Germaine Greer. Photo: Getty
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What the row over banning Germaine Greer is really about

Student feminists want to stop the veteran feminist from speaking at universities – because of her beliefs about transgender people. But why are women always punished more than men for having controversial opinions?

Let’s not beat about the bush, although that’s not the happiest phrase in the light of what I’m about to say. Germaine Greer’s views on transgender people are based on the kind of quasi-Freudian cod-psychology you’d think a feminist critic would find embarrassing. In 1999’s The Whole Woman, she wrote that “when a man decides to spend his life impersonating his mother (like Norman Bates in Psycho), it is as if he murders her and gets away with it”. Today, her views have the same thrust – that it’s not possible to change from a man to a woman – although their expression is usually less aggressive. She told Newsnight on 23 October, for example, that she will use whatever pronouns people ask for, and would not try to limit sex reassignment surgery for those who want it.

Still, this is normally the point where I start humming “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. In the age where Caitlyn Jenner is set to be crowned Glamour’s Woman of the Year, after living as one for less than 12 months, Greer is wildly out of step with public opinion. But then, when was she ever not? She is a controversialist, a provocateur – she has never wanted to be an unsung foot soldier of the feminist movement; she always wanted to be its Camille Desmoulins. I’ve just finished reading Gloria Steinem’s memoir, and it’s full of warm references to other feminists. A Greer autobiography would be unlikely to strike the same sisterly tone.

I mention her controversial opinions on transgender issues because they are what prompted Cardiff University Women’s Society to try to have Greer disinvited from speaking. (She has now pulled out anyway, saying she is “too old” at 76 to face protesters*.) She joins a small but growing list of feminists deemed unacceptable to address students: the NUS has an official policy of no-platform against Julie Bindel because she “is vile”. Neither of these women has advocated or incited violence, which used to be the old rationale for “no platform”. Their words are the problem.

It’s interesting that it is Greer's views on gender that are the flashpoint, because she has been flat wrong about many things in her career – FGM, for example, which she has defended given its “cultural” element – without anything like the same backlash. Put simply, trans issues are the new dividing line for progressive activism; the way for younger activists to kick against their foremothers in the feminist movement. Feminists are like Batman: they either die heroines, or live long enough to become villains.

With gay marriage now legal in America, there is also the sense among online social justice communities that trans rights are “the new civil rights frontier” (as Time magazine wrote next to a photo of the Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox). Social media has acted like an accelerant on this fire: sites like BuzzFeed and Huffington Post’s LGBT section offer uplifting tales of transgender children’s achievements and famous adults coming out, alternating with occasional three-minute hates for “TERFs” (trans exclusionary radical feminists), a group who are said to be inciting violence against trans women by refusing to accept them as women. Sharing such articles has become a badge of progressive correctness. The word “TERF” is sprayed around like confetti, with very little understanding of what it means. I’ve been called a TERF, even though I think trans women are women and absolutely have a place in feminism. I think it’s become a politer way of saying “witch”.

It’s also about undergraduates rebelling against their parents’ generation and its liberal deification of free speech. After all, the last time students tried to have Greer disinvited from addressing a university crowd, one of those defending her right to speak was Rachael Padman, the trans academic whose appointment to the all-women’s college Newnham Greer tried to kibosh in 1996. Padman said she hoped the Cambridge Union would “give Germaine a fair hearing, but of course robustly interrogate her”. Here was someone directly affected by Greer’s beliefs, defending her right to express them.

The fact that the trans rights struggle is the first progressive cause to come of age in the time of Twitter leaves anyone who wants to explore the thorny issue of gender and biological sex, and the meaning of both and the differences between them, in a difficult position. I accept completely that transgender people face difficulties in their life that I, with a far less uneasy relationship with my body, struggle to comprehend. Last week I invited an educational organisation called All About Trans in to talk to the editorial team. Some of the stories were difficult to hear: family rejection, suicide attempts, street harassment.

But several guests also said things which have become unsayable on social media, even by trans people themselves: one referred to using the term “trans*” (the asterisk denotes that the term includes not just transgender people, but those who reject the gender binary, or are otherwise genderfluid) and was told, laughingly, by others that this was very two years ago. There are places on the internet where you will be told to “die in a fire” if you write “transwomen” instead of “trans women”. (Not pressing the spacebar is said to indicate that you don’t believe they are real women).

