This is a tale of two coups.
The Parliamentary Labour Party’s chaotic coup attempt has failed. The net result is the very thing most of the PLP sought to avoid; Labour is now Jeremy Corbyn’s show. He is now bomb-proof. This is it. This is Labour, until Corbyn goes at a time of his own choosing.
For the Corbynistas, this is a heady moment. They now have the chance not just to storm the Labour citadel, but to take it over. And in doing so, to determine its fate for the foreseeable future.
But who are the Corbynistas? First, it’s clear who they are not. They are not the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. They are not the majority of individual members of long-standing; they voted overwhelmingly for Smith. The Corbynistas are largely new arrivals: members who have joined in the last year, and registered supporters who signed up in the last couple of months. Corbyn’s mandate comes from those whose formal association with the Labour party is mostly no longer than 18 months.
Thanks to ill thought through rule changes to the leadership election process under Ed Miliband, this ‘new wave’, with no historic association to the party, has propelled into the leadership the longest serving dissenter from all that Labour advocated under its previous centre-left leaders.
Barely able to conceal their dismay, moderate MPs have traipsed in front of the TV cameras all weekend professing loyalty, unity and a fresh start. What else could they say? But the hard truth is that it can’t happen. No amount of lip-service can repair a divide in the party that is so fundamental – between a moderate centre-left, that wants to forge an alliance between economic pragmatism, socially progressive policies, and electoral outreach, and a hard left that wants to re-write capitalism, support every disparate cause of protest, and dwell in the comforts of self-affirmation.
Corbyn’s double-mandate will now be followed by an attempt to deepen his movement’s grip on the machinery of Labour. Nothing much can be done about the PLP for the time being, but that doesn’t matter; it controls nothing. Corbyn can concede something on shadow cabinet elections. But the price he will ultimately exact will be high – it might even extend to securing the election of some places by his activist membership.
Corbyn will seek to strengthen his grip on the ruling National Executive Committee, which at the moment is delicately balanced between the party’s two main factions. He only needs to gain a handful of additional supporters in subsequent internal elections to secure a comfortable working majority.
Corbyn will now pursue changes to the process of policy formulation, again in the direction of strengthening the influence of his base. That can only result in pushing policy positions further left.
Corbyn and his team will also seek to strengthen their position in affiliated trade unions, amongst the union membership, and amongst the membership in local constituency parties.
The chances are he will succeed in these objectives. The result will be that Corbyn and his loyal followers will ultimately control all three elements of Labour’s power triumvirate: the party leadership, the membership and the affiliated unions. Then they need not worry about the PLP. The selection process, aided by the extensive boundary changes coming in 2018, and the mounting pressure from within local parties, will deliver enough change to swing the centre of gravity far enough in his direction.
Corbyn’s coup is likely to succeed.
Meanwhile, there’s a small matter of what the voters think.
So far, not much. Labour’s overall rating has fallen back to well below its General Election 2015 score, and its performance in recent local government by-elections has been uninspiring. Corbyn’s personal ratings are setting new records for an opposition leader’s unpopularity.
Enthusiastic rallies of the left will keep Corbyn in a comfort zone. But his naïve belief that his Labour coup will extend into a popular one is set to be disproved at the ballot box.
Nearly a decade ago, New Labour gave way to Lost Labour.
Now the party has a new home. Fantasy Labour.
This piece first appeared on the Cicero Elections website on 26 September. Cicero Elections is a free political information hub brought to you by Cicero Group.
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