A second Corbyn victory will have significant consequences, both for the Labour Party and for British politics
22 September 2016
With Jeremy Corbyn’s widely-expected landslide victory to be announced on Saturday, Dr Judi Atkins, Lecturer in Politics at Coventry University, assesses the implications of his re-election both for Labour and British politics more broadly.
Following the EU referendum result and the subsequent vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party embarked on its second leadership contest in 12 months. The campaign was marred by controversy, notably over whether Corbyn should be automatically included on the ballot and the eligibility of new members to vote. The result of the election will be announced at the Party’s annual conference in Liverpool on 24 September, but it is widely expected that Corbyn will defeat Owen Smith to secure a second landslide victory.
If this is indeed the case, Corbyn will find himself in the difficult position of having the support of grassroots members, but not of the majority of his parliamentary party. The implications of this are considerable – both for Labour and for British politics more broadly – and much depends on how he and his Party manage the following key dilemmas.
The first is continuity or change – whether to allow the divisions within the parliamentary party to become entrenched, or to take steps towards reconciliation. At present MPs are divided over issues such as Trident, immigration and Europe, and many have deep concerns over the role and conduct of Momentum. Add to this the recent accusations of anti-Semitism, and it is easy to see why some commentators are predicting that Labour will eventually split.
To head off this outcome, the parliamentary party must unite behind and support Corbyn, who in turn needs to extend an olive branch to disgruntled MPs. The signs are that this is the approach Corbyn intends to take, but both sides must be prepared to engage fully and constructively; half-hearted efforts are likely to do more harm than good.
Labour’s second – related – conundrum pits principles against power. Corbyn’s appeal stems largely from the strength of his left-wing convictions but, without power, these values simply cannot be realised. The challenge here is to articulate a vision for the future that not only unites the factions within Labour, but resonates beyond the Party’s core supporters. Of course a number of disagreements will be intractable, but there are more areas of commonality among MPs than is sometimes acknowledged. Among these are a concern over deepening inequality and a desire for a fairer society, along with commitments to the welfare state and workers’ rights – and all can be brought together to create a policy programme and narrative with wide electoral appeal.
Finally, Labour must deal with the tension between the top-down and bottom-up conceptions of leadership that are present within the Party. While the last 30 years have seen an increasing centralisation of power, Labour has historically treated the notion of leadership with suspicion. This reflects its origins in the trade union movement, and indeed Corbyn recently called for a return to the popular democracy that characterised the early Party. With this end in mind, he pledged to allow members to elect up to one third of the Shadow Cabinet and to decide the direction of policy. This is a laudable aim, but there is a danger that the latter reform could paralyse Labour if it is not properly thought through, leaving the party unable to keep pace with events – particularly in relation to foreign policy – or mired in endless debates with little to show for them.
How Corbyn responds to these challenges will have profound implications for British politics. As the largest party of the left, Labour has a duty to speak up for, and defend the interests of, ordinary people. If it falls short in this regard, it risks ceding more ground to UKIP and the populist right – the consequences of which, in the tense atmosphere following the Brexit vote, are chilling to say the least.
Alongside this, Labour has a responsibility to be a functioning opposition. It is vital to our democracy that Corbyn’s party scrutinises the Conservative government and holds it to account, rather than tearing itself apart. In the light of the forthcoming negotiations over Britain’s exit from the EU, as well as the funding crisis in the NHS and the proposed reintroduction of grammar schools, this role is more important than ever. A failure to meet its obligations will seriously damage Britain’s democracy and betray those who need a strong, united Labour Party the most.
News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.