious. In any case, such questions, though important, are academic. Power is leaking away from the west and no assertion of the superiority of western systems of government will stem the flow.

The result is a more pluralistic international system but not necessarily a more peaceful world. This need not entail industrial-style warfare of the kind that shaped much of the 20th century. Recent cyber-attacks in the US, the Baltic states, South Korea, Iran and other countries suggest a less visible but more continuous kind of conflict, and the use of drones is further reducing the role of the standing armies of the past.

Alongside new sorts of warfare, older kinds of conflict have resumed. With India and China at odds over Pakistan, Afghan­istan and control of the South China Sea, the world’s rising powers are locked into strategic competition with one another – and also with the west. Whatever the upshot of French intervention in Mali, it will not be the last such neocolonial incursion. Africa is being remilitarised by western powers in what seems to be a response to China’s economic expansion into the continent. The case of the Democratic Republic of Congo – where millions of non-combatants have died as a result of decades-long warfare – shows the damage this kind of conflict can wreak. The terrifying destructive potential of nuclear weapons has altered the modes of warfare without necessarily reducing the human costs of war.

Now, moving into another phase, the eurozone crisis is having geopolitical repercussions. Australia and Canada, though economically heavily dependent on China, are closely aligned with the US in military and security terms – which is not, in the medium to long term, a stable arrangement. In the eastern Mediterranean, the Cyprus banking crisis is taking place against the background of an emerging struggle for control of large deposits of natural gas that have been discovered off the island’s coast. There are big questions about the cost, risks and benefits of exploiting these resources, but they matter little in comparison to the geopolitical uncertainties that surround the reserves. Russia has shown signs of interest, though whether it is ready to spark conflict with Turkey and other states that may claim a stake remains doubtful.

Further afield, significant reserves of natural gas have been identified off the coasts of Egypt, Israel, Lebanon and Syria, all already involved in long-running conflicts.

Many will resist the suggestion that the coming century will be shaped by geopolitical competition. Like Norman Angell, they will insist that war is no longer a rational method of acquiring resources; production and trade are so much more efficient. From an economic point of view this may be true, but it is not economic calculation that determines the behaviour of states. The Gulf war of 1990-91 was a pure resource conflict, and oil was a vital factor in triggering the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As the polar ice melts from global warming, the Arctic may become a site in the next round of the New Great Game. In turn, as changes in the planetary environment become more disruptive, governments are likely to resort to geo-engineering and future wars may feature climate modification being deployed as a weapon. Great powers will co-operate in many areas but against a background of continued rivalry and heightened risks.

By a circuitous route, the world has returned to something like its condition a century ago. Yet there is nothing written that says the coming century must be a rerun of the 20th. Some have seen in the stand-off between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands parallels with the diplomatic tangles that preceded the First World War. It would be a mistake to write off the possibility of another outbreak of industrial-style global warfare, yet China is not yet the military power that some fear and any escalation in the conflict would probably soon be cut short by a show of American naval force. The next threat to world peace may end up coming from events no one anticipates.

Some patterns can be seen with reas­onable clarity. Globalisation has brought higher incomes to hundreds of millions, but it has also left them less secure as their jobs and savings are put at risk by volatile global markets. New religions and social movements will develop to cope with the anxieties of the large numbers who will be reasonably affluent and at the same time chronically anxious about the future. Advances in science and technology will alleviate some of the effects of resource scarcity and climate change, while enabling conflicts between states to be fought out in subtler and at times more destructive ways than in the past.

How these contending forces will play out, we cannot know. The harmonious world envisioned at the time this magazine was founded will continue to elude us, yet that does not mean that history is bound to repeat itself. If we know more than Norman Angell and those who shared his illusions a century ago did, we also have less of an excuse if we re-enact their errors on a larger scale.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: on Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Allen Lane (£18.99)

The arteries of contemporary life: Shanghai's roads are teeming. Photograph: Olivio Barbieri, courtesy of the Ronchini Gallery, London.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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How Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership election

The revolt against the leader transformed him from an incumbent back into an insurgent. 

On the evening of 12 July, after six hours of talks, Jeremy Corbyn emerged triumphantly from Labour’s headquarters. “I’m on the ballot paper!” he told supporters gathered outside. “We will be campaigning on all the things that matter.”

