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2 March 2017

Labour leadership: Why Jeremy Corbyn won’t be listening to Owen Jones

In the Labour leader's office, aides fear that any attempt to hand over to a younger candidate would destroy rather than revitalise the Corbyn project. 

By Stephen Bush

Owen Jones has said publicly what many in the notionally pro-Corbyn commentariat have been saying privately: that Jeremy Corbyn’s principles and policies are right, but he cannot win the next election. If he continues, the Labour leader will be defeated in a landslide.

But Jones has a solution: Labour MPs should agree a deal with Jeremy Corbyn where he steps down and a member of the younger generation of Corbynite MPs is put on the ensuing ballot in his place.

The leader’s inner circle believe Jones has a candidate in mind: Clive Lewis, the Norwich South MP. Corbyn’s allies blame Jones for “turning Clive’s head” and precipitating his damaging resignation from the shadow cabinet over triggering Article 50. “If you had Owen Jones telling you you were wonderful, you could be the next leader, it would affect you,” one says. “Of course it means that Clive thinks he could be the next leader.”

For a significant chunk of the party membership, the deal is attractive. But it appeals to neither Corbynsceptic MPs or to the leader’s office. Why not?

For those MPs who are opposed to Corbyn’s politics, either through ideological difference or because they believe his platform cannot prevail at a general election, trying Corbynism again with a fresher face wouldn’t change the central problem.

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The party’s soft left broadly share much of the Corbynite position but fear that on security issues he is dead on arrival with the electorate. They believe they have the numbers in the parliamentary Labour party to win the leadership without the interference of politicians to their left or right. The influential Tribune WhatsApp group of MPs is largely unified around Keir Starmer at the next leadership election, and they think they are well-placed to win it, particularly if their candidate is the left-most one on the ballot paper. They have no interest in facilitating a handover of power to any side of the party other than their own.

Others feel that the last two years have shown that a leader who cannot command at least a significant plurality in the PLP cannot lead effectively. They would be loathe to repeat the experience of a hopelessly divided leader and MPs.

And on the Corbynite side, there are two reasons why they have no intention of giving way. The first is that some in the leader’s office are not convinced that Lewis could win a leadership election. They already had come to this conclusion in the summer, when the potential for a Lewis-Corbyn swap deal was first floated. Back then, those rumblings increased the estrangement between Lewis and some Corbyn loyalists.

“The mistake a lot of people have made, both on the left and the right,” one aide told me, “is they think that the members will always choose the most left-wing candidate. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think that John McDonnell would have beaten Andy Burnham, I don’t think Diane would have. Actually, Jeremy was a very good candidate.”

Allies of the leader note that Corbyn was able to persuade an overwhelmingly pro-European party membership to back him, not once but twice. He did so the second time on a platform of accepting, rather than defying, the EU referendum result. Would Lewis be capable of equivalent balancing acts? They cite his remarks about the problems of free movement and the difficulties it caused as barriers to success in any leadership race. There is a sense, too, that Rebecca Long-Bailey, on who a great deal of hope is placed, would benefit from more time to grow into the role of a leadership candidate.

But the bigger problem is not what happens when Corbyn’s replacement is on the ballot, but in the interim. As I write in my column in this week’s New Statesman , the leader’s allies believe that if Corbyn stands down, Tom Watson will hold onto the post of acting leader for years.  “If Jeremy goes, Tom Watson becomes leader and will purge the party until 2020, when he’ll lose [the general election]”, was how one well-placed source put it.

For all those reasons, a managed handover of the kind Owen Jones lays out is unlikely to happen.