A coronation and an election
When I posted my updates for July 2016 both main parties at Westminster were looking at leadership election contests. Both settled these contests by the autumn but in different ways. The Conservatives, after a short period of public turmoil, settled for a ‘coronation’. The rules of the contest in the Party dictate that two candidates are sifted out by secret ballots within the parliamentary party, and these two candidates then go forward to a ballot of all the members in the country at large. The Conservatives ended up with two women contenders (Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom). The latter’s challenge soon imploded. It became plain – not least to her – that she would suffer a humiliating defeat if the contest went to a ballot, and so on 11 July 2016 she withdrew, leaving the Party with a coronation: the crowning of Theresa May as Party Leader on the day that Mrs Leadsom withdrew, and as Prime Minister two days later.
Labour’s contest was far more bruising, but at least in terms of the popular votes even more decisive. In September Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected Leader with nearly 62 per cent of the votes, against 38 per cent for his challenger, Owen Smith.
The upshot of all this is superficially surprising. The party leader who entered Downing Street with only 199 votes (the number Mrs May received from the MPs in the Parliamentary contest) enjoys a far stronger position than the candidate who received over 313,000 votes (Mr Corbyn’s tally in his leadership election). The opinion polls, for instance, give Mrs May a considerable lead in popular judgements of competence over Mr Corbyn, and voting intentions suggest that the Labour Party he leads is well behind its Conservative rivals. Some of this disparity is plainly due to deep rooted difficulties within the Labour Party. Despite Mr Corbyn’s emphatic win in the popular vote many of the leading figures in the Parliamentary Labour Party, especially those with experience of government up to 2010, simply do not have sufficient confidence in him to serve on the front bench. And for reasons that I rehearsed in an earlier update (52: January 2016) even Mr Corbyn’s popular support seems to have distinct territorial limits: he is strong in London, but weak in many traditional Labour areas in the North of England, and seems to have made little headway in Scotland.
But some of the gap between the two leaders may be more transient. We have to remember that opinion poll leads do not have the same significance as in the past, and that is not just a matter of being cautious in the light of several forecasting failures by the pollsters. The biggest single change in electoral politics in recent years – described in the third edition of Politics and Governance in the UK – is that most voters no longer have a fixed loyalty to a party. It follows that their vote choice at any one moment is unstable, and that leads in opinion polls can be transient. The Labour Party under Mr Corbyn has reinvented itself. It is now the largest single party by membership in the UK (possibly in the European Union). It far outstrips the Conservative Party, which continues to have a declining and ageing membership. The influx of members and supporters has also transformed Labour’s finances, making it much less dependent on institutional support like trade union donations. Although the researches of Tim Bale and his colleagues (Bale 2016) suggests that the new members are not that different from the old ones (the main distinction seems to be that Mr Corbyn has attracted women into membership in greater numbers than in the past) there are plainly ways in which Corbyn’s appeal resembles that of some of the anti-establishment movements which have upended politics in both the United States and parts of the European Union: perhaps more Bernie Sanders than Donald Trump. Mr Corbyn and his allies are reinventing the political party as we have known it in Britain. Much depends on how enduring that reinvention is. The reinvented party resembles more a political movement than the kind of institution centralised on Westminster that we are accustomed to in Britain. Over the next year or so we will be able to measure the success of this attempted reinvention in fairly precise ways: how many of the new members renew their annual subscriptions, and how many of the cut price ‘supporters’ convert to full membership. Beyond that, if the members ‘stick’ there will come a further test: how far the appeal can be broadened to a wider electorate.
Bale, Tim (2016) ‘Corbyn's Labour: Survey of post-2015 Labour members and supporters’ at http://www.qmul.ac.uk/media/news/items/178403.html