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The GMB endorses Owen Smith. What does it mean?

Owen Smith's campaign has received an unexpected boost.

In a contest devoid of shocks, the GMB’s endorsement of Owen Smith is the closest to a surprise in a Labour leadership race that otherwise looks like a procession for Jeremy Corbyn.

Why does it matter? Because unlike Usdaw, Community and the Musicians’ Union (which endorsed Smith) or the TSSA, Aslef or Unite (which have endorsed Corbyn) they did so following a “consultative ballot” of members, and the result is a 20-point victory for Owen Smith, with 60 to 40 per cent.

For Labour’s Corbynsceptics, who have faced a series of setbacks, it represents a shot in the arm. If – and it’s a big “if” – GMB affiliates turn out in large numbers, then that would easily overwhelm Corbyn’s lead among ordinary party members. It will also bolster the argument made by Smith’s campaign that the balance of £25 supporters is far less pro-Corbyn than is commonly supposed.

It also represents an endorsement of the series of fiercely-contended polls of trade union members, commissioned by Ian Warren, who worked for Labour under Ed Miliband, showed support for Corbyn slumping among trade unionists. Trade union affiliates can vote without a fee in the Labour leadership race, representing a big source of pro-Smith votes, or at least the theory runs.

Is the spring in the Corbynsceptic step justified? Well, very few trade union affiliates voted in the last leadership election, despite a well-funded effort by Organise Consulting to sign up trade unionists on behalf of Unite. There is little evidence that pattern will be broken this time – so anyone hoping for an inrush of pro-Smith trade unionists is likely to be disappointed. The sole YouGov poll of the race so far showed Corbyn winning by 20 points among Labour members, and that pattern is broadly supported by his success in securing nominations from constituency Labour parties. It looks unlikely that enough trade unionists will vote to overcome Corbyn’s advantages among members.

It’s also worth noting that as ever, there are complaints about process. In Labour politics – small and large “L” alike – the hand that controls the maillist tends to control the world. It may be that the GMB’s members vote very differently when ballots are issues.

What is likely to be more important is that it will provide Tim Roache, the GMB’s General Secretary and a Corbynsceptic himself, the cover to be more critical of Jeremy Corbyn over the coming months, and allow the GMB’s representatives on the NEC to vote against Corbyn more freely, if – as still looks likely – he is re-elected. Among other things, that makes Tom Watson’s plan to seek a rule change to restore Labour’s electoral college look more likely to succeed, and Team Corbyn’s hopes of removing Iain McNicol will be thrown into doubt.

So while it feels unlikely that GMB’s endorsement will change the outcome of the battle, it may represent a decisive shift in the longer struggle for supremacy. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Labour will win the London elections – they’ve just lost the spin war

The question is, does that matter? 

Cancel the champagne in Jeremy Corbyn’s office? A new YouGov poll for Queen Mary’s Mile End Institute shows Labour slipping back from the record-breaking heights of 53 per cent in the local elections in London… to the still record-breaking heights of 51 per cent.

There are two things to note first off: the first, of course, is that Labour would still be posting the best result of any party in the capital since 1971, and its best since these boroughs were founded. The second is that as the change is within the margin of error, it could all be noise.

My sense, from talking to the local parties throughout the capital is that there has been a slight fall in Labour support but it is not evenly spread. In Barnet, the party’s ongoing difficulties with antisemitism have turned what looked a certain victory into a knife-edge fight. In Wandsworth, stories in the Standard about the local Momentum group have successfully spooked some residents into fearing that a Labour victory in that borough would imperil the borough’s long history of ultra-low council tax, while the presence of a fairly well-organised campaign from new party Renew is splitting angry pro-Remain vote. But elsewhere, neither Labour nor Tory local activists are reporting any kind of fall.

However, it does show how comprehensively Labour have lost the spin war as far as what a “good” set of local election results would be next week: as I laid out in my analyses of what a good night for the major parties would be, Wandsworth and Westminster councils, both of which would stay blue if this poll is borne out, should not be seen as essential gains for Labour and should properly be seen as disastrous defeats for the Conservatives.

However, CCHQ have done a good job setting out a benchmark for what a good night looks like to the point where holding onto Bexley is probably going to be hailed as a success. Labour haven’t really entered the spin wars. As I noted on our podcast this week, that’s in part because, as one senior member of Team Corbyn noted, there is a belief that whatever you do in the run-up, the BBC will decide that there is merit in both sides’ presentation of how the night has gone, so why bother with the spin war beforehand? We may be about to find out whether that’s true. The bigger question for Labour is if the inability to shape the narrative in the face of a largely hostile press will be a problem come 2022. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.