After a while, you begin to wonder if the opacity of language isn’t accidental at all. Trans activists, tired of being treated as objects of curiousity, fear or pity by outsiders, have decided to seize control of the discourse and develop their own ways of talking about how they feel. This is understandable, but it also means that everyone is constantly making mistakes. This would be OK – in everyday life, people slip up and get corrected, and the world keeps turning – but because it's happening in the crucible of social media, where women's opinions carry a higher cost, censure for those mistakes is distributed unfairly. There are phrases that a man could say – "female socialisation" springs to mind – with no comeback, but would be read as Deep TERF Code coming from a feminist's mouth. I've lost count of the number of times that male friends have expressed surprise that their normally quiet, polite Twitter experience suddenly turns into a hornet's nest if they chat with me about a controversial divide in feminism.

Even trans people who do not have the “correct” opinions feel worried about broaching the subject; I know a group of “gender critical” trans women who are castigated regularly as “TERF tokens” and “Uncle Toms”. (Putting paid to the flatulent piety so often circulated on social media: “Why don’t you just listen to trans people?” Because it turns out, O Wise One, that minority groups are not homogenous.) Like so much of modern activism, the urge here is to conflate identity and opinion. It's a useful, forceful rhetoric tactic – it personalises the fight – but it also allows all kinds of sleight-of-hand. If you "listened to women" on abortion, you'd hear a much higher level of anti-abortion views than if you listened to men, for example. What people mean when they say that is "listen to mainstream feminist opinion". But that doesn't have quite the same snappy righteousness, though, does it?

Although trans issues have benefited hugely from the speed and reach of online activism, in other ways they have been ill-served by being the first progressive cause to blossom fully in the social media age. Nuance is impossible. Dare to write anything other than a saccharine celebration of diversity, or solemn sermons about how brave trans people are, and your opinion is read as an attack on the very idea that they should be allowed to carry on living at all. But rainbow avatars and “inspirational” stories will only get you so far. There are hard questions that we need to address as trans people become more visible and we try to take their needs into account in public policy. Should we abolish single-sex schools, for example, when they make life so much harder for teenagers who decide that they wish to live as the opposite gender? Should trans women who have gone through puberty as boys be allowed to compete in women’s sports and are cis women who do not want to compete against them bigots? Should a person with a penis and beard (no surgery or hormones are required to legally transition) be allowed into a women-only rape shelter? Should gender non-conforming children have access to "puberty blockers" at 16? At 12? At eight?

In my Pollyanna-ish way, I hope that all of these questions can be resolved with respectful negotiation; but there will have to be compromises between competing interests. It’s not – as many people on Twitter seem to believe – as simple as identifying the group you feel is most fashionably oppressed and sprinting to shout: “Solidarity!” And God save us from all the progressive men who will never face the sharp end of such questions – who have never had to think about rape shelter policy, for example – using this issue to show how right-on they are. Come on, feminists, they chirrup without self-awareness. Stop being so uptight!

You can see this in the way the word "TERF" has moved way beyond its initial, perhaps useful meaning – to describe a political position – to encompass any woman who disagrees with or even questions others who have strongly held views on gender. It is, sadly, a thought-stopping cliché. Being a TERF is bad. I don’t want to be called a TERF. I should not speak to TERFs in case people think I am one, too.

But here is a list of things which can get you called a TERF, if you are a woman with a public profile: a) believing that biological sex is different from gender, ie that the penis is a male sex organ, even when attached to someone who identifies as a woman; b) believing that being raised as a boy gives you a different experience of life from anyone raised as a girl; c) believing that you need to transition using surgery or hormones to be trans (a recent BuzzFeed piece was headlined “This Trans Women Kept Her Beard And Couldn’t Be Happier”); d) believing that someone who transitions at 45 has not “always been female”.

I’d argue that those positions are far removed from the hateful, discriminatory behaviour and speech which most of us would accept is transphobic. And it is entirely possible that some or all of them will seem completely outdated in 50 years as our ideas about sex and gender move on. But they don't seem to me to be in themselves vile or beyond the pale.

Yet there is now a strange conflation of rhetorical with actual, physical violence. Such views are said to lead directly to the dehumanisation of trans people that puts them in danger of street attacks and death. It is a difficult point to argue when confronted with the facts: the only person convicted of murdering a trans woman in Britain this year is Joaquin Gomez-Hernandez, who killed his wife, Vanessa Santillan, after finding her in bed with a client. He had no job, and lived off her earnings as a sex worker; a familiar tale of a bruised male ego curdling into rage. Not an avid reader of Germaine Greer, I would guess.

