Keir Starmer wants you to forget how hard he campaigned for Jeremy Corbyn to become prime minister. Corbyn’s leadership failures – in dealing with anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, plus a general strategic blindness – were key to the party’s thrashing at the 2019 general election. For some in Labour, amputating him from the party has become an imperative part of putting Starmer in No 10.
Last week the current leader declared that Corbyn would not stand as a Labour candidate in the next election. Corbyn condemned the move as an attack on the democratic rights of his constituents in Islington North. The former leader is reportedly considering seeking the nomination from his constituency party nonetheless, inviting Labour HQ to veto the selection. His close ally Diane Abbott has said he “has no intention of standing as an independent”, but he has not ruled it out. If he did, would he win?
“History suggests it is very difficult for incumbent MPs to defend their seat successfully as an independent,” the polling expert John Curtice told me. The only politicians to have done so in the postwar era were both former Labour MPs: Stephen Owen Davies in Merthyr Tydfil in the 1970 general election, and Eddie Milne in Blyth in the February 1974 election. “Of course, given how safe the seat is for Labour he basically would need to win over half of those who would otherwise vote Labour,” said Curtice, adding that, unlike Milne in Northumberland, Corbyn would struggle to appeal to the small minority of non-Labour voters in the constituency.
Attracting support from Labour voters could prove difficult, noted Karl Pike, who teaches public policy at Queen Mary university in London, because voters might prioritise electing a Labour government over backing their incumbent MP. On the other hand, if Labour stays high in the polls, then voters might think they could vote for Corbyn without jeopardising a Labour majority.
There are many undecided factors that would shape Corbyn’s chances of success. It’s not clear whether Corbyn would use his Peace & Justice Project, an organisation he set up in December 2020 to promote “social and economic justice”, as a basis for his campaign.
There’s also the question of who Labour chooses as its candidate. A prominent individual in Islington North would help to blunt any messaging that drew on Corbyn’s 40 years as constituency MP. As Patrick Diamond, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary, told me: “If the local Labour Party is able to select a strong local figure, very probably with a good track record in local government who is respected across the party, that will help the official Labour cause significantly.”
While history suggests Corbyn would struggle to win as an independent, no former party leader has ever been in this position, postwar. His public profile is such that the campaign could become a rolling media story. Would the contest attract an influx of disgruntled Labour members, nostalgic for the Corbyn years and loyal to their man? Momentum, the left-wing group that grew out of his 2015 party leadership bid, has not confirmed whether it would campaign for an independent Corbyn bid. Doing so could result in Labour proscribing the group. Regardless, if a campaign for Corbyn did gain strength, it seems likely that Labour HQ would more funnel resources into the seat.
Running as an independent would also place Corbyn’s allies in a tricky position, a factor that could influence his decision. MPs loyal to the former leader would be put in a bind: do they support the Labour candidate for Islington North or their friend? Starmer’s resolute tone last week suggests he would have no scruples in dealing with anyone who campaigned against the party.