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19 September 2016

Can Jeremy Corbyn complete his unfinished revolution?

When the Labour leader is re-elected on Saturday, a new struggle for supremacy will begin. 

By George Eaton

Before Jeremy Corbyn’s victory, he and his allies had never come close to winning a leadership election. On Saturday, they will almost certainly do so for a second time.

The predictability of this should not diminish its significance. When Corbyn was elected by members last year, MPs hoped that it would prove no more than a summer fling. Yet the romance has endured. The Labour leader is expected to win by a similar or even greater margin than last time and to triumph among all three categories: party members, registered supporters and affiliated supporters.

Corbyn now has a chance to complete his internal revolution. In this regard, the recent leader that he most resembles is Tony Blair. Like Corbyn, Blair sought to take Labour in a radically new direction but initially boasted few true believers (one MP estimated just a dozen among the PLP in 1996). Though he won three general elections, and changed the party in significant respects, his revolution ultimately failed. Had Blair succeeded in his ambition to permanently transform Labour, the election not just of Corbyn but Ed Miliband would have been impossible.  

As Alastair Campbell recently remarked of the Blairites: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour did not outlive its creators.

The challenge confronting Corbyn and his allies is to avoid a similar fate. There are three defining tests of their supremacy: the intellectual, the political and the bureaucratic.

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The Labour leadership contest showed how they have passed the first. In 2015, Corbyn was the only candidate to stand on an unambiguously anti-austerity platform. This time round, Owen Smith put forward a manifesto far to the left of previous candidates, advocating 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. Though MPs have been critical of Smith’s campaign, few believe that a more right-wing challenger would have performed better. For now, Corbynism, or variants of it, is the only game in town.

On the political level, the left controls the leadership, as it never did in the 1980s. But its position remains tenuous. There are no more than 15 true believers in the parliamentary party and, were Corbyn to resign, a replacement would struggle to make the ballot.

But there are two means by which the left hopes to advance its position. “You change the rules or you change the MPs,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. Allies of Corbyn aim to reduce the nomination threshold for leadership candidates from 15 per cent to just 5 per cent, ensuring a place for left-wingers in future contests. The rule change, nicknamed the “McDonnell amendment” after the shadow chancellor and Corbyn ally (who is believed by some to retain leadership ambitions), could be voted on at the party’s conference if approved by the NEC tomorrow.

The leader’s supporters also hope to create a more favourable PLP through deselections, now regarded as “inevitable”. Those targeted include Angela Eagle (Wallasey), Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) and Peter Kyle (Hove and Portslade). Though there is no majority for mandatory reselection on the NEC, MPs can still be ousted through routine “trigger ballots”. Over time, the replacement of those who retire or stand down, will lead to a progressively more left-wing party. Of the 36 MPs who nominated Corbyn in 2015, 12 were newly elected, an early indicator of Labour’s trajectory.

Allies of the leader have also discussed replacing his most senior political opponent: deputy leader Tom Watson. But in the absence of a rule change, they would likely struggle to achieve the 50 signatures required to initiate a challenge.

On the bureaucratic level, Corbyn allies aim to overhaul a party HQ increasingly regarded as seditious. General secretary Iain McNicol is accused of aiding the attempt by NEC members to prevent the leader’s inclusion on the ballot and of allowing the expulsion of left-wing members for trivial reasons. As well as ousting McNicol, Corbyn supporters aim to secure control of the party’s regional directorate and its compliance unit. One official said that he would be prepared to stand down if offered a substantial pay-off. But some Corbynites favour a more gradualist approach – creating new executive positions for supporters – rather than a full-scale purge.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis told me: “I think after the leadership contest, if Jeremy Corbyn wins, there should be a review of what happened and the decisions made. I do not see anyone being able to sidestep that. There has to be some form of accountability. That does not mean a witch-hunt. That means an honest, open investigation into how those decisions were made, particularly in the compliance unit.

“I have constituents who have stopped me in the street and told me the reasons they have been given for not receiving a vote … It’s been appalling. I’ve written tweets that are worse than that. The reasons being given for some being denied a vote are beyond parody, simply beyond parody … It undermines the whole concept of freedom of speech, it has to be reviewed, it’s not acceptable.”

Such is their desperation, that some Labour MPs hope Theresa May will break her vow not to hold an early general election. Though they fear the party would endure its worst result since 1935 (when it won 154 seats), they expect Corbyn would depart, perhaps to be replaced by a soft left figure such as Lisa Nandy (with planned rule changes avoided). At this point, they say, the rebuilding could begin.

Former shadow chancellor Ed Balls said last week: “We haven’t had a general election defeat since Jeremy Corbyn became the leader, we’ve only had one general election defeat so far since we came out of government. So maybe there has to be a focusing of some people’s minds on the choice between government and opposition and the kind of change we saw in the attitude of members between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s, that may be part of it”.

Others argue that a more “charismatic” and “inspiring” candidate than Smith could beat Corbyn in a leadership contest next year. Rather than seeking to narrow the selectorate through rule changes (such as a £25 registered supporter fee), they suggest that the rebels should instead seek to out-recruit their opponents.

As a former shadow cabinet minister told me last month: “Moderates need to understand that it’s only through the registered supporters route that they’re going to be able to win back the party.

“There are lots of people out there who want a credible, electable, centre-left proposition and we have not given them enough of a reason to sign up … The strategic problem with Owen’s candidacy is that it talks to the existing bubble, you can win 40-45 per cent of that, but you can only really win if you can bring in new people. Who has an offer and the charisma to be able to bring in new people? That has to be the question the next time round.”

When Corbyn is re-elected on Saturday, the race between the left and its opponents will gather pace. For the former, the task is to rewrite the rules to ensure its future hegemony. For the latter, it is to defeat them before they can.