Why Corbyn’s support may not be as secure as it seems

This was originally published on the New Statesman.

The resignation of four shadow ministers – one of them on live TV – would normally prompt speculation about a leadership challenge.

But Labour’s rules seem to protect Corbyn from attempts to unseat him. Even if MPs were to force another leadership election, it’s assumed that the membership would vote him straight back in, perhaps with an even greater majority. I’m not so sure though.

Those who think Corbyn can count on members’ support point to polls of those eligible to vote in leadership elections, which seem to show deep support for the new leader. The most recent, a Times/YouGov poll in November, found that 66 per cent think he’s doing well, compared with 30 per cent of the general public who said the same.

The explanation for this support among members, it’s argued by those who are baffled about how anyone can say he’s doing well, is that many Labour members prefer their party to be pure than to be in power. The same poll found a 24-point lead for those who prefer Labour to put forward policies they really believe in, even if that means being unelectable.

If that’s true, it may not matter how unpopular Corbyn is with the public. In fact, the worse Labour’s poll score becomes, the more popular he might become with some members who take the opprobrium as evidence that they finally have a ‘real’ Labour leader.

But this wrongly treats Corbyn voters as an undifferentiated block, when the reality is that many aren’t indifferent to his struggles.

During the leadership campaign, Corbyn’s supporters often argued not only that he would be authentic, but that he would be effective. They claimed that he would be a formidable opponent to the Tories and that he could win the next election.

It’s true that most of those who voted for Corbyn seem more concerned about having a leader they always agree with than one who can take Labour into government. But what may be crucial for a future leadership election is that this isn’t the case of everyone who voted Corbyn.

According to that poll of members, 71 per cent of Corbyn backers would prefer a pure, unelectable party to one that can win. But a quarter think otherwise. If those members went to another candidate, and the rest remained unchanged, Corbyn would no longer have a majority.

To be clear, I don’t think we’re at the point where Corbyn would lose a ballot of members, even if he were to face only one candidate who united the soft left and right of the party. Indeed, a challenge now might be disastrous for his opponents, as many members who are beginning to waver would feel he deserves more time. The latest poll also suggests that some members who didn’t vote for him currently think Corbyn’s doing well.

My point is that, over the coming months, being seen to be both an ineffective opponent of the Tories and unpopular with the public may well be enough for a substantial part of Corbyn’s leadership supporters to lose faith.

Despite unforced errors for which there’s no-one to blame but Corbyn and his team – not singing the national anthem and then not quickly explaining why; the U-turn on the fiscal charter; McDonnell’s Little Red Book moment – most members are still satisfied with the leadership (although the poll was conducted before the more recent mistakes).

But it’s hard to see things getting easier for Corbyn. The chaos of this week’s reshuffle suggests his team still haven’t got a grip. Labour’s current poll rating is the lowest after the first three months of any post-war leader, while support for Labour oppositions tends to fall between this stage in a parliament and the subsequent election.

If these mistakes continue and Labour’s poll rating doesn’t improve, to the point where it becomes unavoidable that the voters aren’t going to elect a Corbyn-led Labour party, some of those who backed Corbyn might begin to consider alternatives. Despite the size of Corbyn’s victory, it wouldn’t take that many switchers for a rival candidate to be viable. If this happens, the next mass resignation really might be the start of a leadership contest.


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