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22 June 2017

Anti-Corbyn MPs thought the election would be Labour’s apocalypse. So, now what?

"I used to think that what I believed to be right was also popular."

By Stephen Bush

On 21 May 2011, the followers of the American evangelist Harold Camping were braced for the Rapture, after which the world would end. They expected the planet to be bathed in fire and a chosen few to be taken up into heaven. Some had exhausted their life savings; others had quit their jobs in order to spend their last days with the people they loved. Then 21 May came and went, and the world didn’t end.

For Labour’s Corbyn-sceptic MPs, 8 June 2017 was, likewise, reserved for the apocalypse. Jeremy Corbyn would not only lose, but lose badly. At least Camping’s devotees had the comfort of the Rapture – whereas very few Corbyn-sceptics expected to be better off in the new world than in the old. (Possible exceptions include Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna, both of whom were quietly laying the groundwork for leadership campaigns.) Many of those contesting marginal seats were already preparing for unemployment and a life outside Westminster.

Now they face the question that those doomsday cultists did on the morning of 22 May 2011: what do they do with the rest of their lives? For some, Corbyn-scepticism – like doctrinaire Christianity – was a necessary prerequisite to salvation. Most Corbyn-sceptics in the trade union movement and roughly a hundred or so Labour MPs believed that the party could win power only if Corbyn’s creed was first rejected comprehensively by the electorate. Only a leader and a manifesto to its right could deliver a Labour majority.

Now a manifesto in the Parliamentary Labour Party’s comfort zone has put Labour on the cusp of power and delivered a vote share that recalls Tony Blair in his landslide-winning pomp.

The result has been the fracturing of the Corbyn-sceptics. Some are still irreconcilable, believing that the policies are wrong.

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For others, however, the problem was always the messenger: they thought Corbynism could win but Jeremy Corbyn could not. This latter group includes several MPs whom the public might regard as Corbyn­ites.

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Yet they were secretly sceptical of the leadership, if not the direction of travel, and hoped for plum jobs when the next left-wing leader was appointed. With Corbyn’s position secure for as long as he wants it, and with a shadow cabinet reshuffle that gave priority to the role played by loyalists, they face the less appetising prospect of a long tenure as foot soldiers.

Yet not everyone abandons a church just because its prophecies aren’t fulfilled – just ask the Jehovah’s Witnesses, still going strong despite having predicted half a dozen apocalypses that ended up getting lost in the post. Some Corbyn-sceptics still retain a loyalty to the old beliefs despite an election result that none predicted.

Many of these MPs are found in the bit of the party that worries about its stance on immigration. These are largely Brownites, although Caroline Flint, in many ways the model Blairite, has been one of the loudest advocates for a tougher line on migration. For them, the result validates rather than confounds their stance.

Why? Because Labour went into the election promising to end the free movement of people from the EU into Britain. One MP, who expected to back Cooper’s second bid for the leadership, puts it like this: “What did Yvette say in 2015? That we needed to speak to people who were concerned over free movement. In 2017, we conceded on free movement and we gained seats.”

They also point to the leadership’s decision (intended or not) to leave the welfare cap in place, restricting the amount that any household can receive in benefits. Those who believed that the party needed to signal that it had “got the message” on welfare can also claim validation.

Others believe that the result has to be understood not only through what Corbyn did, but what Theresa May did not do. “Elections aren’t won in the centre ground, eh?” says one MP. “We went way off to the left, then they went into this weird right-wing cul-de-sac, and we both lost.”

For other MPs, there is no validation to be found in the election result. Pro-immigration and pro-EU Corbyn-sceptics were relieved that they and their friends survived, but otherwise feel that the result was a bleak threefold rejection.

Corbyn’s advance upended their sense of how politics worked; the failure of the Liberal Democrats to break through showed the limits of an anti-Brexit platform; and Labour’s shift to the left is likely to continue for at least the next half-decade or more.

“I still know what I believe to be right,” a senior Blairite told me on election night. “It’s just I used to think that what I believed to be right was also popular.”

Those on the centre left are now asking themselves the questions that their more radical colleagues once did: why are their ideas so unfashionable? “When you look at what happened with the referendum, with [Hillary] Clinton and what is happening across Europe, the person who is unelectable isn’t Corbyn. It’s us,” one MP said to me.

For those still continuing to maintain a quiet Corbyn-scepticism, the next election will either confirm their continuing faith or shatter it completely. Labour will not forget to include a rollback of the welfare cap when it next goes to the country, and the Conservatives will not fight such a disastrous campaign again.

Until then, the party’s centre left faces a new challenge: to renew itself away from the leadership and to ensure its survival within the Labour Party. Some MPs talk of learning from Corbyn – not in terms of his present-day politics but his affable conduct during the years of New Labour hegemony.

For Corbyn-sceptics, however, the question must be: am I confident enough of the Rapture to give up everything I have?

This article appears in the 21 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM