On 8th May 2015 Ed Miliband resigned as leader of the Labour party following a huge general election defeat to the Conservatives. A little over 4 months later he was replaced by Jeremy Corbyn, a relatively unknown far-left politician. But now, just over a year after he became leader, Corbyn faces a bitter fight to remain at the top of his party.
In Labour’s leadership elections all people who are members of the party (or a Labour-affiliated trade union) are allowed to vote for their preferred candidate. However, to even get on the ballot paper each candidate needed the support of 35 Labour MPs. Whilst Corbyn won over 60% of the vote he only just had the number of nominations from the MPs needed to launch a bid.
To start with everything was OK. However, in the last few months things started to take a turn for the worst. Polls predicted that under Corbyn Labour could lose 50 or more seats and he was also accused of failing to effectively deal with anti-Semitism in his party. Then, after the EU referendum in which the country voted to leave while Labour were encouraging people to remain, Corbyn was accused of not doing enough to persuade the electorate to stay in the EU. Two of his MPs tabled a ‘vote of no-confidence’ in their leader. The motion overwhelmingly passed, 172-40.
Many then expected Corbyn to resign but the thing was, the vote was not binding. He refused to go saying that he had the support of Labour members and the thing was, he had a point. Now there will be a formal challenge to his leadership in which Labour members will again have to vote either to keep Corbyn as leader or replace him with a challenger, now confirmed to be Owen Smith. The problem is that Corbyn is still thought to have the support of enough Labour members to stay in power.
And that’s a problem because..?
Let’s say Corbyn wins. In Parliament he can’t force his MPs to vote for what he says. Just this week Corbyn urged his MPs to vote against renewing the UK’s nuclear weapons programme, Trident. However, less than 40% of Labour MPs actually supported him. Labour are meant to be the opposition party in Government, but, if the party can’t agree they will be able to block virtually nothing that the Conservatives propose (they have limited power anyway).
Plus, and even worse, some MPs say that if Corbyn is re-elected leader they will leave the Labour party and join another, most likely the Liberal Democrats. If even a few prominent MPs defected, the party would lose thousands of votes at the next General Election. If enough MPs left they could even be overtaken by the SNP in terms of the number of seats that they have (the SNP has 54) meaning that they would become the official opposition (although this is reasonably unlikely). Labour would lose thousands of pounds in funding and sink into irrelevance.
Whatever party you support, it is a worrying thought that a governing party could be able to push through anything they want through Parliament as the opposition can’t get their act together.
So what’s actually going to happen?
In the next few weeks Labour members will vote for who they want to be Labour leader: Jeremy Corbyn or Owen Smith. If Corbyn wins there will be MPs who leave the party, the question is how many. This could lead to a Lib Dem re-birth – the party lost over 50 seats in 2015. If Corbyn does win he would be very unlikely to resign before the next election in 2020; by then the party could have lost a hundred seats or even more.
If Smith wins, the job of rebuilding Labour begins. There shouldn’t be anyone who leaves the party but no one knows if he can be more popular with the electorate and, ultimately, win an election.
The result will be announced on 24th September. Although it is looking like it will be a tight contest, my gut instinct is that Smith will edge it. He is also a far-left politician, appealing to Corbyn voters but unlike Corbyn, he seems capable of winning over people in an election and effectively leading the party. This is an extremely important decision for Labour, the wrong one could be a knockout blow to the party. Not for the first time, the party’s fate is in the hands of its 700,000 members.