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Neil Kinnock: Jeremy Corbyn may have to resign or face a leadership challenge if Labour fails to improve

Former leader says that it is "difficult to see" Corbyn as electable and that "conclusions must be drawn" if the party's performance does not improve. 

Jeremy Corbyn may have to resign or face a revolt from MPs if Labour's performance fails to improve, Neil Kinnock has warned. In an interview with the New Statesman, the former Labour leader said it was "difficult to see" Corbyn as electable and added: "If Jeremy is seen to be failing to connect to the electorate after a reasonable space of time then he may come to his own conclusions."

Asked whether MPs should challenge Corbyn if he refused to step down, the peer said: "There’s a fundamental question here and it is whether people want to secure power in the party or to win power for the party. Those people who want to win power, whether they’re left, right or centre, will be watching the evidence and will make their decision on the basis of that evidence. Not because of some spasm of emotion, or the fact that their candidate didn’t get elected, they’ll want to know that they have a party which is being led in its advance with the electorate. If that isn’t the case then conclusions must be drawn." Labour's current poll ratings are the worst of any opposition in post-1945 history and it is forecast to become the first to lose council seats in a non-general election year since 1985.

Kinnock, who led Labour from 1983-92, advised against an imminent challenge to Corbyn, saying that "I take the view that a lot of people, left, right and centre, in parliament and in the unions take, that Jeremy Corbyn won, he’s got to have some space and he must be judged on performance in terms of Labour’s advance or movement in the other direction. That’s the political reality that people must really grasp and work on, the idea of trying to take disruptive action in the short-term will simply be fruitless, that’s the reality."

But he added that Corbyn's record of rebellion made it hard for him to command loyalty. "Jeremy's commitment to the party has never been in doubt, his commitment to various party leaderships has frequently been in doubt. That comes up in every conversation ... It’s difficult for him and those closest to him in the circumstances to acquire loyalty and to uphold unity when there’s that record stretching back 30 years. It isn’t impossible provided that he can show evidence that Labour is making advances." Corbyn is currently seeking to reverse Labour's support for Trident, making unilateral nuclear disarmament the party's policy for the first time since Kinnock abandoned the stance in 1989. 

The former Labour leader was interviewed by the New Statesman as a part of a feature on whether Labour should split. Thirty five years ago this week, the Limehouse Declaration was issued by the "Gang of Four" (Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams) and the Social Democratic Party was formed two months later. Kinnock, who became leader after Labour's 1983 landslide defeat, warned of a split: "Anybody advocating it has got to face the reality that they would be letting the Tories rule the 21st century just like they mainly ruled the 20th century. There can’t be any rational social democrat or democratic socialist who would want that but it is a historic inevitability if they pursue it." 

But Peter Hyman, Tony Blair's former strategist and speechwriter, wrote: "Politics today is far more fluid, and people are crying out for a fresh voice in British politics. If, but only if, the Labour Party does not get back on track in the next 18 months, then there will need to be serious consideration given to a new party emerging." Labour MP Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions select committee, argued that the parliamentary party should elect a separate leader. "Not having a leader in the country, which Jeremy is, is not our weakness. It is in having no alternative prime minister. That person will hopefully come from the 2010 intake who are not stigmatised by previous Labour regimes. Then, please God, Labour backbenchers will have the courage to act decisively."

Corbyn ally Diane Abbott, the shadow international development secretary, told the New Statesman that a split would be "a real betrayal of the millions of people in the country who need a Labour government and "a betrayal of the thousands of party members who are behind the Labour leadership." She added: "The bitter and rancorous split is amongst MPs and only amongst MPs. It’s awful that, months after winning the Labour party leadership with the biggest majority, people are still attacking the leadership." 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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