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18 September 2019

The obstacles blocking Jeremy Corbyn’s path to power

The Labour leader believes he can confound his disparagers by inspiring another surge of support for the left at the next election, as he did in 2017. But that was before the Liberal Democrat revival.

By Stephen Bush

By long tradition, the United Kingdom’s three biggest national political parties have their conference in this order: the Liberal Democrats begin proceedings in September, Labour follow towards the end of the month and the Conservatives round off the season. Next year, the order will change, after Labour booked the week usually reserved for the Liberal Democrats. (In order to maximise coverage for their own events, the parties try to stay quiet during one another’s conferences.)

Liberal Democrats are divided about how the mix-up happened: some suspect incompetence, others a conspiracy to damage them, though some Labour MPs have a morbid joke about the real reason: Labour is preparing for life as the third party.

Labour’s polling position is generally poor; Jeremy Corbyn trails Boris Johnson on most measures of leadership, and the Remain vote is split between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and nationalists. (The Lib Dems, who would revoke Article 50 and stop Brexit, believe they have reached a new and unified position on the Europe question that the main opposition party will never be able to match.)

For Labour, the expectation is that its conference, which begins in Brighton on 21 September, will not herald an outbreak of unity over Brexit. The party can agree on the disease, but is divided over the cure. In truth, the diagnosis is simple: Labour’s political prospects are best served if the next general election takes place after the Brexit deadlock has been broken. The trouble is there is no consensus on how to accomplish the aim. A minority of Labour MPs still oppose any measure to stop Brexit. For some, the issue is one of ideology: they are trenchant supporters of quitting the European Union and have no intention of giving up the prize, while a still-smaller group sits for pro-Remain constituencies but believes that the referendum result must be upheld.

Far and away the largest contingent of Labour MPs who now want to leave the EU are those who believe that to block Brexit is to put their own seats in peril. They want to resolve the problem by passing a Brexit deal – ideally, the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Theresa May, but with the additional legislative safeguards for workers’ rights and environmental protections negotiated by the Johnson government in a bid to secure Labour support. Their most prominent member is the Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock.

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The members of this group have managed a rare feat in uniting Westminster on a Brexit issue. The difficulty is that they have managed to unite it in irritation: privately, many Conservatives think that this disparate band of MPs has no appreciation for how big a compromise May’s proposals were, and that they want further, deeply unpalatable concessions on workers’ rights is a sign of selfishness, not pragmatism. “Labour MPs are saying ‘meet us halfway’,” one Conservative MP complained to me, “But we are halfway. They’ve barely moved an inch.”

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On the Labour side, several Corbynites are frustrated that these Labour MPs passed up what was the best available option for all involved: for a minority of Labour MPs to have voted for May’s deal, securing Brexit and relieving the pressure for the rest of the party. And, on both sides of the divide, there is a widespread view that when push comes to shove, Labour supporters of Brexit will never be willing to take the risk of voting for a Conservative Brexit deal.

There is, however, a new unity around another way through the impasse – and that is a second referendum, which is endorsed by the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson. Support for a second vote is the proposition commanding the largest share of support within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and it now seems to be favoured by the majority of Labour MPs.

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The PLP is being buffeted by two forces: the first is the revival of the Lib Dems, who have leveraged their explicitly anti-Brexit stance to draw support from Labour. The second is a growing realisation that there is no negotiable Brexit deal that won’t result in widespread disillusionment.

One Labour MP told me in January that a second referendum would “haunt” our democracy for decades. The same MP now thinks, having experienced their constituents’ anger over May’s deal – which would have taken Britain out of the single market, the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy – that there is no Brexit that will satisfy their Leave voters. As a consequence, this MP might as well back an outcome that will satisfy Remainers instead.

Yet while supporters of a second referendum have a majority in the Labour Party, they are far short of having a majority in the Commons – and there is little to no prospect of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street backing a new vote.

When Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, raised the possibility of putting May’s deal to a public vote, Gavin Barwell, her then chief of staff, responded by telling Starmer that were May willing to countenance a referendum, she wouldn’t need to offer any policy concessions: any negotiated agreement could pass the House of Commons provided it came hand in hand with a second referendum. May believed that the 2016 result had to be honoured, not thrown back to the people, and, in any case, the majority of Conservative MPs are bitterly opposed to a second vote.

