“Now we need to make sure I don’t win,” Jeremy Corbyn told a supporter after he made the Labour leadership ballot last year. It was not with the hope or expectation of victory that he entered the contest. Rather, the backbencher hoped to shift Labour’s debate leftwards.
He has certainly done so now. The policies adopted by Corbyn’s challenger Owen Smith put him well to the left of almost all recent candidates. Last week, he announced 20 pledges, including a ban on zero-hour contracts, a 4 per cent increase in NHS spending, a wealth tax on the top 1 per cent of earners and £200bn of infrastructure investment. Today, he has promised an immediate living wage of £8.25 for all adults and the reversal of all cuts to in-work benefits. With the notable exception of Trident renewal, there are few issues that divide him and Corbyn.
The contrast with last summer’s contest, when no other candidate fully opposed austerity, is marked. Indeed, had Andy Burnham stood on Smith’s platform in 2015 it is possible that no left candidate would have entered the race. But mistakenly spooked by Liz Kendall’s bid, Burnham backed further welfare cuts and struck a centrist tone (one abandoned by the contest’s end). After Corbyn’s victory, Smith has correctly concluded that he cannot be “too left-wing” for Labour’s current selectorate. He aims to fuse the leader’s radicalism with superior electability and competence.
But as well the loyalty of Corbyn supporters to their leader, Smith faces two other major obstacles to victory. His more moderate past (supporting limited private sector involvement in the NHS, for instance) means he is branded an opportunist by opponents. Others argue that he would be captured or ousted by figures to his right. “The Blairites won’t rest until they’ve got their party back,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. Corbyn’s victory – a new anti-austerity consensus – would be short-lived, his supporters fear. But a victory it is. Some left-wingers privately confess that they would rather have won the debate than the contest. “We simply weren’t ready to lead,” a senior figure told me. But as Marx observed, men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their choosing.