Would a Labour defeat spell the end for the Corbyn project?

Credit: Chatham House

A week, goes the old adage, is a long time in politics. Labour’s poll numbers, it seems, are out with a single mission: proving that received wisdom is as such for a reason. Labour has turned around its poll numbers impressively – which throws up questions in terms of the party’s leadership. With Buzzfeed reporting that Corbyn would stay on regardless of the election results, what are progressives to make of the Labour leader’s chances of retaining his place at the head of the party? Despite the recent uptake in polls, it would appear that Labour are currently on course for a third consecutive electoral defeat.

Whereas Brown could point to a hung parliament where Labour didn’t exactly lose, and with Ed there was talk of the ‘magic number’ of seats, which if won would justify staying on, Corbyn will be looking at 257 seats, if the current polling holds up. If Labour returns to the point it was at a short time ago, it will drop far below 200 seats – returning a result worse than even 1983. Corbyn is decidedly unlikely to step down in the event of losing a general election – and no doubt that with Jeremy being a long time member of the Bennite wing, there will be a cruel irony when Corbyn uses the example of Kinnock in ’87 to justify staying on. We must work from a number of assumptions – one, that Labour will still likely lose this election. Two, that maintaining the Miliband voteshare and retaining the majority of seats will be enough to keep Corbyn in the leader’s office – after all, given the disasterous projections, the Corbyn team’s argument, which will be either blaming ‘Blairites’ or pointing out that ‘x million people voted for socialism’ will be a powerful one. So let’s take a scenario where Labour drops below 190 seats, with a voteshare roughly the same as Miliband. A leadership challenge is mooted. What comes next?

Firstly, it’s worth considering what will be happening in the PLP. The Corbyn project has, arguably, been about transforming Labour at the institutional level, ensuring that the party focuses more on being a ‘movement’. It’s unlikely that pressure from the PLP would cause Jeremy to resign the office of leader, and thus an election would be triggered. In terms of actual support, Corbyn’s postion in the PLP could in fact be strengthened. MPs are unlikely to want another leadership battle unless they’re sure their candidate can win. Corbyn is excellent at internal elections, and the likely candidate – Yvette Cooper – has already lost to him once. Furthermore, Corbynite MPs are usually metropolitan MPs or MPs who have massive majorities, and thus are a lot less likely to lose their seats, so with the PLP reduced to a shadow of its former self, Corbyn’s support as a percentage of the PLP will have actually increased.

So what about the members? Post Miliband, the members are really where elections are won and lost, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Corbyn, it’s that both Jeremy and his allies view their mandate from the members as more important than electoral success. In a post-election landscape, Corbyn will still need have the ability to woo the membership. But what will the membership look like on June 9th? After all, the internal party elections are pointed to as evidence of Corbyn’s star power, and he’s shown twice that he is very, very good at winning Labour party internal elections. Demographically, the party will likely be favourable to Corbyn – 53% are University educated, 75% fall into the ABC1 social category, 47% live in the South. This Southern-based, middle class membership will likely hold the future of the party in their hands, and are the sort of metropolitan voters who will swing behind Jeremy. But what of the Northern ‘heartlands’?

Well, 53% of the selectorate does live there. Though the rise of UKIP has been noted as doing what years of Tory campaigns could not: making voting Tory palatable for lifelong Labour voters in the North, it’s entirely possible that they might swing behind Jeremy in a leadership election. After all, the crowds for Corbyn in Liverpool were incredibly impressive, even if it’s natural to be sceptical about the political impact of having a big rally. On the other hand, Northern voters may well reject Corbyn and turn to the likely contender for the Leadership, Yvette Cooper. However, this requires a crucial element – that voters still identify with the Labour brand after the election. Labour is currently set to potentially lose plenty of Northern seats – Blackpool South, Chorley, Bolton North East. The future of the Labour Party could depend on voters in these sort of areas. The gut reaction is of course that they won’t, but the breakdown of the last leadership election can still tell us much about this. Smith carried Scotland by 18 points and pre-2015 members by 26 points, while Corbyn took the North by 29. However, current polling now puts the number of the Labour selectorate that wants Corbyn to stay on post-election as lower than 50%, and it was only 51% in 2016, during the Smith/Corbyn election. The take home headline from this is that Corbyn supporters aren’t an unthinking bloc that cannot be reasoned with. Indeed, though there’s a hard-core support that will support Corbyn no matter what, the greatest drop-off in support for him in polls is usually when the question ‘Should he stay after losing?’ is posed.

This will be decided by the strength of feeing towards the Party, and towards Corbyn. If they still identify as Labour voters who simply can’t go along with the Corbyn project, they may well return home to the party for a leadership election, and seek to oust Corbyn. This is a decidedly long shot – it’s a fairly radical proposition that people will pay anywhere between 3 and 25 quid to vote for moderation in Labour. It’s not inconceivable, though; the future of Corbyn’s leadership may well depend on national consciousness of Labour as a party of Government, and in particular, whether or not the North remembers.

This all requires a fairly stunning election loss though, and the polls appear to be holding up for Labour at the moment, though some are predicting levels of youth turnout that doesn’t exactly seem likely. What is likely, however, is that the leader of the Labour Party a few weeks from now will still be Jeremy Corbyn, for better or worse.

Peter Whitehead
About Peter Whitehead 1 Article
Peter Whitehead is a student at Queen Mary, University of London. He studies English, with a focus on Mediaevalism. He enjoys debating, and serves as President of Queen Mary and Bart's Debating Society. Politically, Peter is a left-of-centre Labour party member.
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