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31 August 2016

Jeremy Corbyn set to win landslide victory – what now for his opponents?

A YouGov poll shows the Labour leader on course to win by a bigger margin (62-38) than last year. 

By George Eaton

Different year, same result. Jeremy Corbyn is set to win another landslide victory in the Labour leadership election. The long-anticipated Times/YouGov poll puts Corbyn ahead of Owen Smith by 62 per cent to 38 per cent: an even bigger margin of victory than in 2015 (when he won 59.5 per cent).

YouGov, which has called the last two contests correctly, shows Corbyn leading comfortably among all three groups: party members (52-40), registered supporters (70-25) and affiliated supporters (54-33). 

For weeks, Smith’s backers have claimed that the race is far closer than I and others have suggested. They argued that constituency party nominations (of which Corbyn won 84 per cent) were unrepresentative. A projection last week by Saving Labour showed Smith on course to win by 4,000 votes. But YouGov’s poll, the only one to have been published since the contest began, suggests such hopes are forlorn.

Corbyn’s lead comes in spite of the exclusion of 130,000 post-12 January members from the contest and the increase in the registered supporter fee from £3 to £25 (which some rebels anticipated would favour them). Smith has also made repeated efforts to woo the left: offering to make Corbyn party president, vowing to give activists a veto over policy and adopting an interventionist manifesto (including a 1 per cent wealth tax, £200bn of infrastructure spending, a ban on zero-hour contracts and the reversal of NHS private provision). The scale of Labour’s transformation is shown by the chasm between new and old members. Among those who joined before May 2015, Smith leads by 68-32. Among those who joined after September 2015, Corbyn leads by 86-14.

In the absence of a remarkable upset in the next three weeks, the Labour leader will be returned on 24 September. There are two rebel groups who will claim vindication from this outcome (it is wrong to treat the 172 MPs as a unified entity). The first are those who argued that it was far too early to challenge Corbyn; that he needed to be “given more time to fail”. In their view, it was utopian to believe that Labour members who elected him less than a year ago would change their views.

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The second group are those who argued that rather than narrowing the selectorate (by increasing the sign-up fee to £25), Corbyn’s opponents needed to expand it. As a former shadow cabinet minister recently told me: “Moderates need to understand that it’s only through the registered supporters route that they’re going to be able to win back the party. There are lots of people out there who want a credible, electable, centre-left proposition and we have not given them enough of a reason to sign up … The strategic problem with Owen’s candidacy is that it talks to the existing bubble, you can win 40-45 per cent of that, but you can only really win if you can bring in new people. Who has an offer and the charisma to be able to bring in new people? That has to be the question the next time round.”

Some point to the primaries in which French president François Hollande (backed by 1.6m) and Italian president Matteo Renzi (1.9m) won selection against left-wing opponents as models to emulate. Another invoked the US: “Obama would never have won in 2008 with the existing Democratic membership and support base, it was owned by the Clintons. You’ve got to change it.”

Though many will again raise the spectre of a split, Labour MPs, as I’ve written before, have no intention of pursuing this course. Instead, with Theresa May ruling out an election before 2020, some intend to challenge Corbyn again. Others believe that they should follow Thumper’s law: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” A senior MP told me recently that the PLP should “just shut up” and “let Jeremy crack on with it”. The imperative, he said, was to avoid the rebels taking the blame for a future election defeat.

Corbyn’s allies do not hesitate to warn that antagonistic MPs put themselves at risk of deselection. “The power’s there, we can’t stop it. We cannot say you cannot use the powers at your local CLP [Constituency Labour Party],” a senior source told me. “There’s no lever in the leader’s office for deselections. The issue is that there’s lot of party members who are very annoyed at their MPs for going against them and now they find they have a voice that they never normally had.”

Though mandatory reselection was abolished by Neil Kinnock in 1990, MPs can still be ousted if they lose the “trigger ballots” automatically held before a general election (from which open selections result). During a recent visit to Brighton, Corbyn said that he would not “interfere” in attempts to remove local MP Peter Kyle. “What goes on in CLPs is part of a democratic process,” he stated. For Corbyn’s supporters, the finding that 48 per cent of the selectorate favour mandatory reselection is a valuable disciplinary tool. Until the members reflect the MPs, or the MPs reflect the members, Labour will remain united in name but divided in spirit.