Every aspect of China's landscape is under threat. Photo: Keith Roper / Flickr
Show Hide image

Flattened mountains, poisoned rivers: China's engineers face off against engineer-created problems

China's rapid industrialisation has not been accompanied by a respect for the natural environment - but, as pollution problems become so severe that they can no longer be ignored, engineers are beginning to dream up ambitious solutions to problems created by ambitious modernity.

The city of Lanzhou lies in the heart of China. Surrounded by vast mountains and arid deserts, the ancient Silk Road city with its abundance of natural mineral resources has flourished over thousands of years. The capital of the poverty-stricken Gansu Province has a rich history as a seat of Buddhist learning and culture. The Yellow River – "cradle of Chinese civilization" – courses through its centre, separating the vast mountain ranges to the north and south and nourishing the city’s three million inhabitants.

It is here that 700 mountain tops are being bulldozed to create a new megacity. Hundreds of square kilometres of mountain are being flattened by the authorities to rapidly generate vast quantities of rock, which can then be transported to valleys and gullies to serve as infill. It is shaping the environment on an unprecedented scale. The destruction of long-standing geological features will have untold consequences on the surrounding region - from the ground to the sky, the geography of the province will be altered in ways we can’t even begin to predict.

Scientists are adamant that moving mountains is not something humans are ready to do. “The consequences of these unprecedented programmes have not been thought through - environmentally, technically or economically,” wrote Chinese academics Peiyue Li, Hui Qian and Jianhua Wu in an article protesting the engineering project in Nature in June. “There has been too little modelling of the costs and benefits of land creation. Inexperience and technical problems delay projects and add costs, and the environmental impacts are not being thoroughly considered.”

The environmentalists from Chang’an University have decried the project as “performing major surgery on Earth's crust”. They fear these experiments could affect soil stability and river flow-paths, leading to an increase in landslides and flooding that have already laid waste to other parts of the country. Yet the work at Lanzhou isn't the only example. Land-creation projects like this have been growing in popularity to provide flat areas for buildings in hilly areas. In Hechi, southwest China, an airport has just been built by blowing the tops off 65 mountains and filling in the valleys in-between. The runway is a mere 1.3 miles long, and is followed by a sheer drop of a thousand feet on the other side.

The mutilation of these mountains comes at a time where the country is under heavy criticism for its disregard for the environment. The project is set to increase the concentration of dust particles in the air by almost 50 per cent - in a city already infamous for having the worst air quality in the whole of China. World Health Organisation data shows the concentration of 'PM10 particles' (a category of particulates known to cause severe health problems) in the air to be 150 micrograms per cubic metre, greater even than Beijing’s 121. In murky London it’s just 29.

The choking of Lanzhou’s air is testament to the shortcomings of China’s staggering economic growth over the last few decades. The city is already plagued by dust storms kicked up in the neighbouring Gobi desert but the sprawling mess of industrial centres and petrochemical factories add further fuel to the flames. Air quality in Lanzhou has reached such critically low levels that suggestions have even been made to bulldoze an adjacent mountain in a bid to allow more fresh air in. If it seems like a ludicrous solution, then remember that China is a country ruled by engineers: major, ground-breaking projects, regardless of efficacy, will always trump small-scale solutions. 

Yet increasingly these environmental impacts are exactly what China must consider. Every part of China’s geography - earth, air and water - is struggling to cope with the dramatic change in lifestyles of a nation that bears little resemblance to the China of ten years ago, let alone 50. The country has experienced staggering economic growth over the last 30 years and has successfully lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty. But the huge soar in production has come about with little regard for ecology: China is now home to an army of coal-burning power plants and a quarter of a billion vehicles. Industrialisation here has occurred ten times faster and a hundred times bigger than in Britain, according to a report by McKinsey in 2012. The “growth at any cost” narrative has been hugely successful - but its price is beginning to show.

