Leader: A test for Mr Corbyn

“We are not going to lose seats. We are looking to gain seats where we can,” Corbyn insisted on 3 May.

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For Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, his ascent to the Labour leadership eight months ago was about their desire for a new kind of politics, one that could express their frustration at inequality, austerity and the decline of social solidarity. He was not chosen with the hard grind of electioneering in mind. Nevertheless, Mr Corbyn is now the leader of the opposition and must be judged by the same metric as every other person to have held that office: success at the ballot box.

At the time of writing, a victory in the London mayoral contest for Labour’s candidate, Sadiq Khan, looked likely. Doubtless some of those supporting Mr Khan are doing so because he represents a party whose shift in direction since September has caused them to look at it afresh. Others support Mr Khan in spite of Mr Corbyn, from whom he has repeatedly distanced himself, not least over the anti-Semitism that has tainted the party. Regardless of the leader, London was always going to be fertile territory for Labour.

A more illuminating test of the party’s strength under Mr Corbyn is the Scottish parliamentary election. The Scottish National Party has been in power for nine years and its administrative record is inadequate. Yet, rather than competing for office, Scottish Labour, for so long the dominant party north of the border, is struggling to avoid third place. That decline has much to do with institutional arrogance and little to do with Mr Corbyn. Nevertheless, the apparent absence of a Labour resurgence in Scotland threatens central components of his ideological thesis.

Mr Corbyn and his allies argued that an unabashed anti-austerity programme could win back Scotland. Kezia Dug­dale, Scottish Labour’s leader, has followed that course, pledging to raise the top rate of income tax from 45p to 50p and to add a penny across the board – although she has received little help from Mr Corbyn, who has barely visited the country. The results of 5 May will offer a clue as to whether anti-austerity is the panacea that Corbynites claimed.

The local elections contested this week comprise an arbitrary mixture of councils across broad areas of the country. Yet they, too, will allow initial conclusions to be drawn about Mr Corbyn’s chances of success. Outside general-election years, the main opposition party has gained council seats on every occasion since 1985. The end of this 31-year record would bode ill for Labour. Rather than mobilising scores of non-voters as promised, the party will merely have lost existing voters.

For his part, the Labour leader went into the elections with confidence. “We are not going to lose seats. We are looking to gain seats where we can,” he insisted on 3 May. Let that be his test. If Labour does indeed perform well, Mr Corbyn will rightly bask in the praise of his admirers. If the only glimmer of hope is a victory over a squalid Conservative campaign in London, however, his supporters should abandon their certitude. 

This article appears in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred