It’s been a summer of political surprises. Is there still one more in store?
All the betting says Corbyn will walk it, and anecdotally that seems to be the view of most Labour MPs – even though they might wish it were not so.
This week the ballot papers start going out and the voting finally gets under way, ahead of the declaration in September.
The received wisdom is that it will be Corbyn again. Received wisdom hasn’t had a good summer though. Why is a Corbyn re-election seen as so likely? The argument goes like this: Corbyn is only a year into the job. The contest has only come about because of treacherous MPs declaring no confidence. This has angered Labour’s selectorate, who are poised to reaffirm the position of their hero, and to put the MPs back in their place. Plus, Corbyn has the powerful unions behind him, and all the organisational muscle of Momentum. Smith, by comparison, can only offer broadly the same policy mix as Corbyn, but with a more electable face. So, it goes to Corbyn.
And maybe it will.
But let’s dig a little deeper before we conclude that this is in some way inevitable.
It is believed that some 650,000 people are entitled to a vote in the contest.
First, the party members. Corbyn secured the support of half of these in the 2015 contest. There are indications that his support may have dipped since. Polling companies have found that Labour members’ enthusiasm for Corbyn has cooled. Amongst pre-GE 2015 members, support for Corbyn is now running under 50%, by some estimates, even under 40%. Post-GE 2015 members are much more enthusiastic for Corbyn, with support running at over 60%. However, a large number of these have been blocked from voting as a result of the January cut-off decision. The membership vote looks like it could be evenly split between Corbyn and Smith.
Labour constituency parties have had the option of holding nomination meetings. These are not directly part of the final vote but can be an indication. Corbyn enthusiasts point to his securing 273 constituency nominations, against just 51 for Smith. But, the top numbers could be misleading. Half of Labour constituency parties have not bothered to hold a meeting. In those that have, the vote split between Corbyn and Smith has been 2:1. But Momentum has been behind the organization of these meetings, so they were expected to be overwhelmingly pro-Corbyn. Even so, just 4% of Labour party members have voted in a nomination meeting. They will mostly have been Corbyn enthusiasts. They didn’t manage to pull off the powerful endorsement for their man that they were aiming for.
Secondly, the registered supporters. This is the group, having paid their £3, who swung it decisively for Corbyn in 2015. But the situation is a bit different this time round. Labour says 181,000 signed up for the 2016 vote. But up to 50,000 have been disallowed. Amongst the valid participants this time are those actively recruited by ‘Saving Labour’, who claim to have signed up 70,000 supporters. So again it is possible to suppose that the vote amongst the registered supporters could also be close, certainly not the sweep for Corbyn that happened last year.
Finally, union members. 70,000 took part in 2015. ‘Saving Labour’ claims to have recruited 50,000 for this contest. Most of the big affiliated unions have endorsed Corbyn, as before. Four smaller unions have endorsed Smith. One of them, GMB, balloted members and found 26,000 for Smith, and 17,000 for Corbyn. Unison also balloted and the union’s endorsement of Corbyn rests on a vote of 10,000 to 7,700. While unions bosses, and their hard left executives are heavily pro-Corbyn, all the indications are – both from ballots and from polling – that union members are much cooler. Corbyn’s approval ratings amongst union members has been in steady decline over the last year. Much will depend on turnout. It was only 48% last year, but if ‘Saving Labour’’s recent recruits turn out more enthusiastically than the rest, and are joined by union members not swayed by their executive’s position, then this section could also be close.
A lot may, in the end, come down to the quiet participants, who have not been to rallies, not attended union meetings or nomination meetings, but who may have tuned into a few minutes of hustings. They will probably have a sense of where Labour voters are, and they will know that up to one-third of those who voted for the party in 2015 are now no longer sure about doing so again, largely as a result of the Corbyn leadership. These may be the participants in the ballot whose numbers outweigh the noise and the fury of the Corbynistas.
Yes, there are a lot of ifs. Confident prediction is not possible. But this surprising summer may not be over yet.
James Plaskitt was Labour MP for Warwick and Leamington from 1997 to 2010.