In practice, a new Brexit referendum would require holding a vote against the will of the government – or installing an alternative government. Neither option is viable: to secure a referendum against the government’s wishes would mean passing a complex bill, agreeing a franchise, a spending limit and a question – all while the party most opposed to it held the levers of power.

Changing the government without an election is more difficult still. The Lib Dems – whose membership has grown to 120,000 – have vowed never to make Corbyn prime minister. Many of the party’s new donors opened negotiations with one simple question: can you guarantee that you won’t put Corbyn in office?

It is not a question that Swinson struggles to answer. Her ideological opposition to a Corbyn premiership – she believes that he is a Brexiteer and a threat to national security – has only been strengthened by her experience of working closely with him as part of the cross-party efforts to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Close allies of the Lib Dem leader have been told that she now believes Corbyn would not only be a bad prime minister: he would be bad at being a bad prime minister.

That restricts Corbyn’s possible paths to office. Because the Conservative Party faces an uphill challenge to retain its hold on power, some form of Labour government, whether governing alone or with support from other parties, ought to be likely. If the Liberal Democrats continue their revival into a general election, they will primarily take Conservative seats. But because of Swinson’s opposition to Corbyn, Labour will only be able to take office with the votes of the SNP and Caroline Lucas, the sole Green MP, or to govern alone as a minority administration – both of which would require sweeping gains for the party in England and Wales.

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Adding to Corbyn’s difficulties, the hoped-for remodelling of the PLP has failed to happen. Flush with power after his remarkable 2017 election campaign, Corbyn secured changes that meant a full selection process would be triggered if just a third of local party branches voted for it.

Both his allies and his opponents believed he had struck a decisive victory in his battle to remake the party and to complete his revolution. The change meant that the Corbynite left would avoid contests where there was no prospect of replacing the sitting MP, but it would allow a large number of selections. The supposed certainty of a Corbynite purge helped push some former Labour MPs to “self-deselect” – in the words of one Corbynite – and leave the party.

But so far the change has fallen far short of Team Corbyn’s hopes – or the Corbynsceptics’ fears. A hostile press has majored on the successful trigger ballot against Diana Johnson, a back-bench MP with at best a minor role in the party’s factional battles. But it is more significant that Alison McGovern, the chair of the Corbynsceptic group Progress, and Neil Coyle, a constant and vituperative critic of Corbyn, have been reselected, as have most MPs who have gone through the process.

Corbynite candidates have done better in seats where the MP is standing down or in Conservative-held seats, which several of Corbyn’s allies believe is because the structure of a trigger ballot itself discourages successful challenges.

One long-term ally believes that the same dynamic that protected the senior Corbynites from deselection under Tony Blair is now insulating their internal opponents: “When Jeremy and Diane [Abbott] were being targeted, there were lots of reasons it didn’t quite work, but the biggest one is that even for members who didn’t agree with them, the process of saying, ‘I don’t want you’, rather than saying, ‘I want an alternative’, is more acrimonious and members dislike it.”

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Jeremy Corbyn therefore faces a difficult path to victory at the next election. He also faces a situation in which the next parliamentary party, particularly if Labour loses rather than gains ground, will be hardly any more Corbynite than the one he inherited in 2015.

And yet Corbyn and his allies remain optimistic. Why? Because they haven’t forgotten how bleak the political picture looked in 2017 and believe that they can repeat the magic at the next election, which they calculate will be in December, unless, by some unexpected development, Johnson can reach a deal with the EU.

The Corbynites believe, too, that the Conservatives have disarmed themselves by moving away from the case for austerity and that, despite what the Lib Dems may believe, there is still damage to be done to Swinson’s party by reminding voters of its record in coalition. Equally important, the Corbynites believe that, because of the UK’s antiquated electoral system, they can squeeze the Lib Dems’ vote share in Conservative-Labour battlegrounds.

If they are right, that ought to be enough to repeat the result of 2017 – the so-called brilliant defeat – and to give Corbyn and his closest supporters the freedom to continue the project of remaking Labour as a party of the radical left. But the path to remaking the country remains much less certain.