This is a subject I have been reluctant to write about, for several reasons. The first is the abuse and shouts of “TERF” that will follow; despite having views on the issue which I’d guess are more progressive than 95 per cent of the population, there might be attempts to no-platform me in future. The second is a desire not to alienate trans activists, many of whom I personally know and respect, or to make their lives harder.

From the trans perspective, I can understand the feelings that the gains the movement has recently made are both recent and fragile, and the desire to set the terms of the debate after so long being treated as objects of pity or ridicule. After all, the challenges of transition are a daily task for many people, not a theoretical debate. But the subject has become part of a society-wide conversation; to move on, it must be something that ordinary people, outside the charmed circle who know that trans no longer takes an asterisk, can have an opinion on.

The current orthodoxy is that issues should be left to those directly affected by them to discuss, but consider this for more than a minute and the absurdity reveals itself. The rights of severely disabled people who cannot communicate would, under this logic, never get discussed. Plus: gender affects us all; free speech affects us all. Men have the luxury of not needing to have an opinion on whether it is a good idea for women’s sports to be opened to trans women, or for women’s refuges to be accessible to those with penises; feminists do not. Plus: I'm a journalist. My job is to write about other people. The rise of the First Person Industrial Complex is not an unalloyed good.

Can we all be honest here? No one has a bloody clue how much of gender is innate, and how much is socially constructed. Scientific research shows some differences between male and female brains in aggregate, but if shown a random brain, it is impossible to say it definitely belongs to someone with XX or XY chromosomes. In any case, brains are incredibly plastic, responding to their environment. Perhaps studies of identical twins could clear this up, but they haven’t done yet for sexuality, so don’t pin too much hope on them. Let’s treat everyone with dignity and respect, while preserving the space to explore this subject scientifically.

Can we also be honest about something else? This battle against Germaine Greer is driven, at least in part, by sexism. After all, the world is full of academics with bad opinions, happily going about their business. Richard Dawkins, for example, is obsessed with proving that a teenage Muslim American boy suspended for bringing a clock to school should not be an object of pity and is instead a cunning hoaxer. David Starkey went on an extraordinary rant on Newsnight a few years ago about how "whites have become black" (ie, were getting involved in street violence). No one is trying to ban him from talking to British universities.

The same students who tried to stop Julie Bindel from talking about free speech (the irony) at Manchester University this autumn did not simultaneously attack her fellow speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, even though his views on transgender people are more extreme than hers. (He believes they are mentally ill and should be denied surgery.) Brendan O’Neill writes almost weekly on the Spectator website that transgender politics is “hocus-pocus”. Where’s the NUS motion condemning him?

On the day the Greer row kicked off, I received a press release from the Cambridge Union saying that students had voted overwhelmingly to offer a platform to Julian Assange, who is an interesting speaker on the subject of internet surveillance . . . and a rape suspect, hiding from a European Arrest Warrant in the Ecuadorean embassy. Because he is a man, he gets to be both.

It is ironic that this debate has focused around the idea of accepting trans women as women, because it also seems to me that we have a problem accepting non-trans women as fully human – a mixture of good and bad, wrong and right. Because, of course, Germaine Greer wasn’t even booked to talk about trans issues at Cardiff: the title of her lecture was “Women and Power: the Lessons of the 20th Century”. As with other feminists, it is assumed that her bad opinions on one subject render her persona non grata on everything else.

Look at the history of no-platforming: it started with organisations like the National Front and the BNP, who trailed thugs and incited violence; then it spread to being used against figures like David Irving, the Holocaust denier – crucially, when he was talking about Holocaust denial. The new no-platforming of feminists means that one duff opinion sees you bundled off the stage, whatever you planned to talk about. Germaine Greer could go to a university to talk about her LP collection and there would be students desperate to ban her.

So yes, trans women are women. They are as much “real women” as I am, given it’s an arbitrary, ever-changing, socially constructed category. But trying to silence those who disagree with that simple statement will dent all women's right to speak. Let she who is without unpopular views cast the first e-petition.

 

* Update: 2pm, 27 October: Cardiff University have been in touch to say they have subsequently spoken to Greer's representatives, and the event is still scheduled to go ahead next month.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?

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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.