The contest that Corbyn’s opponents had sought desperately to avoid had begun. Neither a vote of no confidence by 81 per cent of Labour MPs, nor 65 frontbench resignations had persuaded him to stand down. Days of negotiations led by Tom Watson had failed (“For years I’ve been told that I’m a fixer. Well, I tried to fix this and I couldn’t,” Labour’s deputy leader sorrowfully told the parliamentary party). The rebels’ last hope was that the National Executive Committee would force Corbyn to reseek nominations. After being backed by just 40 colleagues in the confidence vote, both sides knew that the leader would struggle to achieve 51 signatures.

But by 18-14, the NEC ruled that Corbyn would be automatically on the ballot (“Watson, Watson, what’s the score?” chanted jubilant aides in the leader’s office). After withstanding a 16-day revolt, Corbyn appeared liberated by the prospect of a summer of campaigning. His confidence prefigured the outcome two months later.

Corbyn did not merely retain the leadership - he won by a greater margin than last time (with 61.8 per cent of the vote to last year's 59.5 per cent) and triumphed among all three sections: party members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters. The rebels had hoped to narrow his mandate and win among at least one group: they did neither. Far from being a curse for Corbyn, the contest proved to be a blessing. 


The day before the pivotal NEC meeting, Angela Eagle, who had been preparing to stand for months, launched her leadership bid. The former shadow business secretary was admired by MPs for her experience, tenacity, and economic acumen. Her trade union links and soft left background were further cited in favour of her candidacy.

But after an underwhelming launch, which clashed with Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the Conservative contest (leaving Eagle calling questions from absent journalists), MPs gravitated towards Owen Smith.

Like Eagle, Smith hailed from the party’s soft left and had initially served under Corbyn (two prerequisites in the rebels’ eyes). But unlike her, the former shadow and work pensions secretary did not vote for the Iraq war (having entered parliament in 2010) or the 2015 Syria intervention. “It looks like the war party,” a senior Corbynite said of Eagle’s campaign launch with Hilary Benn. Many Labour MPs feared the same. With the left-leaning Lisa Nandy having ruled herself out, only the ambitious Smith met the criteria.

“I’d been in hospital for two days with my brother, who was unwell, in south Wales,” he recalled when I interviewed him.  “I came out having literally been in A&E at Cardiff Heath hospital for 29 hours, looking after him, to have my phone light up with 30, 40, 50 colleagues, MPs and members, ringing up saying ‘there’s going to be a contest, Angela Eagle has thrown her hat into the ring, you should do likewise.’ And at that point, on the Wednesday night, I started ringing people to test opinion and found that there was a huge amount of support for me.”

On 19 July, after Smith won 90 MP/MEP nominations to Eagle’s 72, the latter withdrew in favour of the Welshman. A week after the Conservatives achieved their second female prime minister, Labour’s 116-year record of all-male leaders endured. Though Smith vowed that Eagle would be “at my right hand throughout this contest”, she went on to appear at just one campaign event.

Corbyn’s challenger was embraced by MPs as a “clean skin”, untainted by service during the New Labour years. But Smith’s non-parliamentary past was swiftly - and ruthlessly - exploited by his opponents. His time at the US drugs firm Pfizer was cited as evidence of his closeness to big business. Corbyn’s supporters also seized on interviews given by Smith as a by-election candidate in 2006.

The man pitching to the left was found to have defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq war), supported private sector involvement in the NHS and praised city academies. “I'm not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online. Such lines were rapidly disseminated by Corbyn supporters through social media.

“Getting out early and framing Owen was crucial,” a Corbyn source told me. A Smith aide echoed this assessment: “It helped secure their base, it took a load of people out of contention.”

Throughout the campaign, Smith would struggle to reconcile his past stances with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent. “It was easy for us to go for the jugular over his background when he portrayed himself as a left candidate,” a Corbyn source said.

Smith insisted that the charge of opportunism was unmerited. “To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing,’” he told me in August. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be.” He added: “I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

But a former shadow cabinet colleague said that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings. “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

As well as Smith’s ambiguous past, Corbyn’s allies believe the breadth of his political coalition hindered him from the start. “He was trying to bring together Blairites, Brownites and every other -ite in between,” a campaign source said. “That was never going to hold, we knew that and from the moment there were splits it was easy to point out.”

Jon Trickett, the shadow business secretary and one of Corbyn’s early supporters, told me: “They tried to pretend that there was no distinction between them and Jeremy on policy grounds, they tried to narrow down the areas of difference to electability. But, frankly, it didn’t seem credible since some of the people behind it were absolutely ideologically opposed to Jeremy. Peter Mandelson and people like that.”