For the citizens of China’s megacities, this manifests itself very visibly as poor air quality. President Xi Jinping described the deadly smog settling over Beijing as the most serious challenge facing the capital and this situation is echoed across hundreds of other cities across the country. The health risks of dusty, polluted air are deadly serious. Rates of lung cancer in the capital have doubled over the last decade, as the city claims the title of second-most-polluted city in the world. The rapidly-expanding middle class in China are increasingly demanding the government solve what has been described as an “airpocalypse” – air quality reminiscent of a nuclear wasteland. Last year the concentration of particulates was so great it caused a near-shutdown of Beijing. Air pollution closed schools, hospitals and airports across the capital.

Dirty water
The treacherous air and endangered geology are not Lanzhou's only worry. Water rushing in from the enormous Yellow River - ochre-coloured from the silty deposits of the Mongolian steppes - starts off unclean when it enters the city; by the time it leaves, it is positively deadly. Across three thousand miles stretching from a spring high in the Bayan Har Mountains to its mouth near Beijing, the Yellow River is hideously polluted. More than a third of the river has been categorised by the Yellow River Conservatory Committee as ‘level five’ - unfit for drinking or agriculture. For Lanzhou it’s even worse. Along with the huge quantities of sewage and other chemical waste, an oil leak earlier this year saw benzene levels in the city’s water supply to rise to 20 times the national limit.

Despite being home to a fifth of the world’s population, less than seven per cent of global fresh water lies within China’s borders. The deterioration of this water, both in quality and quantity, is one of the greatest threats endangering China’s northern provinces. Overuse and mismanagement of water resources has been catastrophic, resulting in the disappearance of more than half of the 50,000 rivers that existed in China in the 1990s, according to China's Ministry of Water Resources. The effect of these vanishing tributary rivers has huge implications for the bigger channels like the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers, which hundreds of millions of Chinese are reliant on. Almost a decade ago Jared Diamond noted in his book Collapse that the Yellow River's natural course has been devastated by dams and irrigations, placing the entire river valley at severe risk of drying out.

There is also a huge disparity in access to water – unlike the lush southern provinces, northern China receives very little rainfall. Agriculture remains heavily concentrated in these regions and farmers are forced to draw on underground aquifers and groundwater reserves to supply their water-intensive crops – which they then export back to the south. The result is water wastage on an enormous scale.

The South-North Water Transfer Project, a series of canals created to divert water from the enormous Yangtze River to the water-starved regions of the north, seeks to rectify this. Described as “one of the biggest feats of engineering in the world,” and with a budget greater than even the Three Gorges Dam, the project aims to ship 12 trillion gallons of water a year to areas in greatest need.

Hydrologist Dawei Han is a visiting professor at China’s Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower, and an expert in environmental engineering. He told me he thinks the project is a necessary measure to support a dry North. “Northern China needs more water. In southern China there’s more rainfall – so more water.”

"The Yangtze River is big and even during the dry period it’s still got several thousand metres cubic metres per second. If you look at the Thames River, the average discharge is fifty. So the idea is, you can take some water from the Yangtze and divert that to the north of China where there’s less rainfall.”

But many think the economic issues need to be addressed first. "China, in particular its water-scarce regions, are facing a serious water crisis driven by rapid economic growth,” warned a recent article published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. “Consumption in highly developed coastal provinces is largely relying on water resources in the water-scarce northern provinces, such as Xinjiang, Hebei and Inner Mongolia, thus significantly contributing to the water scarcity in these regions."

For the hundreds of thousands of locals already displaced by the South-North Water Transfer Project, an effective solution is essential. Internal critics, including even government officials, have fiercely protested the perceived waste of money and huge environmental impacts on those dependent on the Yangtze River. The sentiment is widely-shared that China is focusing its efforts on fixing the ‘supply’ side of its water resources crisis, but not the demand - a burgeoning population coupled with high economic growth will push demand to unsustainable levels.

