Returning to the United Kingdom yesterday, I made some soundings as to the state of the parties. “It’s dark as fuck,” was the verdict of one insider on Labour’s current predicament. “Things are going very well,” was another’s take. “Get back on your plane,” was the advice of one parliamentarian.
I then spent most of yesterday talking to Labour party members – and my impression, of a membership that is only growing more supportive of Jeremy Corbyn’s project, was confirmed by today’s Times/YouGov poll.
They find that 66 per cent of Labour party members believe that the new leader is doing “well” in his new job, a seven point increase on his his 59 per cent landslide. Almost half – 49 per cent – of members who backed Andy Burnham in the leadership race, are pleased with Corbyn’s leadership thus far, while 29 per cent of former supporters of Yvette Cooper also present a favourable view.
Covering the Labour party feels increasingly like reviewing a particularly patchy Choose-Your-Adventure novel. Two-thirds of party members, and perhaps ten per cent of MPs believe that the party is headed for the sunlit uplands. The remaining third – and most of the parliamentary Labour party – thinks that the party is heading for a heavy defeat in 2020 at best and annihilation at worst. They can’t go on like this – someone is going home in an ambulance: either Corbyn, or his internal opponents. My instinct is that it will be Corbyn who triumphs.
Attempting to remove a Labour leader is close-to-impossible: no leader since 1935 has gone without being rejected by the electorate, or retiring. (Tony Blair, who had already publicly ruled out standing for a fourth term, doesn’t count as all that happened was his retirement date was moved forward a bit.)
Much would hinge on the interpretation of one, unhelpfully vague, clause of the Labour party’s constitution:
“Where there is no vacancy, nominations may be sought by potential challengers each year prior to the annual session of Party conference. In this case any nomination must be supported by 20 per cent of the Commons members of the PLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.”
It is unclear if that means that Corbyn would be on the ballot paper by right, or if he too would have to secure the requisite nominations, allowing the parliamentary Labour party to present the membership with a Corbyn-free ballot paper.
Such an outcome would run contrary to what one frontbencher calls “Labour members’ instinctive sense of fair play”, but Labour has never had a particularly democratic culture, so it wouldn’t be entirely surprising. However, it would potentially leave the whole process open to legal challenge. I’ve asked Jolyon Maugham, a barrister and frequent New Statesman contributor, to look over the section. His full verdict can be read here, but the crucial passage is this one:
“Now I profoundly believe that Corbyn’s road is not the road to government; and I no less profoundly believe that it is the role of the Opposition to seek to be in government. I make these points only by way of explaining that such bias as I have is against Corbyn continuing as leader. But it is tolerably clear – not perfectly but tolerably clear – to me that he can’t be seen off by this mechanic.”
That means that a “Stop Jeremy” candidate will have to be a) able to, in the words of one insider, “unite the party from Lisa Nandy [on the soft left] to Wes Streeting [on the right]”. b) secure an electoral result that was, if nothing else, no worse than the 2015 election, and c) defeat Jeremy Corbyn among members.
You might as well add d) be able to transmute iron to gold or e) feed 5,000 with just five loaves and two fish. No politician with those qualities exists within the parliamentary Labour party. Corbyn is going nowhere, which means that if a reckoning is on its way, it is the Labour leader’s opponents who will be the worse off.