The polls have narrowed slightly since last week, and weak performances from Theresa May over the weekend mean Labour’s slight recovery has consolidated to around 28 percent of the vote. Expect the “tightening” narrative to gain currency, as both sides have a vested interest in playing it up: the Tories want it to look close, to play up the possibility of the “coalition of chaos” alternative and drive up Conservative turnout, while the Labour leadership want to give their campaign some momentum.
In reality, though, barring a major political event, Theresa May’s premiership looks set to continue after 8 June 2017. The only question is how big her majority will be, and just how far back into the wilderness Labour has retreated.
It’s not just about how many seats Labour could lose, but how losses will affect the shape of the parliamentary Labour party and its capacity to recover and become an election winning force once again. Labour MPs with the smallest majorities disproportionately represent constituencies in the Midlands and in small cities and towns, as opposed to big cities like London, Liverpool and Manchester. The party faces a near wipe-out in the rest of southern and eastern England as well as its last remaining seat in Scotland.
If Jeremy Corbyn were to stand down in the event of a significant election defeat for Labour, any potential candidate would need to be nominated by at least 15 percent of Labour MPs and MEPs. By my calculation, there are currently 31 pro-Corbyn MPs re-standing at this election. Assuming the two MEPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn (and stuck with him after the EU referendum) are still loyal to that wing of the party, that makes 33 out of 249, or 13.25 percent.
It’s worth seeing what happens to this 33 in the event of a Labour defeat of various magnitudes. Here’s what happens to the PLP/European parliamentary Labour party electorate if Labour loses 20, 50 and 100 seats compared to its 2015 total of 232 (Labour actually starts on 229 due to a by-election defeat, a death and a suspension):
As the total size of the PLP gets smaller but pro-Corbyn MPs disproportionately hang onto their seats, that wing of the party gets bigger in relative terms. If the party loses 20 seats, the pro-Corbyn wing of the party rises to 13.53 percent of the electorate. The 15 percent threshold is reached when Labour loses its 50th seat (the Corbynites would command the support of 30 of the 200 electorate), or 52nd if we assume it regains Manchester Gorton and Rochdale.
There are attempts afoot to try to reduce the 15 percent threshold to as low as 5 percent (the so-called McDonnell Amendment), and some insiders have suggested Jeremy Corbyn will try to stay on as leader in the event of an election defeat to try to push such changes through the party’s conference in the Autumn. However, these attempts have met strong resistance – a motion in support of rule changes was rejected at the Usdaw conference just this week.
On the other hand, it’s plausible that a more moderate candidate could defeat a Corbyn “continuity” candidate in a straight fight following such an election defeat. But for now, the 15 percent threshold is an important one, and these findings illustrate the fact that unless progressives get out and save as many Labour MPs as possible, the hard left could still hold a lot of influence over the party even after an election defeat.
While progressives are looking ahead to 8 June with trepidation, fearing the social and economic consequences of a Conservative landslide, some are quietly hoping that a landslide defeat will at least allow Labour to change direction and elect a new leader capable of winning over new voters. Many who question Corbyn’s viability as a potential prime minister or dislike Labour’s stance on Brexit are thinking of sitting this election out or registering a protest vote.
However, in reality, a landslide defeat could end up strengthening the pro-Corbyn wing of the party as moderates in marginal seats struggle to survive. This isn’t about talking down our chances, but we have to be realistic: progressive politics will be best equipped to rebuild and hold the Conservatives to account if Labour holds onto as many seats as possible.
Charlie Cadywould is a researcher at Policy Network.