This isn't just in the northern provinces, either. The densely-populated south has seen a flurry of desalination plants being built in coastal cities over the last decade to cope with water scarcity. “Desalination plants need a lot of energy and they pollute the sea-water,” Dr. Han explains. “You take fresh water out of the sea; the water left is highly concentrated salty water. In some cities, they’re building huge numbers of desalination plants – it’s always a problem. Wherever you have a human, you’re going to interfere with the environment. We all consume energy [and] materials.”

It’s a vicious cycle of growth depleting the country’s water supplies while polluting the surrounding land, air and sea, and as water scarcity increases so too does the need for energy-intensive desalination plants. As with flattened mountaints, China is relying on large-scale engineering solutions to appease the demands of citizens who are requesting, quite rightfully, the same standards of living seen in the West. It's an approach that, if continued, will lead to devastating consequences for every aspect of the environment.

Breathing space
But despite an arguably naive attitude towards its dwindling water resources, another pressing environmental issue is increasingly gaining traction. Inspired in part by internal pressure to improve air quality, China has seen a flurry of activity this year to reemphasise its commitments to curbing CO2 emissions. The country recently issued joint statements with both the US and the UK to pledge their concentrated efforts to reverse global trends. Though often dismissed as empty words, the moves signal China’s newfound recognition of the dangers of climate change.

“In terms of where we’re going with climate change and its implications, my feeling is – certainly amongst the scientific community in China - that they totally get it,” said Hugh Montgomery, co-chair of the Lancet Commission on Climate Change and Health. The London-based doctor has been heavily involved with the joint efforts between the UK and China to combat global warming. “I don’t think they’ve got any doubt about the fact that emissions cause global warming and that global warming is going to be very severe. At the moment, we’re shooting way beyond worst-case scenario... we could easily be heading for a four degrees rise within the next 80 years or so.”

According to the Royal Society, a rise in global temperatures of four degrees is incompatible with human civilisation. Go between four and seven degrees and we’ll see ecosystems collapse to the extent that our entire species is likely to go extinct. But this doesn’t even account for what Montgomery calls "positive feedback loops" – a temperature rise of even just two degrees will set off a chain of events that will further increase global temperatures.

“If we build in these positive feedback loops - oceans holding less CO2 as they get warmer, albedo [reflection of heat radiation] diminishing with the loss of ice, methane hydrate release from tundra and all these other things - we could get some very significant binary shifts. Because one thing we know about climate is very rarely is it slowly changing; it tends to jump. [The Chinese] get that. The question is what’s going to happen at policy level.”

It’s a question that Chinese officials have been quick to answer. From energy efficiency in buildings and vehicles to dramatic increases in carbon capture systems, China is promising huge changes in order to reduce its impact on the planet. That isn’t to say it’s doing everything. But many feel its attitude towards change is more holistic than America’s or Europe’s. Writing in the Guardian, Energy and Climate Change Minister Ed Davey said he had witnessed “extraordinary effort being made to tackle greenhouse gas emissions and to curb air pollution” in China. It’s not just trying to solve its internal problems – China is leading the campaign to get Western nations to share renewable energy technology with developing countries undergoing rapid industrialisation.

Central planning
Chairman Mao, in a speech championing the virtues of unity and perseverance after the Second World War, alluded to an ancient Chinese parable: “The Foolish Old Man Removes the Mountains.” The fable tells of an old man who struggled to move two mountains blocking his doorway, chipping away at them stone by stone. Knowing he could not complete the task in his own lifetime, he trusted in the fact that his children, or his children’s children, would eventually succeed. The Gods looked favourably on his determination, and broke the mountains away for him.

Since then the tale has been invoked, not entirely in jest, as a justification for the huge infrastructure projects such as the mountaintop-chopping in Lanzhou and Hechi or the vast dams and canals springing up around the country. But it’s also testimony to the belief that collective, sustained effort can overcome huge challenges. For environmentalists this may be the attitude needed to achieve real change. Perhaps controversially, Han believes China’s authoritarian system may have the power to solve the country’s crises.

