by Atul Hatwal
This is Jeremy Corbyn. Like Wile E Coyote he has run off the cliff. Yes, he’s still leader, but after Copeland, it’s just a matter of time until political gravity exerts its force, most likely in 2018.
Croydon Central is in many ways a bellwether CLP for Corbyn. In 2015, it voted to endorse him 80% to 20%, reflecting the final vote among registered supporters. Last year, it backed him against Owen Smith by 60% to 40%, in line with the eventual overall result. Speaking to party members and local officials over the weekend, estimates of the balance between pro and anti-Corbyn support were 50-50, tipping steadily against the Labour leader with each passing month. Similar movement is being reported in pro-Corbyn CLPs across the country.
By 2018, whether Jeremy Corbyn steps down voluntarily or is challenged, his time as leader will end.
When that happens, four criteria will determine the identity of Corbyn’s successor: parliamentary nominations, Brexit, baggage (absence thereof) and whether they are a woman or a minority.
The first goal for candidates is to secure the backing of 15% of their UK and European parliamentary colleagues. This translates as 37 nominations in the PLP and 1 from European Parliamentary Party.
Regardless of how a candidate polls among the general public, their popularity with journalists or the polish of their performance on TV, they need the support of their colleagues to get on the ballot.
The Corbynites are desperate to secure an amendment, which would reduce the nomination threshold from 15% to 5%. The McDonnell amendment – so called after the barely concealed ambition of the shadow Chancellor – would need to be passed by conference and at this stage, it looks unlikely.
The threshold will remain as will the need for a credible level of PLP support. This time round, no nominations will be lent to candidates unable to make the ballot unaided.
More than any other issue, Brexit has undone Corbyn. It has united Blairites, the soft left and even sections of the hard left. Corbyn’s Praetorian Guard, Momentum, surveyed its 11,000 members during the referendum campaign with 66% backing Remain and 20% Brexit.
Polls suggest that two thirds of Labour voters would vote to Remain in the EU if the referendum were rerun. For party members and supporters, party officials estimate that this rises to over 80% and among those that vote in a leadership election – which is skewed towards the big city constituencies – pro-EU sentiment is likely north of 90%.
Right now, Tony Blair is closer to the views of the typical Labour party member than at any time since the day he won the leadership. That is the scale of upheaval wrought by Brexit within Labour.
In the leadership contest there will be a simple litmus test: did the candidate oppose triggering Article 50?
A leadership hopeful who had voted with the Tories on Brexit, would have to defend that vote at every hustings, every interview and every CLP meeting.
All of their political oxygen would be sucked up in explaining why they were right and Labour’s leadership selectorate were wrong.
That’s not how elections are won.
There is also a basic operational point about leading the Opposition: if a future Labour leader is not prepared to vote against the government on Brexit, to block a Tory Brexit, what’s the point of the Opposition?
It’s obvious that if the government comes under any serious parliamentary pressure they will resort to the equivalent of a Brexit confidence motion – bundling any contentious individual measures within a package that offers a binary yes or no on the Brexit process.
Labour will be faced with the same choice as at the Article 50 vote.
If the future Labour leader has already said that they won’t oppose Brexit’s progress then defeat is inevitable.
This essential political truth is not just acknowledged by Labour’s leadership selectorate, they feel it at an emotional level.
One of the most apposite statements about Tony Blair in 1994 was that he emerged without trace. Left and right within Labour were able to project their hopes and desires onto a relatively blank canvass.
Ed Miliband benefitted in a comparable manner from his lack of parliamentary history in the 2010 leadership campaign. Few seriously believe that had he been in parliament in 2003, he would have rebelled on Iraq, given his mentor Gordon Brown voted in favour. But he was able to claim as much in the 2010 leadership election.
The absence of baggage will be essential in minimising the basis for attacks by opponents, and, more importantly, enabling the candidate to embody the contradictory hopes of members from different wings of the party.
Service in the last Labour government will have saddled prospective candidates with all manner of compromise and 2010 is likely the earliest a leadership could have been elected.
- A woman or minority
The final criteria reflects the chasm between Labour’s protestations on equalities and the reality of its choices.
Theresa May is the second Tory woman to lead their party and the country. For many Labour members and supporters, her presence is a testament to Labour’s failure to follow through on its rhetoric.
The hunger for a leader that is not another white man is already palpable.
The table below rates the contenders variously discussed in the media with a red, amber or green against each of the four criteria. Any candidate with a red mark will struggle, particularly in the first two columns.
Based on this analysis, the candidates can be split into four groups.
Hard left successors blocked by the PLP
There’s been a concerted leadership attempt to build up potential Corbynite successors. John McDonnell’s hunger for the job is well known as are his negatives. Recently Rebecca Long Bailey and Angela Rayner have been briefed into the fray. However each faces the same fundamental problem as McDonnell – they won’t get anywhere the necessary nominations from the PLP.
And that’s before their Article 50 votes are taken into account by Labour members and supporters.
Candidates blackballed by the membership over Brexit
Early favourites such as Lisa Nandy and Dan Jarvis would face serious issues with members and supporters given their position on Brexit. Both have defined themselves as speaking up for Labour’s northern, working class heartlands. Both have advocated an emollient approach to Labour supporters drifting towards Ukip over immigration and the importance of respecting the EU referendum vote. Jarvis even went as far as to endorse a numbers target to cut immigration.
Hilary Benn, Caroline Flint and Tom Watson have all echoed these sentiments as have Stephen Kinnock and Keir Starmer.
Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of such stances on immigration and Brexit, candidates in this group would be flayed in a campaign played out before Labour members and supporters.
Imagine if, in the 2015 leadership campaign, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall had made supporting the Tories’ welfare reform cuts the centrepiece of their respective platforms. That.
Failed former contenders
Baggage is the problem that former leadership contenders face. Owen Smith’s passionate stance on Brexit and Corbyn’s sliding support, mean he might have won a race in 2017. But he ran last year and was badly beaten. His chance has passed.
Past leadership hopefuls such as Yvette Cooper, Chuka Umunna and Angela Eagle all count as big beasts but carry the baggage of past failed campaigns as well as facing challenges over their Article 50 vote.
The new generation of favourites
Only three MPs do not have any red marks and are green in at least three out of four categories: Heidi Alexander, Clive Lewis and Stella Creasy.
They represent the strongest contenders for the Labour leadership based on what matters to the people who will vote in this contest.
Stella Creasy has a national profile because of her deputy leadership run in 2015 and campaign against payday lenders.
Clive Lewis is the doyenne of soft left commentators (well one in particular) and has started what could be described as a Kinnockite journey towards the centre.
Heidi Alexander is perhaps the unexpected member of the group but she is well liked across the PLP, has solid soft left bona fides and has been a passionate and articulate advocate of a tougher anti-Brexit Labour position.
When Corbyn goes, there will inevitably two or three MPs who secure the nominations and have what might seem on paper a good chance – non-metropolitan seats, pro-triggering Article 50, a focus on Labour heartlands and plenty of friends in the PLP ready to nominate them and brief up their chances.
In this context, it is unlikely that all three of Lewis, Creasy and Alexander could make it onto the ballot.
Clive Lewis might struggle to secure the necessary nominations at the best of times, given his fragile relationship with various PLP-ers, let alone if the pool of available nominations was dimininshed.
Stella also only just made it into the deputy leadership race in 2015 because of a similarly uneasy relationship with many of her colleagues and could face a similar challenge, albeit one she is better placed to surmount.
Only Heidi Alexander could be reasonably confident of making the ballot even if rivals were busy hoovering up nominations.
Her personal standing within the PLP and soft left political positioning make her an archetypal unity candidate.
The campaign itself might throw up surprises.
Candidates well placed at the start might stumble, skeletons might tumble out of the closet.
But at this point, as the runners and riders jockey for position, Clive Lewis, Stella Creasy and Heidi Alexander are most aligned with what the selectorate desire, with Heidi Alexander perhaps a nose in front because of her status within the PLP.
The media might not regard her as a front-runner, but for Labour members and supporters, she could be the next leader.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut