Labour members have a better instinct for picking winners than Labour MPs. Photo: Getty Images
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Seriously, could Jeremy Corbyn win?

The endorsement of Unite, tumbling odds with the bookmakers, and now second place among local parties all raise the same question - could Jeremy Corbyn really win?

Could Jeremy Corbyn actually win the Labour leadership? Over the last week, he’s secured the endorsement of Britain’s largest trade union Unite, and, is currently second in our rolling list of constituency nominations, with 19 nominations, just eight behind the bookmakers’ frontrunner, Andy Burnham, and ahead of Yvette Cooper, who is widely believed in Labour circles to be the most likely winner. William Hill, the bookmakers, have slashed his odds to 7/1, almost equal with Kendall, currently fourth place in our list of nominations.

Can Corbyn do it?

Well, it’s possible. Since Labour party activists were first given a direct say in electing the party leader, they have, variously, backed Tony Blair, David Miliband and Jim Murphy by large margins. The older Miliband got 55 per cent of the vote among party members, while Murphy and Blair both got 64 per cent and 65 per cent in the first round of voting.

You can say a lot about those three men, but you can’t really call any of them Bennites.  Just one candidate from the Labour left has won an election among party members, in fact: Ken Livingstone, who polled 60 per cent of the vote from members in 2000 and did even better in 2012, with 64 per cent. And that’s not because Labour members in the capital are to the left of the rest of the membership: they backed David Miliband by a bigger margin than the rest of the country.

“One thing people forget about Labour members,” a Kendallite MP told me recently, “is they hate losing. Hate it a lot more than the PLP, actually.” Another insider notes: “The membership voted for Ken Livingstone, an election winner, when the PLP were playing silly buggers. They voted for David Miliband when the trade unions fixed it for Ed.”

Although the other three candidates disagree about what Labour’s leader has to do to win, they are all pitching themselves to Labour members as candidates who can win an election.

Don't forget, either, that these nomination meetings hold no real force. They're more likely to attract ultras: and, almost by definition, Labour's left are more committed than activists from the centre or right of the party. 

But what if it’s different this time? The success of Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and the SNP north of the border might have convinced Labour activists that victory lies to the left, no the centre. The defeat of the Scottish Labour party, with a centrist candidate in the shape of Murphy, might have changed the party’s perception of what “a winner” looks like.  

As I’ve written before, Corbyn is the candidate best-placed to benefit from Labour’s new electoral system – he has the greatest ability to reach outside of the Labour movement, in his case to the broad left.  His campaign is also being run by Simon Fletcher, a veteran from Ken Livingstone’s bid for the mayoral nomination in 2000: that one-off triumph for a candidate from the party’s left.

It doesn’t, to me, feel likely that Corbyn will triumph in September. But his odds look good enough to me that I regret not putting a fiver on him when the bookmakers were offering odds of 100 to one.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Photo: Getty
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Tim Shipman's Diary

The Sunday Times political editor on poker, pasta – and being called fat by Andrew Marr.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was having dinner with my wife at Padella (which serves the best pasta in London) when the phone rang. It was an irate David Davis. “You’re reporting that a friend of mine has said Philip May wants Theresa to quit. It’s not true. I don’t even know Philip May.” I calmly explained that I wasn’t accusing him and I had his friend on tape. “Who was it?” he asked me. I wasn’t saying. “Well, it’s not bloody helpful,” the Brexit Secretary said before hanging up.

The following day, I woke up to watch Philip Hammond explain to the BBC’s Andrew Marr why his cabinet colleagues had leaked me details of how the Chancellor had branded public-sector workers as “overpaid”. “I don’t know who [Tim Shipman’s] sources are,” he said, after inaccurately suggesting that I was being fed information as part of some Brexiteer conspiracy to discredit the cabinet’s leading Remainer.

