It is looking increasingly certain that Jeremy Corbyn will retain his position as Leader of the Labour Party when the result is announced next month. Owen Smith’s campaign has thus far been lukewarm, and seems to be failing to win over the membership. Smith has gained some support simply from the fact that he’s not Corbyn, but has done little to convince the majority of membership that he’s the solution to Labour’s woes.
In truth, this was pretty much inevitable. Corbyn’s support among the membership has been solid since he took power while Smith has, at the time of writing, done little to define himself as anything more than a slightly more polished and left-wing Miliband. He’s not a horrible candidate, but claims of electability and being able to hold the confidence of the PLP are not the characteristics on which many on Labour’s left will be voting.
However, despite the unimpressive performance of his challenger, Corbyn’s victory would be unprecedented in British politics. Never has a leader of the Labour Party held on to their position with so little support from the PLP. Undoubtedly some will return to the fold if he wins, as Sarah Champion has done already, but a significant portion of Labour’s MPs, perhaps even the majority, will continue to refuse to serve under him. However, Corbyn will continue on despite this opposition.
The inability of the PLP to remove him from the leadership signals a seismic shift in the internal dynamics of the Labour Party. Despite losing the vote of no confidence 172 votes to 40 Corbyn will have hung on with the support of the membership. This will symbolise that power has slipped from the grasp of Labour’s MPs and fallen into the laps of the party’s ordinary members. This new paradigm won’t exist forever as in the future Labour MPs will likely be more stringent with whom they let get onto the ballot in the first place. However, until Corbyn steps down voluntarily the power rests solely with the membership.
I don’t want to sound too clichéd, but it holds true that with power comes with responsibility. Labour members are the only ones who can realistically hold Corbyn to account and they must do so if they desire to win the next General Election.
It’s unfair to describe Corbyn’s supporters as a cult, as some commentators have done, but they, at least the most vocal ones, are very unwilling to hear criticism of their leader. Part of this comes down to the siege mentality that has developed in the Corbyn’s camp due to the, not entirely unfounded, feeling that much of the PLP has been against Corbyn from day one. However, the constant opposition he has faced from some sections of the party, primarily supporters of Blue Labour and Progress, is also used to dismiss justified and constructive criticism from the likes of Lisa Nandy and Owen Jones. The shift in power means Corbyn no longer has to listen to his critics in the PLP so it is imperative that the membership is there to offer it instead.
Corbyn is by no means infallible and needs a forceful voice to set him right when he makes mistakes. Take, for example, the blunder that was the nomination of Shami Chakrabarti to the House of Lords. Chakrabarti is unquestionably a perfectly deserving candidate on account of her work with Liberty, but the fact that is the nomination has been a PR disaster. Cameron’s nominations handed Corbyn an open goal and yet, with his nomination, he’s managed to boot the ball into his own net by casting doubt over the legitimacy of the antisemitism enquiry and thus letting the Tories completely off the hook. If Labour ever wants to see the inside of Number Ten they can’t make mistakes like this. It is now up to the ordinary members, Corbyn’s supporters, to ensure that their party stays on the right track.
It is easy to understand why Corbyn’s supporters want to defend him so vigorously when it seems like the whole world is opposing him, but they must realise that they are now the only people with the authority to criticise him and, if necessary, the power to eject him. They have the power to decide Labour’s future and the responsibility to act wisely.