“The problem in the West is that people look locally, they look short term. In Spain, during Franco’s time, they managed to build a lot of civil engineering projects - dams, rivers, canal systems. Franco’s opinion was that the water in Spain belongs to the whole population. So if you’ve got more water in one place, why not take it to another place? So it is quite an interesting problem. China’s got its own problems [and the] authoritarian system has got problems. But maybe it’s able to see slightly longer-term, see the big scope like in Spain.”

“China occupies a unique place in the future of climate change,” write economists Frank Jotzo and Fei Teng of the Australian National University, international experts in climate change policy. “China has become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and in many ways is the linchpin of global climate change policy. If China’s coal use and carbon dioxide emissions keep growing alongside GDP then current global goals for limiting climate change will be out of reach. If, however, China manages to decouple its emissions trajectory from its economic growth then ambitious global emissions reductions scenarios remain feasible, and other industrialising countries may be inclined to emulate China’s pathway.”

It’s a tantalising idea, but unlikely to come about without serious shifts in attitudes from Western nations too. The historical inequity of carbon distribution - whether you consider total emissions over 200 years or simply CO2 output per person - is difficult to argue with. Europe and America have taken a ‘share’ of emissions so large that we’re poorly placed to lecture develop China on its environmental track record - particularly given the greater progress it’s made in renewable energy.

As much of the world is set to discover in the coming decade, environmental degradation is of paramount importance. China is arguably one of the best-equipped to combat these threats, both as an economic powerhouse and an inspiration to developing nations looking for a model of how to modernise. Yet China’s relationship with the environment is of critical international importance, and this burgeoning superpower needs to figure out how to take the lead on the issue of protecting and preserving its natural environment before its engineering gusto goes too far.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

How Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership election

The revolt against the leader transformed him from an incumbent back into an insurgent. 

On the evening of 12 July, after six hours of talks, Jeremy Corbyn emerged triumphantly from Labour’s headquarters. “I’m on the ballot paper!” he told supporters gathered outside. “We will be campaigning on all the things that matter.”

The contest that Corbyn’s opponents had sought desperately to avoid had begun. Neither a vote of no confidence by 81 per cent of Labour MPs, nor 65 frontbench resignations had persuaded him to stand down. Days of negotiations led by Tom Watson had failed (“For years I’ve been told that I’m a fixer. Well, I tried to fix this and I couldn’t,” Labour’s deputy leader sorrowfully told the parliamentary party). The rebels’ last hope was that the National Executive Committee would force Corbyn to reseek nominations. After being backed by just 40 colleagues in the confidence vote, both sides knew that the leader would struggle to achieve 51 signatures.

But by 18-14, the NEC ruled that Corbyn would be automatically on the ballot (“Watson, Watson, what’s the score?” chanted jubilant aides in the leader’s office). After withstanding a 16-day revolt, Corbyn appeared liberated by the prospect of a summer of campaigning. His confidence prefigured the outcome two months later.

Corbyn did not merely retain the leadership - he won by a greater margin than last time (with 61.8 per cent of the vote to last year's 59.5 per cent) and triumphed among all three sections: party members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters. The rebels had hoped to narrow his mandate and win among at least one group: they did neither. Far from being a curse for Corbyn, the contest proved to be a blessing. 


The day before the pivotal NEC meeting, Angela Eagle, who had been preparing to stand for months, launched her leadership bid. The former shadow business secretary was admired by MPs for her experience, tenacity, and economic acumen. Her trade union links and soft left background were further cited in favour of her candidacy.

But after an underwhelming launch, which clashed with Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the Conservative contest (leaving Eagle calling questions from absent journalists), MPs gravitated towards Owen Smith.

Like Eagle, Smith hailed from the party’s soft left and had initially served under Corbyn (two prerequisites in the rebels’ eyes). But unlike her, the former shadow and work pensions secretary did not vote for the Iraq war (having entered parliament in 2010) or the 2015 Syria intervention. “It looks like the war party,” a senior Corbynite said of Eagle’s campaign launch with Hilary Benn. Many Labour MPs feared the same. With the left-leaning Lisa Nandy having ruled herself out, only the ambitious Smith met the criteria.

“I’d been in hospital for two days with my brother, who was unwell, in south Wales,” he recalled when I interviewed him.  “I came out having literally been in A&E at Cardiff Heath hospital for 29 hours, looking after him, to have my phone light up with 30, 40, 50 colleagues, MPs and members, ringing up saying ‘there’s going to be a contest, Angela Eagle has thrown her hat into the ring, you should do likewise.’ And at that point, on the Wednesday night, I started ringing people to test opinion and found that there was a huge amount of support for me.”

On 19 July, after Smith won 90 MP/MEP nominations to Eagle’s 72, the latter withdrew in favour of the Welshman. A week after the Conservatives achieved their second female prime minister, Labour’s 116-year record of all-male leaders endured. Though Smith vowed that Eagle would be “at my right hand throughout this contest”, she went on to appear at just one campaign event.

Corbyn’s challenger was embraced by MPs as a “clean skin”, untainted by service during the New Labour years. But Smith’s non-parliamentary past was swiftly - and ruthlessly - exploited by his opponents. His time at the US drugs firm Pfizer was cited as evidence of his closeness to big business. Corbyn’s supporters also seized on interviews given by Smith as a by-election candidate in 2006.

The man pitching to the left was found to have defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq war), supported private sector involvement in the NHS and praised city academies. “I'm not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online. Such lines were rapidly disseminated by Corbyn supporters through social media.

“Getting out early and framing Owen was crucial,” a Corbyn source told me. A Smith aide echoed this assessment: “It helped secure their base, it took a load of people out of contention.”

Throughout the campaign, Smith would struggle to reconcile his past stances with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent. “It was easy for us to go for the jugular over his background when he portrayed himself as a left candidate,” a Corbyn source said.

Smith insisted that the charge of opportunism was unmerited. “To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing,’” he told me in August. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be.” He added: “I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

But a former shadow cabinet colleague said that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings. “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

As well as Smith’s ambiguous past, Corbyn’s allies believe the breadth of his political coalition hindered him from the start. “He was trying to bring together Blairites, Brownites and every other -ite in between,” a campaign source said. “That was never going to hold, we knew that and from the moment there were splits it was easy to point out.”

Jon Trickett, the shadow business secretary and one of Corbyn’s early supporters, told me: “They tried to pretend that there was no distinction between them and Jeremy on policy grounds, they tried to narrow down the areas of difference to electability. But, frankly, it didn’t seem credible since some of the people behind it were absolutely ideologically opposed to Jeremy. Peter Mandelson and people like that.”

A frequently expressed charge was that Smith’s left-wing pledges would be overturned by Blairite figures if he won. John McGeechan, a 22-year-old postgraduate student who joined Labour after “self-indulgent, self-serving MPs initiated their corridor coup”, told me of Smith: “He’s just another mealy-mouthed careerist who says whatever he thinks is going to get him elected. I don’t believe at all that he means what he says about creating a radical socialist government given that he’s got the backing of Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair, people who’ve disagreed with Corbyn on pretty much all his socialist policies. I don’t believe that he’s going to stand up to these people.”

Whether believable or not, Smith’s programme showed how Corbyn had shifted Labour’s centre of gravity radically leftwards - his original aim in June 2015.


On the night Corbyn made the leadership ballot, the rebels still found cause for hope. Unlike in 2015, the NEC imposed a freeze date of six months on voting (excluding 130,000 new members) and increased the registered supporter fee from £3 to £25 (while reducing the sign-up period to two days). “It’s game on!” a senior figure told me. By narrowing the selectorate, Corbyn’s opponents hoped to achieve a path to victory. With fewer registered supporters (84 per cent of whom voted for Corbyn last year), they believed full party members and affiliated trade unionists could carry Smith over the line.

