Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn ends his first 90 days as leader in a strong position

Victory in a series of proxy wars has left the Labour leader's allies bouyant. 

Corbynism for a decade? It no longer sounds ridiculous.

John McDonnell sets out the party leadership’s best case scenario in an interview with Fabian Review, saying: “I want to get Labour elected in 2020. I’d like to serve a term as Chancellor so we get the economy back on the road.” Although Jeremy Corbyn has not confirmed his thinking, he is believed to favour a similar timetable. By 2025, Corbyn will be 75, just five years younger than Winston Churchill, the oldest Prime Minister of the 20th Century, who was 80 when he resigned in 1955, and 10 years younger than William Gladstone, who was 85 at the end of his political career.

Clive Lewis, who is believed to be the most likely successor from the Corbynite wing of the party, will likely be brought into the shadow cabinet if, as expected, the leader conducts a reshuffle in the new year.

Although Momentum, the organisation set up as the continuation of Corbyn’s leadership campaign, has found itself under fire in recent weeks, Momentum staffers believe that the increasing ferocity of criticism directed at them is because “they cannot attack Jeremy directly”. Michael Dugher, the outspoken shadow culture secretary, branded the group "a mob" in an interview with The House magazine, while the group has been stung by a complaint about data protection.

They are privately unfazed by Dugher’s attack and are confident that the information commissioner will exonerate them.

Indeed, Corbyn’s allies have a spring in their step following a series of triumphs in three “proxy wars” with the leader’s internal opponents. The first, over the composition of the leader’s office, has been decisively won by Corbyn. Andrew Fisher, the leader’s advisor, who came under fire for tweets appearing to endorse Class War against Emily Benn, the Labour candidate in the safe Tory seat of Croydon South. The complaint was struck down by the party’s ruling NEC. The second, over Corbyn’s attendance at the Stop the War Christmas party, has also seen the leader’s critics disappointed. Although Stop the War has come under fire as a front group for the SWP  and a variety of smaller parties on the far left, with both Caroline Lucas and Peter Tatchell criticizing the group, Corbyn will still attend the Christmas bash, despite urgings to avoid it from the PLP.

But the third is perhaps the most significant. Although both the leadership and MPs are playing down the divide over airstrikes in Syria, because, in the words of one aide “they [the 66 MPs who voted for airstrikes] don’t want to be shouted at by their members and we don’t want to look divided”, all sides are aware that many more than the 66 MPs who did vote for airstrikes were convinced on the case for extending British bombing against Isis from Iraq into Syria, but pulled back due to pressure from their constituency parties.

That raises the difficulty of dethroning Corbyn still further. Although legal experts are divided over whether the Islington North MP would be forced to seek nominations again in the event of a challenge, with Jolyon Maugham, the respected barrister and former Labour donor, arguing that he would not, and GRM Law, who have advised the party on numerous cases, telling MPs that he would, most now accept that Corbyn would be able to pull together the 35 MPs he would need to stand again.

“It’s unthinkable that if 40, 50 MPs won’t vote with the consciences on what to do about Isis, that they would keep Jeremy [off the ballot],” says one party grandee. That means that any attempt to remove Corbyn would have to be backed by a candidate capable of defeating him among the party membership – no such candidate exists in the parliamentary Labour party.

A combination of what one shadow cabinet minister calls  the activists' “sense of fair play” and what you might call “exitism” –a steady stream of anti-Corbyn members leaving the party – mean that Corbyn would easily be re-elected by the pary membership. "Jeremy is the strongest he's ever been," says one ally.

Corbyn will celebrate his first 100 days in post in ten days time, with one veteran from the leadership campaign observing: “If you look at [us], the only wounds that have made a mark have been self-inflicted”. They believe that if the leadership can cut out its “unforced errors”, they should face no serious obstacles between now and 2020.

Speaking to Fabian Review, McDonnell shares that criticism, saying that the party “has got to be quicker, and we’ve got to be sharper” in its all-round approach.

As for Corbyn’s internal opponents, depression is setting in. Although it is widely believed that Dave Prentis, the incumbent general secretary of Unison and Corbyn critic, will see of the leftwing challenge of Heather Wakefield, few expect the “big three” affiliated general secretaries to be able to force out the leader, as Len McCluskey himself faces a tricky struggle to secure his re-election in 2018, while Tim Roache, the newly-elected general secretary of the GMB, is believed to be focusing on internal issues over the coming years.

Small wonder that the party’s Corbynsceptics are increasingly despondent. One peer, speaking to the New Statesman, said “I now think it might be terminal.” Another was more blunt, saying only: “I’m going to die before we see the Tories out again.” 

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

Show Hide image

Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.