Will Labour’s proposed changes to how it elects its leader mean that Corbynism ends with Corbyn? That’s certainly the fear in some circles.
Under the proposal, candidates would need to secure the nominations of ten per cent of MPs, five per cent of all local parties, and three affiliates – at least two of which must be trade unions – to reach the actual contest. (Oh, and to add an extra degree of complexity, the candidate must have enough trade union support to account for five per cent of the affiliated membership in total.)
George argues that the new system would prevent a genuine Corbynite from reaching the ballot, while elsewhere, John Rentoul says that under the proposed new rules, just two candidates would have made the 2015 ballot: Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn. Who’s right?
Well, the short answer is they’re both right and they’re both wrong. George is applying the political conditions and arithmetic of the 2015 contest to a leadership contest in 2018 (or 2019, or 2020, etc, you get the point) while Rentoul is applying the political conditions of today to a contest in 2015.
Of the three big trades unions to back Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 – Unison, Unite, and the CWU – only the latter did so early on in the contest. Had these rules been in place then, it’s highly unlikely that Unison or Unite would have considered Corbyn’s longshot candidacy worth the risk at that point and the likely beneficiaries would have been Yvette Cooper in the case of Unison, and Andy Burnham in the case of Unite. Corbyn might have got enough union support thanks to the combined might of the small more left-wing unions and the CWU, but the sight of them acting in concert might have spooked enough MPs out of lending their nominations. It feels more likely than not that this system in 2015 would have produced a Burnham vs Cooper race.
But in 2018 the reverse is true, partly because there are more Corbynite MPs now than there were then. The 26 required by this proposal is well within the grasp of a copper-bottomed Corbynite like, say, Rebecca Long-Bailey, even if someone Corbyn-adjacent but not of the project, like Emily Thornberry or Angela Rayner, were also to run. That will become more true every year and even if Labour go down to heavy defeat at the next election, retirement and the odd deselection (regardless of rule changes) will tilt the parliamentary party in a more Corbynward direction.
So if the priority of these rule changes is to secure a Corbynite legacy, then mission accomplished. There, are however, in my view, some very real downsides to these proposals.
They make it harder for a challenger outwith the party’s dominant factions to run. This, if you take the view of one Blair-era minister that Corbyn’s 2015 win was a “necessary course correction”, should worry you, as there will be less potential for course corrections in Labour’s future.
But they also do nothing to resolve the big structural problem of the Corbyn era: which is that his base of support in the parliamentary party is not big enough for him to be able to form a shadow cabinet without compromising on political coherence or talent level. He has MPs who are on side and have the talent to actually form and argue for a policy platform at the Treasury and Home Office. But in Health he still has Jon Ashworth, effective, but no Corbynite, and in Justice he still has Richard Burgon, a Corbynite but not effective. And that’s before you get to the ongoing difficulties at filling the DWP brief with anyone capable of making an impact.
Of course, the easiest way to unblock that is to make it significantly easier to replace sitting Labour MPs, but require leadership candidates to have a greater level of support from within the Labour Party. But that would require the trade unions, the leadership, and MPs to allow their powers to be diluted so there is no chance of it happening.
And that’s one of the small but interesting ways in which Jeremy Corbyn has changed Labour’s internal culture, perhaps forever. Entirely absent from the debate about the party’s future is the idea that its system should deliver a leader capable of commanding support in parliament through anything other than a mandate of the membership. And it is those small cultural changes that mean Corbynism looks set to endure well past its leader, regardless of anything that happens to its rule book.