Coups, splits – or surprising calm? What the Jeremy Corbyn era would look like for Labour

Jeremy Corbyn is on course to become Labour's next leader. What would his Labour look like?

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

You campaign in poetry but you govern in prose. We know that Jeremy Corbyn can craft a beguiling sonnet – he has packed out meeting halls across the country and is 30 points ahead of his Labour leadership rivals in the latest YouGov poll – but the question of what his workaday sentences might look like has been neglected. What changes would the Corbyn era bring?

At the beginning, at least, it would be more stable than many observers expect. All but a handful of diehard MPs from the party’s right will give Corbyn breathing space (if only, in the words of one, “to give him enough rope to hang himself”). Most recognise that an immediate coup would prompt a rerun of the race under identical rules. That could result in Corbyn winning again, perhaps by a bigger margin.

Also, Corbyn will have fewer “overmighty subjects” than his predecessor Ed Miliband did. Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, his main rivals, were looming presences in the Miliband years. Either one could have deposed the younger Miliband had they chosen to, and each had to be appeased and given leeway on matters of policy. But both would be discredited by defeat and there is no immediately obvious successor as leader of their factions. Corbyn would remain secure until a credible “stop Jeremy” candidate emerged – perhaps Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves or Dan Jarvis.

Tom Watson, who is the overwhelming favourite to emerge as deputy leader, would also be a stabilising presence. Corbyn’s inner circle is confident that, far from plotting to bring him down, Watson will bolster the Islington North MP.

In the back room, Corbyn’s office would be far from the amateurish dysfunction that often characterised the Miliband project. Simon Fletcher, Corbyn’s campaign supremo and Ken Livingstone’s old chief of staff, is widely expected to stay on in the event of a victory. Continuity at the top would avoid a repeat of the chaotic early years of Miliband’s leadership. He went two years without a permanent chief of staff before appointing the unworldly Tim Livesey, a former adviser to the archbishop of Canterbury. Unlike Livesey – who once asked a dumbstruck special adviser who the Sky News anchor Adam Boulton was – Fletcher is an experienced and effective but genial presence at the heart of Project Corbyn.

Front-of-house, the first big challenge would be forming a shadow cabinet. Although a number of big beasts – Cooper, Umunna and Chris Leslie among them – have ruled out serving under Corbyn, there are enough people unwilling to stomach a reduction in status (and the size of their offices) for an opposition front bench to be formed. Figures from Labour’s more left-leaning 2015 intake would fill in the gaps. Clive Lewis, a former BBC journalist and army reservist, could serve as shadow secretary of state for defence; Louise Haigh, already making counterintuitive and intelligent arguments about Britain’s growing personal debt bubble, could go straight from the back benches to shadowing the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Both could serve two-year apprenticeships in those roles, allowing Michael Mea­cher, at 77 by far and away the most experienced member of Labour’s left flank – he has held ministerial office and served in the shadow cabinet – to shadow the Foreign Office or the Treasury for two years before giving way. Jon Trickett, the left-leaning MP for Hemsworth and another veteran of Miliband’s inner circle, might be given the other major office of state.

It is also possible that Corbyn could restore shadow cabinet elections – scrapped by Miliband – although, given the composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party, that would result in a front bench staffed largely with MPs from the party’s right, almost all of whom would be opposed to most of his policy programme. However, Corbyn would have an unexpected advantage here thanks to boundary changes planned by the Tories for this parliament. These will involve 50 seats being scrapped, forcing many Labour MPs to submit themselves for reselection. And who oversees selection? The deputy leader.

The chances of a full-blooded split are ­remote. There are no donors willing to fund a second Social Democratic Party, and Labour’s right-wingers hold the new Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, in contempt. But there would be middling schisms aplenty.

The renewal of Trident would likely split Labour down the middle – David Cameron, ever the opportunist, might bring forward the vote to increase Labour’s agonies – and the forthcoming referendum on the European Union will also test the party’s resolve. Corbyn is quietly sceptical about the European project, although the party as a whole is largely pro-European.

Despite his uncompromising reputation, Jeremy Corbyn has already shown himself willing and able to manage potential divisions. On Europe, he has managed to reassure the Eurosceptic minority that he is “one of us” (as one MP put it to me), while sounding open-minded enough to retain the votes of pro-Europeans. A similarly big-tent approach would probably hold the party together, at least for a little while.

More difficult to navigate will be the local and European elections. Next year will be a difficult one for Labour regardless of leader: a bloodbath is expected in Scotland and the party has a precarious grip on power in Wales. Zac Goldsmith will be a tough opponent in the London mayoral race. Defeat in all three would signal the end for Corbyn.

Having surprised everyone in the leadership contest, Corbyn might continue to defy expectations. But no matter how popular his blank verse has proved with members, his future depends on persuading at least a few swing voters to pick up the novel.

George Eaton is away

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman, the EI Political Commentator of the Year, and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais