Corbyn reinforces his mandate but Labour remains adrift
Jeremy Corbyn’s emphatic victory in Labour’s leadership contest has reinforced his mandate from the membership and entrenched his position at the top of the party, probably until after the next election. But it has not healed the deep internal divisions which precipitated the move against him, nor diminished the formidable odds against Labour forming the next British government.
Corbyn won almost 62 per cent of more than half a million votes cast, an increase of more than 2 per cent on his margin last year. Instead of weakening his leadership, Owen Smith’s challenge has strengthened it, and reduced the options of the three quarters of Labour MPs who wanted Corbyn to go. The challenge was premature, leaving many party members angry with a parliamentary party they believed had not given the leader a chance to establish himself. And Smith proved to be a weak candidate who failed to differentiate himself from Corbyn in terms of policy and whose campaign was marred by gaffes and missteps.
Under Corbyn, Labour’s membership has grown to 680,000, making it the largest political party in western Europe, and strengthening its financial position with new membership fees. But many of the party’s MPs have given the impression that they view the influx of new members as a threat to their own influence rather than an opportunity for the party. In the aftermath of his triumph, Corbyn has promised to reach out to MPs but he has also made clear that he wants to give party members more say in policymaking. And the veteran left-winger remains tepid in his condemnation of harassment and online abuse of MPs by a small minority of his supporters.
Labour’s internal divisions have helped to alienate the broader electorate, with a new poll on Sunday putting the party 15 points behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Most voters do not view Corbyn as a credible potential prime minister, but Labour’s problems go far beyond its leadership. The collapse of support in Scotland after the 2014 independence referendum, which saw the party lose all but one of its MPs there in last year’s general election, shows no sign of being reversed. And the big pro-Brexit vote in much of Labour’s English industrial heartland suggests that its support there could be vulnerable to Ukip.
With the leadership issue settled for the foreseeable future, Labour’s factions should shift their focus outward, and work to make the party more effective in holding the government to account. Britain needs a strong opposition to maintain pressure on May to negotiate a deal that keeps Britain as closely integrated with the European Union as possible after Brexit. Such a deal is not only in Britain’s economic and political interest but in Europe’s, and most particularly in Ireland’s.