But when 183,000 paid £25 to vote, their expectations were confounded. Far from being “game on”, it looked to many rebels like game over. Once again, Corbyn’s opponents had underestimated the left’s recruiting capacity. Smith’s lack of name recognition and undistinctive pitch meant he could not compete.

Alongside the main contest were increasingly fractious legal battles over voting rights. On 28 July, the high court rejected Labour donor Michael Foster’s challenge to Corbyn’s automatic inclusion on the ballot. Then on 8 August, a judge ruled that the party had wrongly excluded new members from voting, only for the decision to be overturned on appeal.

In the view of Corbyn’s allies, such legal manevoures unwittingly aided him. “They turned Jeremy, who was an incumbent, back into an insurgent,” Trickett told me. “The proponents of the challenge made it seem like he was the underdog being attacked by the establishment.”

Smith, who repeatedly framed himself as the “unity candidate”, struggled to escape the shadow of the “corridor coup”. That many of his supporters had never accepted Corbyn’s leadership rendered him guilty by association.

“The coup had an enormous galvanising effect and an enormous politicising effect,” a Corbyn source told me. “For a great number of people who supported Jeremy last year, there was a feeling, ‘well, we’ve done the work, that’s happened, now over to him.’ What the coup meant for a lot of people was that this isn’t about Jeremy Corbyn, this is a people’s movement, which we all need to lead.” The Corbyn campaign signed up 40,000 volunteers and raised £300,000 in small donations from 19,000 people (with an average donation of £16). Against this activist army, their rivals’ fledgling effort stood no chance.

“At the launch rally, we had 12 simultaneous events going on round the country, livestreamed to each other,” a Corbyn source said. “We had a lot of communication with people who were big in the Sanders campaign. In the UK context, it’s trailblazing.”

On 12 August, after previously equivocating, Smith ruled out returning to the shadow cabinet under Corbyn. “I've lost confidence in you. I will serve Labour on the backbenches,” he declared at a hustings in Gateshead. In the view of Corbyn’s team, it was a fatal error. “He shot apart his whole unity message,” a source said.

Smith, who initially offered Corbyn the post of party president, was rarely booed more than when he lamented Labour’s divisions. As one of the 172 MPs who voted against the leader, he was regarded as part of the problem, rather than the solution. By the end, Smith was reduced to insisting “I wasn’t in favour of there being a challenge” - a statement that appeared absurd to most.

As well as his leftist credentials and unifying abilities, Smith’s other main boast was his competence and articulacy. “HIs USP was that he was this media-savvy guy,” a Corbyn source said. “As a result, he threw himself up for any and every media opportunity and made tons of gaffes. We just made sure people were aware of them.”

The most enduring gaffe came early in the campaign, on 27 July, when he spoke of wanting mto “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”. Though Smith initially defended his “robust rhetoric” (“you’ll be getting that from me”), by the afternoon his campaign had apologised. What was explained as a “rugby reference” dogged them for weeks. “It played into the hands of how Corbyn wanted to depict us,” a Smith source told me. “It was really hard to shake off.”

More unforced errors followed. Smith suggested getting Isis “round the table”, in anticipation, many believed, of Corbyn agreeing. But the Labour leader baulked at the proposal: “No, they are not going to be round the table”. Corbyn’s communications team, more organised and agile than in 2015, denounced Smith’s remarks as “hasty and ill-considered”. As with “smashed”, the Labour challenger had achieved rare cut-through - but for the wrong reasons.

Smith’s rhetorical looseness became a recurring problem. At a rally on 23 August, he appeared to refer to Corbyn as a “lunatic”. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, he said of meeting his wife: “1,200 boys, three girls and I pulled Liz. So I must have something going on. That must be leadership.”

Earlier in the campaign, Smith’s team denied that the candidate referred to the size of his penis when he quipped of his height: "5ft 6. 29 inches - inside leg!” The guffaws from his supporters suggested otherwise.

We used to have a gaffe counter,” a Corbyn source told me. “I think it got up to 30 by the end.”

Smith’s team, meanwhile, despaired at how the Labour leader’s own missteps failed to dent him. The discovery that Corbyn had in fact secured a seat on a Virgin train, contrary to initial impressions, did little lasting damage. “It’s priced in, the bar is much lower for him,” a Smith source complained.

Incorrect claims, such as Labour being level in the polls before the coup attempt and Corbyn giving 122 speeches during the EU referendum campaign, were believed by many of his supporters. “How do you rebut bullshit?” a Smith aide asked. “If you respond, it becomes a story.”

So frequently had Labour MPs condemned their leader that extraordinary charges were soon forgotten. On 22 August, shadow business minister Chi Onwurah wrote in the New Statesman that Corbyn’s treatment of her and Thangam Debbonaire could constitute “racial discrimination”.

If this had been any of my previous employers in the public and private sectors Jeremy might well have found himself before an industrial tribunal for constructive dismissal, probably with racial discrimination thrown in,” she argued. But within a day, the story had moved on.  

For Smith, fleeting momentum was achieved through significant endorsements. On 10 August, the GMB backed his campaign after becoming the only trade union to ballot its members. The following week, Labour’s most senior elected politician, Sadiq Khan, endorsed Smith. Unlike Andy Burnham, the London mayor believed he could not remain neutral during this profound schism. Smith was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband trumpeted his cause. Yet such declarations counted for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one Smith ally told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

But in the view of Corbyn’s team, the rebels profoundly “underestimated” their opponent. “He’s a nice guy but he also has an inner steel and won't flinch from a challenge. The Obi-Wan Kenobi comparison is very accurate when you work up close with him. He’s also extremely intelligent and has a great grasp and retention of detail. It showed in the debates.”

“I have to say, I felt pretty sorry for Owen at several points,” another Corbyn source reflected. “Whatever it was, his ambition or being pushed into it, it didn’t seem like it was the right time for him. He hadn’t worked out what he was about and why that fitted with the times.”


Those Labour MPs who long warned that an early challenge to Corbyn would prove futile have been vindicated. “Party members are always loyal to the incumbent,” a senior source astutely noted. In the case of Corbyn, a lifelong campaigner, who many contended was “never given a chance”, this traditional fealty was intensified.

“Most of the people backing and funding him didn’t think Owen was going to win,” a Corbyn source said. “Their aim was, one, to reduce Jeremy’s mandate and, secondly, to map the selectorate.”

Having won a second leadership contest - an unprecedented achievement for the Labour left - the leader’s supporters insist their ambitions do not end here. “We’ve got to think incredibly seriously about how we win a general election in a totally changed landscape,” a Corbyn source told me. “This campaign has been showing how to do it.” But a Smith aide warned that it was a “massive strategic error” to make electability, rather than principle, the defining test of Corbyn. The leader, he suggested, could withstand a general election defeat provided he simply affirmed his values.

Beyond regarding a split as worthless, Labour MPs are divided on how to proceed. Some want another leadership challenge as early as next year. Rather than seeking to narrow the selectorate, they speak of recruiting hundreds of thousands of new members to overpower the left. “There are lots of people out there who want a credible, electable, centre-left proposition and we have not given them enough of a reason to sign up,” a former shadow cabinet minister told me. “Who has an offer and the charisma to be able to bring in new people? That has to be the question the next time round.”

Others believe that backbenchers should follow Thumper’s law: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  A senior MP argued that MPs should “just shut up” and “let Jeremy crack on with it.” The imperative, he said, was to avoid MPs “taking the blame for us getting thumped in a snap election”. Some are prepared to move beyond neutrality to outright support by serving under Corbyn.

The Labour left and their most recalcitrant opponents both confront challenges of electability. The former must demonstrate a path to victory despite Corbyn’s subterranean poll ratings. The latter, who boast so often of their superior appeal, must face a remorseless truth. Until they are electable in the party, they will never be electable in the country.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.