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Think Jeremy Corbyn is untouchable among Labour activists? Think again

People are treating Jeremy Corbyn's supporters as a homogenous bloc, says Leo Barasi.

The resignation of four shadow ministers – one of them on live TV – would normally prompt speculation about a leadership challenge.

But Labour’s rules seem to protect Corbyn from attempts to unseat him. Even if MPs were to force another leadership election, it’s assumed that the membership would vote him straight back in, perhaps with an even greater majority. I’m not so sure though.

Those who think Corbyn can count on members’ support point to polls of those eligible to vote in leadership elections, which seem to show deep support for the new leader. The most recent, a Times/YouGov poll in November, found that 66 per cent think he’s doing well, compared with 30 per cent of the general public who said the same.

The explanation for this support among members, it’s argued by those who are baffled about how anyone can say he’s doing well, is that many Labour members prefer their party to be pure than to be in power. The same poll found a 24-point lead for those who prefer Labour to put forward policies they really believe in, even if that means being unelectable.

If that’s true, it may not matter how unpopular Corbyn is with the public. In fact, the worse Labour’s poll score becomes, the more popular he might become with some members who take the opprobrium as evidence that they finally have a ‘real’ Labour leader.

But this wrongly treats Corbyn voters as an undifferentiated block, when the reality is that many aren’t indifferent to his struggles.

During the leadership campaign, Corbyn’s supporters often argued not only that he would be authentic, but that he would be effective. They claimed that he would be a formidable opponent to the Tories and that he could win the next election.

Such views might spell trouble for the Labour leader. If Corbyn and his team are seen to be bad at doing politics, they let down those who counted on him to be effective as well as authentic.

It’s true that most of those who voted for Corbyn seem more concerned about having a leader they always agree with than one who can take Labour into government. But what may be crucial for a future leadership election is that this isn’t the case of everyone who voted Corbyn.

According to that poll of members, 71 per cent of Corbyn backers would prefer a pure, unelectable party to one that can win. But a quarter think otherwise. If those members went to another candidate, and the rest remained unchanged, Corbyn would no longer have a majority.

To be clear, I don’t think we’re at the point where Corbyn would lose a ballot of members, even if he were to face only one candidate who united the soft left and right of the party. Indeed, a challenge now might be disastrous for his opponents, as many members who are beginning to waver would feel he deserves more time. The latest poll also suggests that some members who didn’t vote for him currently think Corbyn’s doing well.

My point is that, over the coming months, being seen to be both an ineffective opponent of the Tories and unpopular with the public may well be enough for a substantial part of Corbyn’s leadership supporters to lose faith.

Despite unforced errors for which there’s no-one to blame but Corbyn and his team – not singing the national anthem and then not quickly explaining why; the U-turn on the fiscal charter; McDonnell’s Little Red Book moment – most members are still satisfied with the leadership (although the poll was conducted before the more recent mistakes).

But it’s hard to see things getting easier for Corbyn. The chaos of this week’s reshuffle suggests his team still haven’t got a grip. Labour’s current poll rating is the lowest after the first three months of any post-war leader, while support for Labour oppositions tends to fall between this stage in a parliament and the subsequent election.

If these mistakes continue and Labour’s poll rating doesn’t improve, to the point where it becomes unavoidable that the voters aren’t going to elect a Corbyn-led Labour party, some of those who backed Corbyn might begin to consider alternatives. Despite the size of Corbyn’s victory, it wouldn’t take that many switchers for a rival candidate to be viable. If this happens, the next mass resignation really might be the start of a leadership contest.



Leo Barasi writes about public opinion at Noise of the Crowd


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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

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