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23 June 2015updated 03 Jun 2016 5:00pm

Why are we so certain that Jeremy Corbyn can’t win?

There is a path to victory for Jeremy Corbyn. A fraught one, but it's there.

By Stephen Bush

Any serious analysis of the Labour leadership election has to start with the fact that Ed Miliband lost the last one, and it wasn’t close: among members, he got 45 per cent of the vote to his brother’s 55. An even bigger landslide in the opposite direction among affliated members and a narrow defeat in the parliamentary Labour party meant that the younger Miliband won under the vagaries of Labour’s electoral college, but thanks to the changes Miliband brought about after the Falkirk scandal, only the membership remain.

The parliamentary party, having decided the shape of the ballot paper, no longer matter. As for trade unions, they could, theoretically, wield even more power if enough trade unionists registered to vote, but the evidence so far is that hardly any trade unionists are doing so or will do so. That leaves just the members, who, in the first round of the contest, put David Miliband first with 44 per cent of the vote, his brother second with 30 per cent of the vote, Ed Balls in third place with 10 per cent, and Andy Burnham, on eight per cent, in fourth place. Dead last was Diane Abbott, the candidate of the left, with seven per cent of the vote.

The chances for Jeremy Corbyn, a candidate who is in many respects to the left of Abbott, do not, at first glance, look encouraging. It may be that the rules of the old leadership election kept Abbott’s vote share artificially low – almost every activist on the party’s left will have known that the votes of MPs meant Abbott was dead in the water, and some may have voted for Ed Miliband straight away rather than take the time to rank all the candidates. Equally, that Abbott couldn’t win may have meant that large numbers of voters felt able to cheerfully make a statement about the state of the party – remember Abbott was the only woman or ethnic minority in the race – without actually risking electing her. So a bearish analysis of Corbyn’s likely starting point would put him below Abbott’s score, at around five per cent while a bullish assessment could put him as high as 15 per cent. 

But even that worst-case scenario of five per cent doesn’t mean that Corbyn can’t win. As well as giving more power to party members, Miliband’s changes to the rules created a new tier of “registered supporters” who can pay just £3 and vote in the leadership election. So the question then, is: are there 100,000 people on the left in Britain, who are not currently members of the Labour party, who could be persuaded to sign up to vote for Corbyn in the leadership election? 

Let’s again, go back to some numbers: reports that a quarter of a million people joined the anti-austerity march last weekend proved wide of the mark – that would have filled not just Parliament Square but Whitehall, Trafalgar Square and the Strand – but the least optimistic figure of total attendees, including the ones who sloped off for a pint or a wedding halfway through, is probably around 25,000. Let’s say that just 10,000 of them can be convinced that the Labour party, even one led by Corbyn, is worth the candle. Then they each need to recruit five friends. If just one of those five friends recruits another friend, Corbyn could be Labour’s next leader. 

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These are not numbers beyond a decent organiser. It may be that the Corbyn campaign can’t do it, but doesn’t mean not it’s not doable. The thumping defeat envisaged by members of the parliamentary Labour party when they put Corbyn on the ballot could turn into a surprise win for the Islington North MP. 

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