On Monday, I did an interview with Eddie Mair in the back of a beer garden in Ireland, where I’m playing cricket. In reality, the leaks had much more to do with colleagues irritated at Hammond’s sometimes grating behaviour. Word reaches me that he regards it all as very unhelpful. It seems odd after 16 years in political journalism to have to say this, but we’re not here to be helpful. It might make sense if our politicians gave us less to write about. Over the past three years, they have delighted us enough.

Back for seconds

Voter fatigue is a recognised problem. No one talks about journalist fatigue. We all hope that Theresa May rejuvenates on her Swiss walk (perhaps regenerating into Jodie Whittaker). Thanks to the decision she took when she last went walking, I’m facing the obliteration of another summer holiday writing a second political tome covering the period since my Brexit book, All Out War, up to the general election. What looked at one stage like the boring second album is now a rip-roaring tale of hubris and nemesis. When I asked for title suggestions on Twitter, there were plenty of votes for “Mayhem” and “Mayday”. The most imaginative was: “The Snarling Duds of May”. Sadly, it’s too long for my publisher.

Catching the big fish

The new-found attention from writing books is a double-edged sword. To my delight, then embarrassment, Andrew Marr referred to me twice as “the doyen” of the print lobby. “We keep trying to stop him,” Marr’s editor, the redoubtable Rob Burley, confided at a rival magazine’s summer party. The following week, Marr said: “The biggest fish in the pool, if only physically, is Tim Shipman…” I got a text from a special adviser friend asking: “Are you paying him?” I pointed out that Britain’s best-known political interviewer had just called me a fat bastard live on national television.

New blood

I make my debut on BBC2’s Newsnight alongside Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, one of the new websites that cheerlead for Jeremy Corbyn. She is nerveless and fluent in her mid-twenties, when I was a tongue-tied naif. People who get the Corbyn phenomenon are rightly getting more airtime. Off the air, she tells me that she’s a “libertarian anarchist” and then asks me where I live. “Are you going to smash it up?” I ask nervously. She smiles. Ash’s main concern is to paint the town red in the Saturday-night sense. A Labour MP draws attention to her Twitter biog, which concludes: “Walks like a supermodel. Fucks like a champion. Luxury communism now!” Bravo. I think…

Brexit gamble

I was greatly cheered by the induction in the Poker Hall of Fame of the late Dave “Devil­fish” Ulliott, the player who did the most to create the TV and online poker boom in Britain. Westminster has a few useful card sharps – Paul Stephenson, formerly of Vote Leave, among them – but I don’t know any politicians who play. By contrast, the US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all accomplished poker players.

When I worked in the US, I interviewed a member of Barack Obama’s poker circle when he was a state senator in Chicago. The cautious, composed and occasionally bold player he described was the mirror image of the politician we came to know. His Republican rival in 2008, John McCain, preferred the chaotic gambling of the craps table and his erratic campaign reflected that. Too many of the current cabinet seem to be dice men. What we wouldn’t give for Devilfish running the Brexit negotiations.

Blundering through

Anyone who has ever dealt with McCain would have been saddened by the news that he is suffering from brain cancer, but his resilience almost makes you feel sorry for the tumour. McCain is undoubtedly the most media-friendly politician I have ever met. When I travelled on his plane in 2008, he took every question from the foreign press pack and made us feel welcome. Through him, I also met Steve Duprey, the former boss of the New Hampshire Republicans. He was fond of explaining Duprey’s first law: “In politics, before considering malevolence, always assume incompetence.” I have had much cause to remind myself of that over the past three years.

Paranoid android

If you are looking for a summer read, I recommend Jonathan Allen’s and Amie Parnes’s Shattered, a great insider account of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 presidential election effort. It shows how a flawed candidate with little ability to connect with the public presided over a paranoid regime of advisers engaged in Shakespearean bloodletting that led to them coming a cropper when fighting a charismatic populist. On second thoughts, you could always wait to read my second book this autumn. 

Tim Shipman is the political editor of the Sunday Times. “All Out War” is now available in paperback (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue