Politics and Governance in the UK

by Michael Moran

Update 52: January 2016 - Jeremy Corbyn's Leadership Victory

Labour suicide or labour renewal?

In Update 51, July 2015, reflecting on the scale of the task that faced the Labour Party after its General Election defeat, I wrote: ‘The new Labour leader, when she or he emerges in the autumn, will meanwhile face an almost insoluble electoral conundrum: the party simultaneously needs to move left to recover ground lost in Scotland, and to move right to recover ground lost in England. Whatever other qualities are needed, Labour must hope that the new Leader is an outstanding illusionist.’

For better or for worse, the outcome of the contest was that Labour ended up with a leader who is the very opposite of a modern political illusionist. Jeremy Corbyn won partly by promising a departure from the established, focus group based style of statecraft that had characterised New Labour for two decades. And his own political history showed him also to be the kind of sea green incorruptible who would bow neither to popular opinion nor to party leaders: he was a serial rebel against a succession of Labour leaders after his election to Parliament in 1983.

Corbyn’s victory was unexpected in several ways. He almost did not stand in the first place. Labour’s rules ‘filter’ the field of candidates by requiring a candidate to receive a minimum of nominations from Labour MPs (15%, 35 in number in 2015) in order to stand; Corbyn squeezed onto the ballot paper with a number of nominations from MPs who did not agree with his views (like the former deputy leader Margaret Beckett) but wanted to widen the range of policy debate in the leadership contest. MPs who did not agree with Corbyn but supported his candidature had failed fully to appreciate three factors that became increasingly clear as the campaign unfolded. First, a rule change under Ed Miliband’s leadership meant that the contest was now based on the rule of ‘one member one vote’, finally extinguishing the lingering influence of the trade union block vote.

Second, it has subsequently become obvious that the grass roots membership of the Labour Party has in recent years moved distinctly to the left in ways that the Parliamentary Party has not recognised. (A very good study of all this, predating the Corbyn phenomenon, was published by Hugh Pemberton and Mark Wickham-Jones in 2013 – see reference below.) Third, the campaign itself resulted in a big influx of new members and registered supporters, and these were disproportionately Corbyn enthusiasts. The scale of Corbyn’s final victory was stunning. He emerged as victor in the first round of voting under an electoral system which is almost designed to produce second and third rounds, encouraging rival candidates and factions to engage in deal making.

An optimistic account (from the point of view of Labour’s prospects) of all this would run as follows. As a result of the leadership campaign Labour has reversed the apparently terminal decline in membership which for decades has afflicted both it and the Conservative Party. Only the SNP in Scotland now matches Labour’s ability to mobilise new (and mostly young) voters into politics. Since even in the May 2015 General Election Labour had a lead among the young (but failed to get them onto the electoral register or into the polling booth) that bodes well for the Party’s future electoral fortunes. In the long run parties win elections by securing the loyalty of the youngest cohorts of voters simply because of the brutal fact that old voters, though they vote more conscientiously, also die sooner than the young. Corbyn seems to have solved a problem which was beyond the wit of generations of spin doctors, pollsters and New Labour strategists: how to engage with the young electorate. The Conservatives have bought short term success by bribing pensioners, but pensioners are a wasting electoral asset, and the Party’s organisation continues its terminal decline.

But the surge of membership produced by Corbyn is not all it seems. A study by two Financial Times reporters shows some remarkable geographical variations (Pickard and Lindsay 2015.) The Party’s membership did indeed double in the space of a year and most of these members are young. But most, also, are located in Greater London. There has been almost no increase in Labour’s former heartlands beyond London. The contrasts are stark and striking: in Holborn and St Pancras Labour’s membership tripled to 3,000; in Burnley it rose from 319 to 484; in the Rhondda from 355 to 485; and across Scotland the typical constituency gained an average of 68 new members (creating an average constituency total of 322.) The Corbyn effect is real; but it is largely powered by the increasingly unique social and political environment of the capital.

The Labour leader at the end of 2015 is therefore presented with a quite unique conundrum. He has genuine popular support, but it is heavily concentrated in London. The wider party in the country shows little signs of renewal, and is particularly weak in the face of the huge challenge of the SNP in Scotland. The views of party activists are increasingly different from those of potential Labour voters. And the Parliamentary Party itself remains overwhelmingly sceptical of the new leader. If Corbyn solves the conundrum of reconciling all these different pressures he will indeed deserve the title of political illusionist or wizard.

References:

Hugh Pemberton and Mark Wickham-Jones (2013): ‘Labour’s lost grassroots: the rise and fall of party membership’, 8 – at http://www.palgrave-journals.com/bp/journal/v8/n2/full/bp201227a.html

Jim Pickard and Michael Lindsay, ‘London’s youth swells Labour ranks’, Financial Times, 27 December 2015 – at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b3b6e348-a5a0-11e5-a91e-162b86790c58.html#axzz3vtJ535c1