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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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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear