There is one endorsement that Owen Smith’s supporters have been craving: Sadiq Khan. The London mayor is Labour’s most senior elected politician and one of the party’s most popular figures. But though few doubted Khan’s private view, he initially refused to intervene in the race. Earlier this week, on the 100th day of his mayoralty, he told LBC that he didn’t want to get involved in a “running commentary”. Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters cited his silence as evidence of a lack of faith in Smith.
But in tomorrow’s Observer, the day before party members receive their ballots, Khan offers a robust endorsement of Corbyn’s challenger. He writes that he “considered staying neutral” but adds: “I’ve been asked how I’ll vote by many of the Labour members and supporters who helped me throughout my campaign, and they deserve an answer.”
Khan praises Jeremy Corbyn as a “principled Labour man” and says that he does not regret nominating him last year “because party members deserved [a] choice” (he went on to vote for Andy Burnham). The mayor adds: “I have little time for those who say that Jeremy is only leader because of ‘entryism’.” But he warns that Labour is “extremely unlikely” to win the next general election under Corbyn and that the leader has “already proved that he is unable to organise an effective team”.
“Jeremy’s personal ratings are the worst of any opposition leader on record,” he writes, “and the Labour Party is suffering badly as a result. He has lost the confidence of more than 80 per cent of Labour’s MPs in Parliament – and I am afraid we simply cannot afford to go on like this.”
It is Corbyn’s conduct during the EU referendum – perhaps his biggest weakness in the eyes of Labour’s selectorate – that Khan is most critical of. “Throughout the campaign and aftermath, Jeremy failed to show the leadership we desperately needed,” he writes. “His position on EU membership was never clear – and voters didn’t believe him.”
Khan contrasts his success in the London mayoral election with Corbyn’s performance. “You can’t just blame a ‘hostile media’ and let Jeremy and his team off the hook. I know from my own election – up against a nasty and divisive Tory campaign – that if we are strong and clear enough in our convictions, the message will get through to the public. That’s a test that Jeremy totally failed in the EU referendum. Why would things be different in a general election?”
Much of the piece is devoted to the case against Corbyn, rather than the case for Smith. But Khan praises his fellow soft leftist as someone with “the strongest Labour values”. He adds: “On the big issues Owen and I have been on the same side of the argument – including opposing the Iraq war … Poll after poll shows that Owen is far more popular with the public than Jeremy – and far more likely to win the next election.” Unlike other Smith supporters, Khan speaks with the authority of the biggest personal mandate-holder in UK history. He cannot be dismissed as a “failure” (as fellow Smith-backer Ed Miliband has been) or an irrelevance.
After Andy Burnham refused to endorse Smith, his former campaign manager Michael Dugher derisively tweeted: “What did I do in the war, son? Oh I remained neutral.” Khan didn’t want to be remembered as having done the same. But how much of a difference will his intervention make? In and of themselves, endorsements rarely change the course of a campaign. At present, almost all of the signs point to Corbyn winning by a comfortable margin (he secured 84 per cent of constituency party nominations). What Smith’s team need most is a poll justifying their assertion that the race is closer than thought. Until there is evidence that he can win, some will not take his candidacy seriously. But at a time when Smith is in danger of being written off entirely, Khan’s endorsement is a much-needed fillip.