Next week the Labour Party will formally start a leadership contest, which has been triggered by the vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn by his MPs (also referred to as the Parliamentary Labour Party, or PLP) following the resignation of most of his shadow cabinet. Corbyn has refused to step down and, after a lot of wrangling and legal threats, has managed to get his name on the ballot without having to meet the nomination threshold.1
Regardless of the rules though, the question of whether Corbyn should step down remains open. Whether you support him or not, it’s clear that the misgivings over his leadership – particularly the fact that they have been aired in public – present Labour as divided and chaotic.
The main argument for retaining Corbyn as leader is that he was democratically elected by the members of the party, and to remove him because of the votes of MPs – albeit a large majority – undermines that democracy. The counter argument would be that MPs are the people who have to work with Corbyn every day, and so perhaps their views are more important than those of the membership.
One could also point out that MPs might be more pragmatic about the leader, preferring someone who they feel can command the respect of the House of Commons and win elections, rather than focusing on preaching to the choir. Indeed, this happened to the Conservatives in 2003, when MPs voted to remove Iain Duncan Smith (elected in 2001 by the membership) and replace him with Michael Howard. This case was arguably even less democratic, as the fact that there was only a single candidate meant that the membership did not even get a vote on who replaced Duncan Smith. I was a member of the party at the time and can remember how furious the local associations were at what they saw as an underhand move by MPs, although I think it was the right decision.
The other argument advanced for the removal of Corbyn is that he is unelectable. This is somewhat difficult to prove, given that there hasn’t been a general election under his leadership. We can, however, look at a number of other elections which have taken place since Corbyn became leader in September 2015:
- Local elections (May 2016): Labour lost a number of councillors, but retained control of its councils. Not a great result, though better than the Conservatives managed. Broadly speaking, both Labour and the Conservatives lost to the Liberal Democrats and UKIP.
- Scottish Parliament (May 2016): Scottish Labour has its own leader, so it is perhaps a little unfair to use these results as a measure of Corbyn’s performance. A net loss of thirteen seats is hardly a ringing endorsement though.
- Welsh Assembly (May 2016): As with Scotland, there is a separate leader. Results here were neutral, with a net loss of one seat.
I have intentionally not included the London mayoral elections as they tend to be focused on personalities rather than party politics, and I don’t think that the result is an indicator of who will form the next government. I have also not included the four by-elections, as they were all held in safe Labour seats and so are not a fair test of Corbyn’s appeal beyond the core vote.
Overall, the figures do not conclusively demonstrate that Corbyn is unelectable, although neither do they show him making significant gains for the party. Given that he has only been leader for less than a year, I think the charge of unelectability should be replaced by ‘unproven’ or ‘unknown’, neither of which are automatically negative.
However, putting aside the fact that we do not know how well Labour will perform under Corbyn’s leadership, I think that a party leader needs to have the backing of both MPs and the wider membership, and if they lose the confidence of either group then it is time for them to leave. On that basis, Corbyn should resign and withdraw from the leadership contest. Labour must then elect a new leader as soon as possible, to unite the party and provide an effective opposition at this time of political and economic uncertainty.
Unfortunately, I think Corbyn will stick to his guns until removed by the membership, which of course he is entitled to do. Even if he were to change his mind, the current contenders to replace him – Angela Eagle and Owen Smith – do not appear to possess the skills required to present a united front. I am quite surprised that Hilary Benn has not put his name forward, although perhaps he is biding his time…