A frequently expressed charge was that Smith’s left-wing pledges would be overturned by Blairite figures if he won. John McGeechan, a 22-year-old postgraduate student who joined Labour after “self-indulgent, self-serving MPs initiated their corridor coup”, told me of Smith: “He’s just another mealy-mouthed careerist who says whatever he thinks is going to get him elected. I don’t believe at all that he means what he says about creating a radical socialist government given that he’s got the backing of Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair, people who’ve disagreed with Corbyn on pretty much all his socialist policies. I don’t believe that he’s going to stand up to these people.”

Whether believable or not, Smith’s programme showed how Corbyn had shifted Labour’s centre of gravity radically leftwards - his original aim in June 2015.


On the night Corbyn made the leadership ballot, the rebels still found cause for hope. Unlike in 2015, the NEC imposed a freeze date of six months on voting (excluding 130,000 new members) and increased the registered supporter fee from £3 to £25 (while reducing the sign-up period to two days). “It’s game on!” a senior figure told me. By narrowing the selectorate, Corbyn’s opponents hoped to achieve a path to victory. With fewer registered supporters (84 per cent of whom voted for Corbyn last year), they believed full party members and affiliated trade unionists could carry Smith over the line.

But when 183,000 paid £25 to vote, their expectations were confounded. Far from being “game on”, it looked to many rebels like game over. Once again, Corbyn’s opponents had underestimated the left’s recruiting capacity. Smith’s lack of name recognition and undistinctive pitch meant he could not compete.

Alongside the main contest were increasingly fractious legal battles over voting rights. On 28 July, the high court rejected Labour donor Michael Foster’s challenge to Corbyn’s automatic inclusion on the ballot. Then on 8 August, a judge ruled that the party had wrongly excluded new members from voting, only for the decision to be overturned on appeal.

In the view of Corbyn’s allies, such legal manevoures unwittingly aided him. “They turned Jeremy, who was an incumbent, back into an insurgent,” Trickett told me. “The proponents of the challenge made it seem like he was the underdog being attacked by the establishment.”

Smith, who repeatedly framed himself as the “unity candidate”, struggled to escape the shadow of the “corridor coup”. That many of his supporters had never accepted Corbyn’s leadership rendered him guilty by association.

“The coup had an enormous galvanising effect and an enormous politicising effect,” a Corbyn source told me. “For a great number of people who supported Jeremy last year, there was a feeling, ‘well, we’ve done the work, that’s happened, now over to him.’ What the coup meant for a lot of people was that this isn’t about Jeremy Corbyn, this is a people’s movement, which we all need to lead.” The Corbyn campaign signed up 40,000 volunteers and raised £300,000 in small donations from 19,000 people (with an average donation of £16). Against this activist army, their rivals’ fledgling effort stood no chance.

“At the launch rally, we had 12 simultaneous events going on round the country, livestreamed to each other,” a Corbyn source said. “We had a lot of communication with people who were big in the Sanders campaign. In the UK context, it’s trailblazing.”

On 12 August, after previously equivocating, Smith ruled out returning to the shadow cabinet under Corbyn. “I've lost confidence in you. I will serve Labour on the backbenches,” he declared at a hustings in Gateshead. In the view of Corbyn’s team, it was a fatal error. “He shot apart his whole unity message,” a source said.

Smith, who initially offered Corbyn the post of party president, was rarely booed more than when he lamented Labour’s divisions. As one of the 172 MPs who voted against the leader, he was regarded as part of the problem, rather than the solution. By the end, Smith was reduced to insisting “I wasn’t in favour of there being a challenge” - a statement that appeared absurd to most.

As well as his leftist credentials and unifying abilities, Smith’s other main boast was his competence and articulacy. “HIs USP was that he was this media-savvy guy,” a Corbyn source said. “As a result, he threw himself up for any and every media opportunity and made tons of gaffes. We just made sure people were aware of them.”

The most enduring gaffe came early in the campaign, on 27 July, when he spoke of wanting mto “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”. Though Smith initially defended his “robust rhetoric” (“you’ll be getting that from me”), by the afternoon his campaign had apologised. What was explained as a “rugby reference” dogged them for weeks. “It played into the hands of how Corbyn wanted to depict us,” a Smith source told me. “It was really hard to shake off.”

More unforced errors followed. Smith suggested getting Isis “round the table”, in anticipation, many believed, of Corbyn agreeing. But the Labour leader baulked at the proposal: “No, they are not going to be round the table”. Corbyn’s communications team, more organised and agile than in 2015, denounced Smith’s remarks as “hasty and ill-considered”. As with “smashed”, the Labour challenger had achieved rare cut-through - but for the wrong reasons.

