Ask anyone in the Labour party who will win next month’s leadership ballot and they are almost certain to answer Jeremy Corbyn, even if they don’t like him. Bookmakers make the incumbent the 1/10 odds-on favourite.
But there is precedent for the consensus to be wrong: six years ago, David Miliband was the 4/9 favourite for the leadership and ended up losing to his brother Ed. This time Mr Corbyn has faced an energetic challenge from Owen Smith, the Labour MP and former shadow cabinet minister, who on Monday gave details of his plans to increase spending on the NHS by 4 per cent a year.
Labour’s leader is now elected by a simple majority of members, affiliate supporters (mostly unionists) and registered supporters who have paid a £25 fee. Mr Corbyn was elected with 59.5 per cent of the vote last September. The question is whether enough people have become disillusioned with his leadership to outweigh the Corbynistas who joined in the early days, when he was the challenger who blew away his rivals to take the party helm. The number of eligible members has risen by about one-quarter to nearly 400,000 since the last leadership election (a figure that excludes affiliates and registered supporters).
The most reliable indicator — opinion polling — is thin on the ground. The last published survey of Labour members was in mid-July, when 54 per cent of respondents said they intended to vote for Mr Corbyn. But Mr Smith had yet to emerge as the sole challenger and 69 per cent of respondents said they knew little or nothing about him. A more recent ComRes survey found that Mr Corbyn only led Mr Smith 37-32 among people who voted Labour at the last election.
Part of the problem is that no polling agency has access to Labour’s membership lists. The party itself is also still deciding which of the 183,000 people who applied to be registered supporters are eligible, either because they are already party members or because they are “entryists” — members of far-left organisations trying to influence the election’s outcome.
Last year 84 per cent of registered supporters opted for Mr Corbyn in a four-horse race. This year it is unclear how many have signed up to back him and how many are moderates, attracted by anti-Corbyn groups such as Saving Labour.
Other indicators are similarly haphazard, although they also favour Mr Corbyn. The Labour leader has received the vast majority of nominations from local party associations: 285 to Mr Smith’s 53. He was even nominated by Barrow & Furness, the constituency in which Britain’s nuclear submarines are built, despite having voted against the renewal of Trident last month.
This could well be a reliable guide to sentiment in the party. Of the six candidates who were recently elected to Labour’s national executive committee, five had also received the most local party nominations.
On the other hand, nominations are made by the small number of people who attend meetings. Hornsey & Wood Green, the biggest constituency Labour party in the country — and the neighbouring constituency to Mr Corbyn’s — backed Mr Smith. But only the 60 members of the general committee, rather than the nearly 5,000 local members, actually cast their vote. In Barrow & Furness, a mere 218 party members voted.
Mr Corbyn does have a huge lead on social media and at campaign events. His Facebook posts regularly garner more than 5,000 “likes” each; his rallies around the UK have attracted comparable numbers. But those numbers are likely to include lots of people ineligible to vote in the leadership contest.
There are signs of former Corbyn supporters changing their minds, including Hornsey & Wood Green, which backed Mr Corbyn last year. Mr Smith also received the support of the GMB union, which stayed neutral in the 2015 race. GMB members voted 60-40 in the challenger’s favour.
Meanwhile, some of Mr Corbyn’s most prominent supporters — including newspaper columnists Owen Jones and Zoe Williams, and the celebrities Russell Brand and Daniel Radcliffe — have either withdrawn their support or fallen silent this time around.
Yet it is not clear that the most fervent Corbynistas are ready to follow. As Mr Jones wrote this week in the Guardian: “A large chunk of the Labour party membership believe that they are at war with the party’s old order. They are furious. The more they feel insulted and belittled, the stronger their support for Corbyn.”
Much of Mr Corbyn’s support remains solid: he has received the nomination of Britain’s two biggest unions, Unite and Unison (only the latter held a ballot, with its members choosing Mr Corbyn by a margin of 58 to 42). Momentum, the campaign group that emerged from his leadership bid, has remained active.
Eligible voters will not receive their ballot papers until at least August 22 and many will not vote until shortly before the September 21 deadline.
Mr Smith’s strategy has been to match Mr Corbyn’s radicalism on policy and seek to distinguish himself as a more credible leader. His best hope is that a final surge of publicity — centred on policy announcements — at least forces the “selectorate” to consider him. There is no conclusive indicator that he cannot win — but nor is there hard evidence that the Corbynista bubble has burst.
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