Whatever happens on Thursday, Labour MPs need to hold their nerve

By Frances Powrie February 22, 2017 12:30 pm

With the Copeland and Stoke Central By-elections taking place this Thursday, there’s once again speculation about Jeremy Corbyn’s future as Labour leader (but then what else is new?). While getting too specific with political predictions is risky these days, I’ve a sneaking suspicion that Labour will hold on in Stoke, despite yesterday’s surprise visit from Theresa May causing a few jitters. Copeland is on more of a knife edge – the result will probably come down to whether voters want to send a message to the Government about cuts to local NHS services, or to Labour about Corbyn’s less than enthusiastic support for the local nuclear industry.

If Labour loses one or both contests, it will only increase pressure on Corbyn, and some moderate MPs or members may be tempted to push for a fresh leadership challenge. This would be a mistake. The one thing that seems to really energise the Labour leader and his supporters is a leadership contest. Buzzfeed’s Jim Waterson produced an authoritative 6000-word epic on how the post EU-referendum leadership failed – with clear lessons for Labour MPs. It highlighted how the panic and upset among the Parliamentary Labour Party led to a rash push into a contest they were doomed to lose.

Most MPs seem to have taken this on board, generally letting Jeremy do his own thing with little or muted criticism since September, with the view that left to his own devices he will ultimately fail on his own terms. (This is also known as the Sibthorpe Doctrine, named after Corbyn’s events manager Gavin Sibthorpe in the ill-advised 2016 VICE documentary The Outsider, who provided the accidental insight that “if they want to get rid of him best thing would be to wait & let Jeremy fail on his own”.)

A disaster on Thursday (a main opposition party failing to hold one seat in a by-election would be a disaster – two would be a catastrophe) may cause MPs to panic and lose their nerve, much as they did after the EU referendum. But the conditions aren’t there for a successful leadership contest. The current strategy of leaving Corbyn to it has been successful in dampening the morale of his supporters, with even early cheerleaders like Owen Jones panicking about polls putting Labour 18 points behind the Tories. The three-line whip in favour of Article 50 also weakened his support among many of those who backed him the first two times.

But if anything would give Corbyn a boost right now, it would be a leadership contest. Many people noted the energy with which he approached his re-election contest in the summer, compared with the apparent lethargy with which he approached the Remain campaign. Comments like Peter Mandelson’s “I work every single day to bring forward the end of his tenure in office” will add to the sense among his supporters that Corbyn is a lone fighter against the corrupt establishment and harden their resolve.

Meanwhile, the non-Corbynite section of the Party has not yet identified any clear and credible successors. There are still accusations that Labour’s moderate wing lacks a vision for what it would do with the political power it claims to want to win. Despite some excellent recent contributions from young, moderate MPs (including Bridget Philipson, Lisa Nandy, Wes Streeting and Alison McGovern), this isn’t entirely without foundation. Even if there was a clear candidate, the exodus of many moderates from the Party on Corbyn’s second victory would make winning over the membership an uphill battle.

It’s already hard for Labour moderates to hold their nerve in the face of such dire polling, and a loss on Thursday would make only make it harder. But not doing so could be a disaster that tightens Corbyn’s grip on the Party – and that of his supporters. Better to wait, continue efforts to discover a viable candidate and credible platform for people to coalesce around, try and win back some of the members who recently left, and show those who are naturally sympathetic to Corbyn that he has been given every chance to prove himself. Also, there’s a need to get to work so that John McDonnell is not able to pass an amendment to lower the nomination threshold for future leadership candidates – making it easier for a chosen successor such as Rebecca Long-Bailey onto the ballot. It’s time for Labour MPs to keep their heads down and get on with the job.

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