December 21, 2016 By FTI Consulting
Jeremy Corbyn shocked the political system with his election as the Labour Party Leader in September 2015. Tensions between him and his parliamentary party were never solved and it didn’t take long before his leadership was officially challenged. In the wake of the EU referendum this year, MPs infuriated by his style of leadership and ineffectiveness during the referendum campaign triggered a leadership race. This was ultimately futile and saw Corbyn re-elected with a new, fresh mandate while the Party wasted months arguing with itself rather than focusing on the job of opposition.
Lessons have been learned from that rushed and ill-advised leadership challenge. Those moderates opposed to the Corbyn leadership are now preparing for a more long term battle of ideas, redefining where a modern day Labour Party needs to be to have broad appeal and not pander to groups pulling in different directions. The likes of Chuka Umunna and Stephen Kinnock are leading the thinking on issues such as migration, and where Labour can strike a balance between pandering to UKIP and post referendum antimigration sentiment, and previous Labour open-door policies. Keir Starmer as shadow BREXIT Secretary has the task of holding the Government to account over the country’s negotiations with the EU. This is a serious task which cannot be derailed by squabbling within the Party. Other senior players have taken up notable select committee roles – finding a way to influence Parliament without taking ministerial positions – including Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn as chairs of the Home Affairs and BREXIT Committees respectively. Where the Labour stance has support from a number of Tory backbenchers – for example the tax credits debate earlier this year or an anticipated vote on remaining in the Single Market – Labour can be an effective opposition.
All this sounds potentially positive on paper, but let’s not pretend the turmoil within the Party isn’t there for MPs every single day. What remains most frustrating for those MPs who criticise the leadership is that they show few signs of making electoral headway for the Party. This will in turn cost many MPs their jobs on election day – whether that comes in 2017 or 2020. Corbyn’s election (and reelection) as leader tapped into the same populist sentiment that is widely regarded as sweeping the Western world, resulting in the Brexit vote and election of Donald Trump as US President. However, hopes that Corbyn will follow on with his own victory do not follow a logical pattern, given his appeal is to a narrow base and his stances on the wrong side of populist opinion on key issues such as migration, taxation and, in many cases, foreign affairs.
Overall, 2017 is not looking good for Labour. The Party may be able to criticise welfare reform, grammar schools and any future spending cuts, but the Government moving to the centre ground on many social and economic issues means the Opposition is likely to suffer more in the polls rather than make headway. Theresa May’s suggestion of workers on company boards, the raising of the living wage and investment in housing and infrastructure all pull the centre ground from under the feet of Labour. Labour enters the New Year still seen by the public as at war with itself and on the wrong side of key issues.
In the medium to long term, slow change within the Party could still occur. Absolutely key to this is the result of the race to be head of the influential union, Unite. Len McKluskey was seen as the man who could remove Corbyn at will but who chose to stand by him. Should ‘Red Len’ lose out to Gerald Coyne, a relative moderate, Corbyn’s position would be less clear. The Unite General Secretary and Labour Party Vice Chairman – currently Tom Watson – both wanting a new leader and advising union members to vote for a new candidate, would be a potential game changer. At the same time, there are many people in the UK who need an alternative option for Government (namely those negatively affected by this one’s decisions) and will become wary with a party that doesn’t appear electable. Many public sector workers, for example, were not fans of New Labour and see Corbyn as a refreshing alternative, but ultimately want this Government to be removed and at some point will swing in large numbers towards a more likely electoral prospect. This will not happen in any great hurry however – Corbyn will stand his ground to fight the next General Election and only after that will there be a chance for the conversation of future leadership to be properly revisited again.