So will the Corbynistas in the South be able to mount a serious political campaign in the North, Wales, the Midlands and Scotland? I do seriously wonder. Will they travel to those places, weekend after weekend, to leaflet and canvass, on their own dollar? I do seriously doubt it. Most of the ground work in those areas will have to be done by Labour members who live in them. And the influx of new members under Jeremy Corbyn can only be a good thing in this regard, provided that they are ready and willing to do the hard work of campaigning.
There is, however, as I said earlier, a second issue to be taken into account when considering the likely success of Corbyn-led ground campaign, and that is the 190,000 people who were members of the Labour Party before May 2015, many of whom do not like Jeremy Corbyn (in 2015, 113,000 people voted for a different candidate). On current polls, Jeremy Corbyn seems likely to win the current leadership contest by a wide margin, but the breakup of membership is interesting. There are currently around 515,000 people who are either members or affiliated supporters of the Labour party,the latter being members of a trade union or other affiliated organisation. Last year the Labour Party reported around 148,000 affiliated supporters (of whom only around 70,000 actually voted in the 2015 leadership campaign, 40,000 of them for Jeremy Corbyn).If you take the view that the actual members are the people most likely to do the necessary on the ground campaigning, which as far as I can work out is about 350,000 people, that means that around a third of them are people who don’t support Corbyn. Many of them have been around for a while and are the ones who’ve been doing a lot of the work of keeping the Labour Party show on the road over the last twenty years or so, getting councillors and MPs elected and re-elected and holding the Tories to a draw in 2010 and a narrow win in 2015. Will they continue to support Corbyn, not just by voting for him and by continuing to pay their membership fees, but by actually going out and doing the work?
To my mind, whether they do or not has to be at least moot, and a lot will depend on how Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters behave in the run-up to the next election. No one could argue that Jeremy Corbyn had been one of the most divisive leaders the party has had in modern times, and despite the occasional call for unity he has not shown either any great ability or any great enthusiasm for uniting the different factions. He has said that he wants the party to unite after the leadership election, but this will require a good deal more top down intervention and skilled consensus building than he has shown himself capable of to date.
Looking at the future, I have to say the omens for unity are not great. Earlier in the week there was considerable press coverage given to the proposed constituency boundary changes, which seem likely to impact Labour unduly harshly. A number of people were interviewed on the Today programme, including a representative of Momentum who, when asked whether the boundary changes could be used as an occasion to replace MPs who have not supported Jeremy Corbyn, replied in the affirmative; the phrase used was “candidates more in tune with the membership”.
This is not the first time I’ve heard this suggestion, that “rebel” MPs should be replaced with Corbynistas, either during the boundary change reshuffling or the mandatory pre-election selection process. If Jeremy Corbyn is to have any chance of uniting the party and leading a successful election campaign, he has to stamp on this nonsense hard and fast. The very fact that a spokesperson was allowed to go onto the Today programme and put forward the suggestion fills me with foreboding, because it indicates that either Corbyn doesn’t have control over the message that goes out or that he privately supports it.
So why is this deselection of non-Corbyn MPs such a hideously bad idea? Well, firstly, does anyone think that the deselected MPs will go quietly? At the very least, they will be all over the media, condemning Corbyn and his team in the run-up to an election, at the worst they will stand against the official Corbyn-approved Labour candidate, either as a candidate for a rival party or as an independent, and will be more than likely to split the anti-Tory vote, if not to be actually elected instead. Don’t forget that many of them will be well respected local MPs who are known and often liked by their constituents, who may not be all that keen on an idealogically approved party apparatchik from head office.
You may disagree, possibly quite vehemently, with that last phrase, and indeed, I am sure that the Corbyn camp will select good local candidates with a long connection to the community to stand as “approved” representatives. Will this work? I doubt it, for one simple reason, which is that the electorate, while they may be many things, are not stupid, and will punish most severely any politician who treats them as if they are. The job of selecting candidates is for the local party, but the job of hiring and firing MPs is the electorate’s, and the electorate knows this perfectly well. Once an MP has been elected, absent really gross behaviour or serious failure to follow the party whip, they are there until they decide to retire or the electorate decides to fire them.
The mistake the Corbyn camp is making is treating the electorate like sheep and assuming that they will vote for whatever decent candidate has a Labour rosette on. They won’t. In reality I suspect the electorate will, quite rightly, be pretty pissed off at having its prerogative of hiring and firing its own MPs usurped on such tenuous grounds, and it is likely to react accordingly. And to replace sitting MPs on the grounds that they do not support the Leadership or fall into line with the membership is tenuous.
As I’ve pointed out before, Jeremy Corbyn has voted against the Labour whip over four hundred times in his Parliamentary career. He has in his career supported several leadership challenges against duly elected leaders (and has recently supported annual leadership challenges). In light of this he can hardly accuse other MPs of undermining his leadership or going against the wishes of the members without looking grossly hypocritical. And if the voters don’t know this now, they will certainly know it before they vote for replacement candidates, because it will be all over the media and will be the first question he is asked in any interview. It will be painted as an unpleasant and self-interested purging of the opposition, and will undermine his supporters’ portrayal of Corbyn himself as a “new” sort of politician, above all that underhand manoeuvring. And even if it weren’t, the electorate, the vast vast majority of whom are not Labour members, would still be rightly angry at having its own right to hire and fire its own MPs undermined.