Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at Labour’s local election launch was not one to lift spirits. He bleakly warned that pensioners were dying earlier under the Conservatives (a claim the Tories have disputed). The outlook for Corbyn’s 117-year-old party is similarly grim. Labour, which trailed the Tories by 18 points in yesterday’s ICM poll, is forecast to lose as many as 125 seats on 4 May, the worst performance by an opposition party since 1982. Glasgow City Council, which Labour has held for 37 years, is expected to fall to the SNP (despite many Corbyn supporters predicting he would thrive in Scotland), with Edinburgh and Derbyshire also at risk.
By contrast, the Tories and the Lib Dems are forecast by Conservative peer and psephologist Robert Hayward to gain more than 100 seats each. Only Ukip, wounded by Theresa May’s embrace of “hard Brexit”, is expected to join Labour in the losers’ camp. But even if the opposition fares as badly as forecast, there is unlikely to be any change at the top. Corbyn will be able to use the election of Andy Burnham in Manchester and Steve Rotheram in Liverpool to distract from poor results elsewhere (though Labour faces a tougher challenge from the Tories in the West Midlands). MPs also recall that the party outperformed forecasts in 2016 (losing 18 seats, rather than a predicted 150) and may do so again.
For different reasons, neither Corbyn’s supporters nor his opponents are seeking his departure. The former are determined not to allow Corbyn to resign until they can ensure a hard-left successor. This requires the passage of the so-called “McDonnell amendment”, which would reduce the leadership nomination threshold from 15 per cent to 5 per cent. At present, the shadow chancellor, after whom the measure is named, or an alternative Campaign Group candidate, would struggle to attract enough signatures from MPs and MEPs.
After trying and failing to defeat Corbyn last summer, MPs have no intention of launching another challenge. Instead, they will maintain their new strategy of giving the leader “enough rope to hang himself”. By allowing Corbyn to fail on his own terms, rather than publicly criticising him, MPs hope that members will ultimately accept a change of direction. A third leadership election, they warn, could galvanise the left by refocusing attention on the internal opposition. One Corbyn ally spoke of a “reserve army” that the leader could drawn on if challenged.
Though some former supporters are now urging MPs to “do something”, few believe a tipping point has been reached. Theresa May’s decision not to seek a early election (to the bafflement and relief of Labour MPs) has gifted them breathing space. Unable to credibly blame Corbyn’s opponents for his failures, even allies such as Unite general secretary Len McCluskey are being forced to set deadlines for recovery. In the absence of an unexpected event (of which British politics has provided plenty in recent times), most expect 2018, rather than 2017, to be the year when Corbyn’s fate is resolved.