LONDON — The conventional wisdom in Westminster is that defeat for Labour in the general election would force Jeremy Corbyn to resign as leader.
But would it really? There are several very good reasons to believe otherwise.
Winning elections is not the main priority for Corbyn supporters
A poll of Labour members earlier this year found that among Corbyn supporters “understanding what it takes to win an election” came in tenth place among a list of 12 priorities for the next Labour leader, as opposed to “moves the party to the left” which came first.
Of course, it’s always possible that a heavy defeat in the general election would completely change Labour members’ priorities, but as things stand, electoral success is not at the front of their minds.
There is not an obvious successor
Polling of Labour members does show that he has lost some support since his second leadership victory. However, the same polling also shows that there is no obvious candidate to replace him.
Among all Labour members, Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer has the most support as a potential replacement, yet there were still only 43% of Labour members who believed he would make a good leader as opposed to the nearly 62% of Labour members who backed Corbyn in last year’s leadership contest. And that poll was only for potential candidates should Corbyn stand down. If he refuses to go then there is still nobody in the frame that looks likely to beat him.
The Corbyn project is not finished
Corbyn came very close to standing down during last year’s challenge against his leadership but was convinced not to do so by his allies because the project to take over the Labour party had not yet been completed.
The next phase of that project will take place in September whenthe party is due to debate a conference motion to lower the threshold for the number of Labour MPs required to nominate a candidate for the Labour leadership. If Corbyn were to stand down before then, the next leadership race would happen under current rules which make it very hard for a left-leaning candidate to gain the nomination.
Some Corbynsceptic MPs are also working on a plan to return Labour to an electoral college system which would make it even more difficult for a Corbynite MP to become Corbyn’s successor. For these reasons, Corbyn could decide to stay on at least until the party conference in September, if not beyond.
A heavy defeat might even weaken Corbyn’s opponents
A look at the list of Labour MPs whose seats are most under threat at the upcoming general election does not include many names of Corbyn’s supporters. For obvious reasons, those most likely to lose their seats against the Tories have been among the Labour leaders’ biggest critics over the past two years. Were Labour to suffer a particularly heavy defeat then it would have the side-effect of removing a big chunk of Corbyn’s critics. It would also have the effect of lowering the number of MPs that Corbyn’s chosen successor would need to gain the nomination, which in turn would increase the incentive for Corbyn to cling on until a change in the leadership rules could be secured.
Corbyn already has his excuses in
Ordinarily, you’d expect the leader of the opposition to accept the brunt of the blame for a heavy defeat. Certainly that has been the case for most previous opposition leaders who have been rejected by the country.
However, Corbyn’s support base have long been primed in the belief that his unpopularity is due to everyone but Corbyn himself. Whether it’s Labour MPs who launched a “coup” against him last year, or journalists from the “MSM” who are viewed with increasing contempt by Corbyn’s supporters and the man himself, the excuses for a heavy Labour defeat have long been written. This would particularly be the case if the final result is closer than current polls suggest.
While an early departure for Corbyn might seem like the most likely outcome of a Labour defeat in June, as things stand it is by no means certain.
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