Smith’s rhetorical looseness became a recurring problem. At a rally on 23 August, he appeared to refer to Corbyn as a “lunatic”. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, he said of meeting his wife: “1,200 boys, three girls and I pulled Liz. So I must have something going on. That must be leadership.”

Earlier in the campaign, Smith’s team denied that the candidate referred to the size of his penis when he quipped of his height: "5ft 6. 29 inches - inside leg!” The guffaws from his supporters suggested otherwise.

We used to have a gaffe counter,” a Corbyn source told me. “I think it got up to 30 by the end.”

Smith’s team, meanwhile, despaired at how the Labour leader’s own missteps failed to dent him. The discovery that Corbyn had in fact secured a seat on a Virgin train, contrary to initial impressions, did little lasting damage. “It’s priced in, the bar is much lower for him,” a Smith source complained.

Incorrect claims, such as Labour being level in the polls before the coup attempt and Corbyn giving 122 speeches during the EU referendum campaign, were believed by many of his supporters. “How do you rebut bullshit?” a Smith aide asked. “If you respond, it becomes a story.”

So frequently had Labour MPs condemned their leader that extraordinary charges were soon forgotten. On 22 August, shadow business minister Chi Onwurah wrote in the New Statesman that Corbyn’s treatment of her and Thangam Debbonaire could constitute “racial discrimination”.

If this had been any of my previous employers in the public and private sectors Jeremy might well have found himself before an industrial tribunal for constructive dismissal, probably with racial discrimination thrown in,” she argued. But within a day, the story had moved on.  

For Smith, fleeting momentum was achieved through significant endorsements. On 10 August, the GMB backed his campaign after becoming the only trade union to ballot its members. The following week, Labour’s most senior elected politician, Sadiq Khan, endorsed Smith. Unlike Andy Burnham, the London mayor believed he could not remain neutral during this profound schism. Smith was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband trumpeted his cause. Yet such declarations counted for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one Smith ally told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

But in the view of Corbyn’s team, the rebels profoundly “underestimated” their opponent. “He’s a nice guy but he also has an inner steel and won't flinch from a challenge. The Obi-Wan Kenobi comparison is very accurate when you work up close with him. He’s also extremely intelligent and has a great grasp and retention of detail. It showed in the debates.”

“I have to say, I felt pretty sorry for Owen at several points,” another Corbyn source reflected. “Whatever it was, his ambition or being pushed into it, it didn’t seem like it was the right time for him. He hadn’t worked out what he was about and why that fitted with the times.”


Those Labour MPs who long warned that an early challenge to Corbyn would prove futile have been vindicated. “Party members are always loyal to the incumbent,” a senior source astutely noted. In the case of Corbyn, a lifelong campaigner, who many contended was “never given a chance”, this traditional fealty was intensified.

“Most of the people backing and funding him didn’t think Owen was going to win,” a Corbyn source said. “Their aim was, one, to reduce Jeremy’s mandate and, secondly, to map the selectorate.”

Having won a second leadership contest - an unprecedented achievement for the Labour left - the leader’s supporters insist their ambitions do not end here. “We’ve got to think incredibly seriously about how we win a general election in a totally changed landscape,” a Corbyn source told me. “This campaign has been showing how to do it.” But a Smith aide warned that it was a “massive strategic error” to make electability, rather than principle, the defining test of Corbyn. The leader, he suggested, could withstand a general election defeat provided he simply affirmed his values.

Beyond regarding a split as worthless, Labour MPs are divided on how to proceed. Some want another leadership challenge as early as next year. Rather than seeking to narrow the selectorate, they speak of recruiting hundreds of thousands of new members to overpower the left. “There are lots of people out there who want a credible, electable, centre-left proposition and we have not given them enough of a reason to sign up,” a former shadow cabinet minister told me. “Who has an offer and the charisma to be able to bring in new people? That has to be the question the next time round.”

Others believe that backbenchers should follow Thumper’s law: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  A senior MP argued that MPs should “just shut up” and “let Jeremy crack on with it.” The imperative, he said, was to avoid MPs “taking the blame for us getting thumped in a snap election”. Some are prepared to move beyond neutrality to outright support by serving under Corbyn.

The Labour left and their most recalcitrant opponents both confront challenges of electability. The former must demonstrate a path to victory despite Corbyn’s subterranean poll ratings. The latter, who boast so often of their superior appeal, must face a remorseless truth. Until they are electable in the party, they will never be electable in the country.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.