In what was seen as almost as foregone a conclusion as Usain Bolt’s 100m success in Rio, Saturday saw one of the summer’s most bruising contests come to a close as Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected as Leader of the Labour Party.
Corbyn won 61.8% of the vote, which is an increase on the percentage which he picked up in the previous leadership contest just over a year ago. It’s an unprecedented feat, and the victor came out top amongst all three groups eligible to vote: Party members, members of affiliated trade unions, and registered supporters who paid £25 for a vote.
Owen Smith, the MP from Pontypridd who challenged Corbyn, was always going to struggle to win over a Party whose membership has shot up following the veteran socialist’s election last September. Smith’s supporters will be disappointed by the result, however they may be buoyed by an exit poll which indicated that those who were members prior to last summer had overwhelmingly backed their man. Intriguingly, 18-24 year-olds were also reported to have preferred Smith, despite many assuming that they would be more likely to back Mr Corbyn.
The Labour Leadership contest has been heated at times, and it would be naïve to expect such a Pandora’s box of disagreement and hostility to be slammed shut by Corbyn’s victory. Despite the launch of #StayInLabour, many who see themselves as moderates are now considering deserting the Party, and some have already cancelled their direct debits. According to Google, ‘How to leave the Labour Party’ became a popular search in the aftermath of the result being declared.
Those, like me, who have been following the contest closely will have noted a change in Corbyn’s rhetoric recently. He has sought to strike a conciliatory tone and repeatedly stressed the Party’s need to ‘come together’ following the announcement of the Members’ verdict. His victory speech re-inforced this message, as he quoted the late Jo Cox MP and told the audience in Liverpool that Labour members have “far more in common than that which divides”.
Corbyn sought to build on this further by announcing a ‘National day of action’ aimed at taking on Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans to introduce a new generation of grammar schools (which is seen by his Party as a move which would entrench inequality and disproportionately impact on the life chances of working class people). This plan will boost hopes that the Party’s score of new members will now be engaged to form the fabled ‘social movement’ which the victor advocated during the leadership contest.
What next, though, for the 172 MPs who said in June that they had no confidence in their leader? And what about the former Ministers who resigned en masse from his Shadow Cabinet? Some are expected to reprise their roles, whilst others are set to seek other high profile opportunities in Parliament: somebody needs to replace Keith Vaz as Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee and Hillary Benn is apparently keen on chairing a new group which will scrutinise Brexit. Despite calls for unity, many will still be unwilling to return to the service of a Leader in whom they have no faith.
The Conservatives have already released a damning video about the contest which declares that ‘whoever wins, the country loses’. This is the real challenge facing Labour. Observers suggest that infighting now needs to stop and the Leader needs to be given something of a honeymoon period, though some suggest that this should be more of a probationary period after which his performance is assessed.
I’m minded to agree with the many who have suggested that now is the time for members to stop arguing amongst themselves. Labour’s priority must now be to reach out and have conversations with people up and down the country with the goal of understanding and reconnecting with people who no longer believe that the Party is relevant. That’s the only way that Labour can hope to recover from their current dire position in the polls and defeat the Tories at a General Election which may be on its way sooner rather than later.
– Liam David Hopley