Though an attempt to unseat Corbyn has been on the cards from day one, the events culminating in the Labour party’s second leadership election in 12 months began on 24th June, after Britain voted to leave the EU. Accusing Corbyn of a “lacklustre” performance in the referendum campaign, and spurred on by the sacking of Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn, over three quarters of the Labour front bench resigned their posts. A raft of further resignations preceded a (non-binding) vote of no confidence in the Labour leader by the Parliamentary party. Repeated calls for Corbyn to resign were met with the Islington North MP’s typical defiance. In response, Angela Eagle – who had recently resigned as Shadow First Secretary of State – gathered the required 51 nominations to trigger a leadership contest.
Pontypridd MP Owen Smith soon joined the contest, echoing Benn’s sentiment that Corbyn was “not a leader”. Smith and Eagle eventually agreed, though the latter was more reluctant, that only one candidate should go forward to face the incumbent leader – who Labour’s NEC had decided should automatically be on the ballot. After gaining less support from MPs than Smith, Eagle withdrew from the race. The resulting head-to-head contest between veteran left-winger Corbyn and the relatively unknown Smith looks set to deepen the already extensive divisions within the party and distract from the opposition’s primary task of holding the government to account. Billed by some as a “battle for the soul of the Labour party”, this election could be as influential on the future of British politics as the Brexit vote which sparked it.
Sensing the mood amongst party members, Smith has been keen to tout his supposed socialist credentials. Previously a lobbyist for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, the former Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary will have to shake his Blairite image to have any chance of defeating Corbyn. He abstained on the second reading of the welfare bill which, although all Labour MPs including Smith voted against on the final reading, gives more ammunition to the likes of Momentum who see the Pontypridd MP as part of a coup against the party’s democratically elected leader. Though the Smith campaign is in its early days, some key policies have already emerged. His pledge to rewrite Clause IV to include a commitment to tackling inequality borrows Corbynite rhetoric but has a more pragmatic feel.
Perhaps significantly, Smith has committed to tackling inequality of outcome as well as opportunity – a defining feature of socialism, ignored in the New Labour years. In an attempt to appease wavering Corbynites, Smith has offered to make the incumbent leader party President or Chairman. Though the offer was robustly rejected, such a move from Smith can be considered a more concrete show of unity than Corbyn’s promise to “hold out the hand of friendship” to his opponents – many of whom have made clear their lack of confidence in him. As the single remaining challenger to Corbyn, Smith will be strongly backed by the vast majority of the PLP but immediately rejected by large parts of the membership. Despite speaking the language of unity, both leadership contenders know their party is deeply divided.
Corbyn’s attempts to reach out to internal opponents have been somewhat undone by his recent reselection threat. Long coveted by Labour’s left, the prospect of party members booting out sitting MPs at general elections terrifies moderates in safe seats. The upcoming boundary review has provided a new justification for reselection, although Corbyn’s claim that all CLPs will have a “full and open selection process” in time for the next election will be viewed by the moderates as a direct attack on them. Their current line of attack against Corbyn is that he has few coherent policies, indeed Smith has criticised how the leader has “sloganised” Labour’s anti-austerity position without articulating a viable alternative. Launching his leadership campaign this week, Corbyn unveiled few new policies, instead focussing on what he opposed.
Smith will no doubt play on this throughout the contest, painting his opponent as an accomplished campaigner but inept parliamentary leader. Voting for Jeremy last year was the no compromise option. He stood for free education, a publicly owned NHS, ending the housing crisis and changing the way politics is done. So what if his message didn’t yet resonate with traditional Labour voters; it was five years out from an election and the message of hope and “straight talking, honest politics” would soon take hold. Electing him again this year, however, means accepting that most Labour MPs won’t follow the party line, that Shadow Cabinet members will have to double up jobs, that the party will remain divided and that Labour will not win an election for a decade.
Labour members will probably re-elect Corbyn in September but they must accept that doing so is no longer the no compromise option.