When Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader in 2015 he was in office but not fully in power. He was elected with the support of just 14 MPs, most of who longed for his removal. Shadow cabinet ministers unashamedly plotted against him. And the party machine was still dominated by officials from the New Labour era.
But since then, Corbyn’s position has been immeasurably strengthened. His 2016 re-election and his general election advance meant even opponents accepted he would remain leader for as long as he wishes.
The left’s hegemony now extends far beyond Norman Shaw South. After the election of nine Momentum-backed candidates to Labour’s National Executive Committee, it enjoys a majority on the party’s ruling body. And with the NEC’s election today of Jennie Formby as Labour’s new general secretary (the Unite official defeated her opponent, former NUT general secretary Christine Blower, by 35 votes to two), the left now has control of the party’s headquarters in Southside, Westminster (previously nicknamed “the darkside” by Corbyn allies).
Labour HQ has long been accused of failing to support or even actively undermining the leadership. But it is Formby, a long-standing Corbyn ally, who will now be ultimately responsible for hiring and firing staff. Her predecessor Iain McNicol became a target of activist ire after successfully barring members of less than six months from voting in the 2016 leadership contest (McNicol also unsuccessfully argued that Corbyn required MP nominations to make the ballot paper).
In advance of Formby’s arrival, most of the party’s senior officials resigned, including executive director Emilie Oldknow, director of governance and legal John Stolliday, director of policy and research Simon Jackson, London regional director Neil Fleming and Parliamentary Labour Party secretary Dan Simpson.
The left now controls the leadership, the Scottish leadership (Richard Leonard) the NEC and Labour HQ. But there are still limits to its dominance. The majority of MPs and council leaders remain resolutely non-Corbynite.
A defining test of the left’s strength will be how quickly this changes. Under existing party rules, MPs can be deselected as parliamentary candidates – but with no small difficulty. The ongoing Democracy Review, however, led by Corbyn ally and former MP Katy Clark could toughen reselection procedures. Some on the left also hope to create a new post of female deputy leader to further marginalise the old right Tom Watson (a contest between shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry and shadow education secretary Angela Rayner is envisaged).
But having won Labour HQ, the left can marvel at its forward march. Until Corbyn’s 2015 election, it had never previously held the party leadership. Yet the Labour left, in defiance of its many doubters, is now stronger than at any time in the party’s 118-year history.