Analysis by Jasmin HARPER
Since winning the Labour Party’s leadership election on 12th September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn has been the constant focus of the British media. But who is Labour’s new leader? What does he stand for? And what does his election mean for Labour – in the immediate-term, the medium-term and looking forward to 2020?
Who is Jeremy Corbyn?
Jeremy Corbyn entered Parliament in 1983 as the MP for Islington North, and he quickly became known for his outspoken activism on numerous issues. These include: the campaign for nuclear disarmament (CND); Free Nelson Mandela; Stop the War; and now anti-austerity in the UK. Mr Corbyn is known for representing Labour’s far-Left wing. He has been one of Labour’s most rebellious MPs, defying the party whip more than 500 times since 2001. In fact, Corbyn’s decision to enter the Labour leadership election was only supported by his fellow MPs because the party wanted a ‘broader’ field of candidates.
However, this long-standing Labour backbencher won the leadership election with 59.5% of the vote, ‘the largest mandate ever won by a Party Leader’. It was even a higher percentage than won by Tony Blair in 1994 (albeit using a different voting system). Despite only gaining the absolute minimum of nominations from his fellow MPs to have his name on the ballot paper, Mr Corbyn has proved very popular with Labour members, registered supporters (the so-called ‘three-quid voters’) and trade unionists.
Immediate-term Problems: Internal Party Division
Mr Corbyn was a controversial candidate throughout the entire leadership election process this summer, and his election has sparked a great deal of internal division within Labour. Tony Blair is known to be particularly hostile to Mr Corbyn’s leadership, even going so far as to nickname him ‘the Tory Preference’ candidate for Labour leader. The former Labour leader has argued that the party needs to return to the centre ground and that Corbyn will drag Labour too far left.
Mr Corbyn is not only facing challenges from former MPs, however. Immediately following his election as leader of the party, a number of senior Labour MPs – including four Shadow Cabinet ministers – resigned from the frontbench. Junior Shadow Health Minister, Jamie Reed, tweeted his resignation statement during Corbyn’s acceptance speech, citing his opposition to Corbyn’s nuclear policy. Unfortunately for Mr Corbyn, these resignations only marked the beginning of Labour’s internal division problems. Mr Corbyn’s positions on the EU, the role of trade unions, Trident and NATO have all been a source of conflict within Labour.
In particular, Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Trident has created a massive Labour split on defence. Two weeks ago, on the final day of Labour’s party conference, Mr Corbyn announced that as Prime Minister he would under no circumstances authorise the use of Trident or any nuclear weapon. This led to a succession of Mr Corbyn’s frontbenchers, led by Shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle, attacking the Labour leader for what they deemed ‘unhelpful’ comments that undermined the party’s attempts to instigate a policy process. Andy Burnham, Lord Falconer, and Angela Eagle all came out in support of the Shadow Defence Secretary warning that it would be wrong to rule out use of the nuclear deterrent in all circumstances. In addition to party members, senior defence chiefs have also strongly criticised Mr Corbyn’s remarks stating that they would leave the UK more vulnerable to attack if he ever became prime minister.
Overall, these issues and the division within the party have certainly led some to question Mr Corbyn’s suitability as a potential prime minister. Recently, Conservatives have been able to capitalise on these divisions within Labour, launching a campaign to portray Labour as a threat to ‘our national security, our economic security and your family’s security’. The Conservatives stand to gain from portraying the entire Labour Party in the same extreme-Left light as Mr. Corbyn. This would force increasing Labour divisions as centrist MPs attempt to distance themselves from their leader. Therefore, it is not unlikely that Labour’s internal struggle will substantially threaten their chances in 2020. The Conservatives become increasingly more electable as Corbyn’s momentum pulls Labour further to the left, away from the ground on which general elections are typically won in Britain.
Medium-Term Problems: London’s Mayoral Elections
In addition to the elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, London’s mayoral elections in May 2016 will be one of the first big tests for Corbyn’s Labour Party. There is a lot of pressure on Labour’s candidate, Tooting MP Sadiq Khan, to win, with many warning of trouble if Labour is unable to take back City Hall. The London mayoral election involves the biggest electorate before the 2020 general election, with five million Londoners entitled to vote. However, even if Mr Khan wins, Labour will face a new challenge in a by-election to replace the MP. Losing a by-election in a currently held seat would be very damaging to the party.
Mr Khan has the difficult task of simultaneously representing a party led by Mr Corbyn and separating himself from the new leader. He is reported to have said that he was prepared to distance himself from Mr Corbyn in order to win the election. He told BBC Radio 4 that he’s ‘going to be London’s advocate’, and that’ll mean at times ‘disagreeing with Labour’s leadership’. Win or lose, Mr Corbyn faces serious challenges in London in the coming year.
Long-Term Problems? : Looking Forward to 2020
If pollsters are to be believed, it is unlikely that Labour’s newly elected leader Jeremy Corbyn will win the next general election in 2020. Due to the internal divisions already described, his alienation of the centre ground and many other challenges, it seems fair to question whether Mr Corbyn will make it all the way to the next general election as leader, let alone whether he is electable as prime minister.
However, it would be a mistake on behalf of the Conservative Party to immediately dismiss Mr Corbyn’s candidature. In a short period of time, Mr Corbyn has been able to capitalise on public mistrust of the Westminster establishment and the desire for something new. Corbyn’s election is symbolic of a movement that has parallels across the entire Western world. After almost two decades of war, crisis and austerity, the far-Left is making a comeback. In the US, Bernie Sanders, a self-described ‘democratic socialist’, is now out-polling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Presidential nomination in certain key states. Further, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain also represent significant challenges to mainstream centre-left parties.
Overall, it is clear that Jeremy Corbyn faces a massive task if he is to unite the Labour Party and fight to win the next general election. However, if his leadership mandate and recent election results in other European countries are any indicator, it would be a mistake to count Mr Corbyn out this early in his tenure as Labour leader. We’ve got a long way to go before 2020.