The head of Britain’s official opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, stormed to victory in the Labour Party leadership contest despite despair among his MPs over his policies and poor poll ratings.
Corbyn won nearly 62% of votes among Labour members, increasing his mandate from a year ago, when he swept to victory with 59.5%. His challenger this time, Owen Smith, took a little over 38%.
Smith’s challenge came after a swath of MPs quit Corbyn’s shadow cabinet in June after the country voted to leave the European Union. Corbyn’s campaigning to stay in the E.U. was viewed as lackluster, and he was even forced to deny that he took a holiday just weeks before the historic vote.
MPs were skeptical of his commitment to Labour’s official policy of remaining in the E.U. because he has historically positioned himself as a Euroskeptic, previously describing the bloc of having “always suffered a serious democratic deficit.”
They were also angered by Labour’s poll ratings since Corbyn took over, with the party usually several points behind the Conservative government. The overwhelming majority of Labour MPs — 172 voted for a motion of no confidence against him in July, with only 40 in support — believe Corbyn is too left wing to win the 2020 general election. Many of them oppose his intention to get rid of Britain’s nuclear deterrent and his opposition to U.K. airstrikes in Syria.
However, Corbyn’s supporters point to his record-breaking mandate and unprecedented personal support, which has seen Labour grow into Western Europe’s biggest political party with more than 600,000 members. The success of Corbyn, with his disheveled and disarmingly honest style, is a reflection of the anti-establishment sentiment that has swept the Western world, most notably in the U.S. with Bernie Sanders’ energetic tilt for the Democratic nomination for President and Donald Trump’s successful bid for the Republican nomination.
The vote has left a Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) that is largely at odds with its own membership. MPs who have criticized 67-year-old Corbyn must now decide whether they are willing to serve in his top team after the mass of resignations in the summer left him unable to fill his front bench. Smith, who was Corbyn’s work and pensions spokesman, has already said he will not accept any offers to return to the shadow cabinet.
Corbyn’s fiercest critics are also working out the best tactics to oust him following a botched coup that has only increased his support. Some are still talking about running a candidate against him every year, as is allowed under Labour’s rules, but many MPs now accept this could prove counterproductive.
Lucy Powell, who quit as education spokeswoman in the summer, told TIME that she does not believe another challenge is feasible, but added, “Jeremy Corbyn needs to prove himself, and should he fail to do that in a general election then it will be very devastating for the Labour Party and for his project of the left.”
Labour’s hard left has often galvanized around what is called the Campaign Group, and Powell believes that a general-election loss for Corbyn would “push back their ideas by 30 to 40 years.”
Chris Bryant, who was shadow leader of the House of Commons until the coup, said the Conservatives will now “dominate” for the next decade. He said annual contests were unaffordable, given each contender probably spends “the best part of £1 million [$1.3 million].”
Although the U.K. has fixed-term Parliaments so that general elections take place every five years, Prime Ministers can trigger a snap poll with a simple parliamentary majority provided no alternative government can be established within 14 days.
Under parliamentary arithmetic, new Prime Minister Theresa May would not risk an alternative government being set up. Bryant told TIME that May would substantially increase her majority if she called an election now and so she shouldn’t wait until 2020: “If I was Theresa May I’d be saying, ‘Let’s go for it, let’s have an early election.’” Bryant added that he thinks it is “perfectly possible” that younger Labour MPs frustrated at Corbyn’s success could stand down before 2020.
One of those younger MPs, 33-year-old Wes Streeting, insisted he would be “fighting on, no surrender.” Streeting is among Corbyn’s fiercest critics, but conceded, “We can’t have two leadership elections in a row where somebody wins big and then start planning a third contest. The membership has decided it wants to enter a general election with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm, and we’ll have to ride it out. The rules of politics have never been so disregarded. It’s unprecedented that you have 170 of your own MPs saying you should stand down and you carry on regardless.”
The big fear is the Labour Party could split if Corbyn remains at the helm, but all MPs spoken to for this story insist this will not happen. Should his opponents leave, they might have more MPs than Corbyn, but they would lack the brand of a 116-year-old party created to defend the interests of the working class and its campaign infrastructure.
Other opponents are now striking a conciliatory tone. The country’s third biggest labor union, the GMB, is affiliated to the Labour Party and backed Smith. The GMB’s general secretary, Tim Roache, wrote on political website WriteYou.co.uk today that the party has “more in common than divides us” and that Labour “is not the preserve of one faction or another.”
Corbyn’s few supportive MPs have also called on his opponents to accept the result. Clive Lewis, Corbyn’s defense spokesman, told TIME, “There are three options before the PLP: the vast majority of us unite and we win [a general election]; the vast majority of us unite and we lose; or we can carry on as we are and have core plotters continue an internal civil war, saying they don’t like the result and take their toys home.
“The country needs a functioning Labour opposition. There are a small number of Labour MPs who would rather see a Tory [Conservative] government than a Jeremy Corbyn-led government, and I’m not alone in finding that deeply, deeply distressing.”
Another Corbynista, youth affairs spokeswoman Cat Smith, added, “What we’ve learned over the past year is that for Labour to be successful on the parliamentary side of things then we need to pull together.”
Such unity, though, is surely optimistic. Corbyn’s enemies are licking their wounds after another bloody loss on the battlefield, but they still intend to win the war for Labour’s soul.
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