“Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched,” is often valuable advice. In the case of the Labour leadership election one could be forgiven for ignoring such advice. It looks extremely likely that Jeremy Corbyn will be re-elected as leader of the Labour party with another thumping mandate. If the polls are to be believed it is likely that he will win more than the 59.5 per cent of votes that he achieved last time. With his parliamentary party virtually united against his leadership, Corbyn’s re-election will do little to heal the divide between Labour’s MPs and its members and supporters.
Over the last few weeks there has been much talk about what rebel Labour MPs should do once Jeremy’s victory is confirmed. There has been less talk about what the Labour leader should do – or, perhaps more importantly, what his supporters want him to do. Most Corbyn supporters I spend time with remain furious with those MPs who resigned following the European referendum result. While Corbyn is taking a conciliatory and welcoming approach he will have a challenge on his hands when it comes to ensuring that his supporters are happy with the steps he decides to take after the election result is announced.
Many see Corbyn’s hand of friendship to rebel MPs as a serious mistake. There is now a real thirst for Corbyn to ensure that his allies continue to hold prominent positions within the shadow cabinet so as to ensure policy consistency and media support. Supporters do not want to return to the spectacle of members of the front bench openly opposing Corbyn’s position at the despatch box and on their television screens.
Given the recent reshuffle there are a number of competent left-wing MPs already in place. Emily Thornberry has been doing a fantastic job as Shadow Foreign Secretary. Rebecca Long-Bailey has taken the role of shadow secretary to the Treasury in her stride despite the fact that the previous shadow Treasury team has been openly hostile to her work. Clive Lewis remains a popular figure at shadow defence and Richard Burgon is also a supporter favourite in the shadow Justice brief. These are names that Corbyn’s supporters will expect to see remaining in the shadow cabinet. Corbyn must resist the temptation to offer high-ranking jobs to “moderate” MPs who have been actively working against his leadership since his election last September.
This leaves Corbyn with one hell of a predicament. It is right for him to attempt party unity after this result. It will be important for him to extend a second hand of friendship as proof of his commitment open debate. But he also has to manage the expectations of his supporters (myself included) who believe that the leadership should have been stronger over the past year. The leadership will have to be careful to ensure that they do not swap long-term support at Labour’s base for short-term kindness from rebel Labour MPs. My instincts tell me that Corbyn will avoid such a mistake. But what attempt at unity can be made in its place remains a headache for all those concerned about talks of what would be a disastrous split.