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Why Jeremy Corbyn says he won’t resign as leader even if Labour lose

The leader's allies fear the parliamentary party will install Yvette Cooper without a contest and purge the left.

By Stephen Bush

Jeremy Corbyn has told BuzzFeed’s Jim Waterson that he will carry on as leader even if Labour go down to defeat on 8 June.

But is it all much ado about nothing? After all, Gordon Brown said before the 2010 election that he would carry on regardless of the result, and Ed Miliband was widely believed to be planning to carry on provided the party could clear 250 seats.

The big difference this time though is that Jeremy Corbyn has a different understanding of where political legitimacy flows than Miliband and Brown. He sees his legitimacy as coming from Labour’s internal democracy, rather than what happens outside it.

Certainly, at present, the mood in the leader’s circle is to fight for control, not least because they fear that were Corbyn to step down, the parliamentary party would install Yvette Cooper without a contest and purge the left.

“You don’t give up the keys to the castle without a fight,” is how one put it to me and the expectation among Corbynsceptics has long been that the leadership will have to be taken by force not merely surrendered. Both sides are already gearing up for a contest following defeat on 8 June. It won’t just be Corbyn who tries to grow the membership – Cooper, his most likely opponent, has been advertising on Facebook, and not just the ultra-local message that many MPs are using. People who like Labour on Facebook as far afield as London and Berkshire have been seeing her takedown of Theresa May appear as sponsored content in their timelines.

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There are a couple of things to remember, though. The first is that although both sides might talk about it being “better than we think” , Corbynites are, as you’d expect, more optimistic about the result than Corbynsceptics. It’s not clear what effect the defeat suggested by the local elections last week – one slightly bigger and more devastating than what we’re seeing in the polls – would have on anyone’s thinking should that pan out.

The second is that Labour members aren’t an unthinking bloc. From talking to party members, my impression is that, if Labour does go down to devastating defeat, a good non-Corbyn candidate would start as the favourite. Don’t forget that in 1981, Tony Benn won the deputy leadership in a landslide among the members – he got 78 per cent of the vote from the CLP section, though he lost thanks to Labour’s electoral college. In 1988, when he challenged Neil Kinnock for the leadership, he got 5.9 per cent of the vote.

Of course, a lot hinges on whether or not the Corbynsceptic candidate can inspire a bit of hope and excitement. One reason why some of the leader’s allies are sounding more bullish about saying on after a defeat is, rightly or wrongly, they don’t fear Cooper on the campaign trail.  

But there’s another group that matters a lot in all of this: the leaders of Labour’s affiliated unions, their representatives on the party’s national executive committee, and their votes on the conference floor.

Put simply, the continuation of Corbyn’s project relies on securing an election result that is at least good enough that the party’s power brokers in the unions and members who voted Corbyn in 2015 and 2016 but are not diehards think 2022 is a risk worth taking.