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Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election would give the Labour left a chance to assure its supremacy

Rule changes and deselections could allow the leader's allies to consolidate their power.  

On the night before he was defeated by Neil Kinnock in the 1988 Labour leadership election, Tony Benn told a gathering of supporters: “I do not want anyone to think that tomorrow is the end. It is the beginning. It is twice as good as we thought it might be.” The following day, the left-wing challenger won a mere 11.4 per cent of the vote. “It was appalling,” he recorded in his diary.

When most Labour MPs refer to the “wilderness years”, they have in mind the party’s spell in opposition from 1979 to 1997. But the left is describing an internal exile that lasted until 2015. Before Jeremy Corbyn’s victory, he and his allies had never come close to winning a leadership election. They are now on course to do so for a second time in September.

The predictability of this should not negate its significance. When Corbyn was elected by the members last year, MPs hoped that it would prove no more than a summer fling. Yet the romance has endured. All of the evidence suggests that Corbyn retains a comfortable lead among both members and registered supporters. At the time of writing, he had won 134 constituency nominations to Owen Smith’s 25. Even before the high court ruled that 126,592 members who joined since January were unlawfully excluded from the contest (a decision challenged by the Labour Party as the New Statesman went to press), victory for Corbyn was one of the safest bets in politics.

Smith’s supporters hope that he will narrow his opponent’s lead but none anticipates winning. Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in Labour’s history, will almost certainly be confirmed in power.

Vast political energy has been spent in trying to dislodge Corbyn, but to little effect: 81 per cent of Labour MPs voted to declare that they had no confidence in him; 65 frontbenchers resigned. Neither act diminished support for the leader among the only group that counts: members and supporters. Indeed, the failed “coup” has harmed Smith more than his opponent. Most members agree when Smith laments that Labour has “never looked more disunited”. But they blame the rebels, not Corbyn.

Some opponents had long believed that there was little purpose in challenging him before 2017 – if then. Those who had invested heavily in Corbyn needed to be given time to “see him fail”, they said. It was the shock of Brexit and the fear of an early general election that accelerated the process.

When it became clear that Corbyn would not depart voluntarily, rebel MPs spoke of turning the leadership rules to their advantage. They would seek to recruit hundreds of thousands of new supporters through the £3 scheme, harnessing “the 48 per cent” aggrieved by Brexit. An unpublished poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner suggested that 10 per cent of the public would participate. Yet the decision by Corbyn’s opponents on the National Executive Committee to impose a £25 fee foreclosed this possibility. The hope was that shrinking the selectorate would benefit the rebels. But most of the 140,000 £25 supporters are believed to favour Corbyn. As in 2015, the left’s recruiting capacity was underestimated. Corbyn’s allies believe that there are still more who could be mobilised to defend his leadership. “We’re not at the bottom of the well,” one told me.

A second leadership victory would be an unprecedented triumph for the left but its mastery of Labour is not yet complete. Had Corbyn departed, an alternative candidate, such as the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, or the shadow defence secretary, Clive Lewis, would have struggled to achieve the requisite 38 MP/MEP nominations (15 per cent of the total) needed to get on the ballot. The left’s devotion to Corbyn is both personal and tactical.

His allies identify two ways to consolidate their position. “You change the rules or you change the MPs,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. The deselection of some of Corbyn’s opponents is regarded as “inevitable”. At a recent rally in Brighton, the leader stated that he would not “interfere” if members sought to oust the Hove and Portslade MP, Peter Kyle. By simultaneously replacing retirees with left-wing loyalists, a more Corbynite parliamentary party will be built.

In parallel with this, the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy is seeking to reduce the nomination threshold to 5 per cent. The earliest possible date for this rule change is 2017 – another reason for Corbyn’s tenacity. By the time he departs, the left’s hope is that its supremacy will be assured. Labour will have been transformed from a party in which MPs hold the whip hand to one in which the activists do.

It is this that leads some to regard a split as inevitable and desirable. Yet it is not a course that MPs intend to pursue if Corbyn wins again. To adapt Adam Smith, there is a great deal of ruin in a party. MPs’ tribal loyalty to Labour militates against a breakaway. Many expect Theresa May to trigger an early general election next year, with Labour’s defeat resulting in Corbyn’s resignation or removal. But he has refused to guarantee that he would go. As the left is fond of noting, Kinnock remained in post despite losing in 1987.

Before his defeat the following year, Benn threatened annual leadership challenges. Many of Corbyn’s opponents now echo this warning. For the left, this role reversal is the reward for its past refusal to split. “You know what, comrade, we’re just in it, aren’t we?” Benn once told Corbyn when discussing why they had remained in the party.

Back then, the left, no less than the right, assumed that its marginalisation was permanent. When Corbyn won in 2015, it was as an insurgent. He is now on course to triumph as an incumbent. Never has the left been closer to transforming Labour for good. Never has it been harder for their opponents to stop them. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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