Speaking shortly before the re-coronation of Jeremy Corbyn, one Labour MP gloomily remarked of Owen Smith’s failed challenge: “It was always a kamikaze mission.”
Oh no, it has turned out much more desperate than that for Labour’s parliamentarians. Back in July, when the challenge was launched off the back of a no-confidence vote by MPs and mass resignations from the frontbench, few of his colleagues thought Mr Smith could win. The purpose of the exercise, or so they calculated, was not to install a new leader but to take the shine off the incumbent. Mr Smith was designed, and in more than one sense, to be the anti-Momentum candidate. If Mr Corbyn could be run reasonably close, so backers of the challenge hoped, it would diminish the “mandate” that he and his supporters have spent the last 12 months brandishing in the face of Labour MPs.
When the result was announced from the conference stage in Liverpool, it was instantly clear that the reverse has happened. Jeremy Corbyn has not only been reanointed as leader, he won by a larger margin than last year, he won in all three segments of the selectorate and he won on a higher rate of participation. The challenge has not diminished him; it has swollen the size of his congregation. The immediate fear of Labour MPs is that this will now be self-reinforcing. Mr Corbyn will further consolidate his grip on the commanding heights of Labour if centre-left members who have stuck with the party despite all the ugliness of the past year are so demoralised by his victory that they give up and quit.
Examining the entrails of defeat, many who originally backed it now acknowledge that this was the wrong challenge at the wrong time with the wrong candidate. Mr Smith ended up as the anti-Corbyn standard bearer on the grounds that a relative unknown from the soft left – “a clean skin” – had the best chance of getting a hearing from Labour activists. His first handicap was that he spent the beginning of the campaign having to say who he was. He had barely started to introduce himself before a ruthlessly efficient effort by Team Corbyn had already defined him as a former employee of big pharma and a “Trojan horse” for Blairite revanchism. He largely positioned himself in the same ideological zone as the incumbent in the belief that this would be the best way to appeal to Corbynistas. That strategy would have been no more effective had he also put on a fake beard. For this invited and received an understandable response from that constituency: why vote for an imitation when you can re-elect the real thing?
His claims that he would make a more credible and competent leader were undermined by his propensity to gaffe. One hundred and sixty-two of his parliamentary colleagues nominated Mr Smith. The more conventionally minded of us might think that, in a parliamentary democracy, it is quite important for a party leader to command the confidence of his MPs. Yet for those to whom Mr Corbyn is an appealing figure, it is one of his virtues that his parliamentary party are so hostile to him. Being the MPs’ candidate was not an asset for the challenger – it was massive liability. I have talked to a lot of Labour MPs who spent time canvassing members. They universally report that many activists blamed the party’s predicament and Mr Corbyn’s abysmal personal poll ratings not on the leader, but on the mutinous behaviour of Labour parliamentarians. The depiction of the challenge as a “coup” and the framing of the contest as Members v MPs, Grassroots v Westminster was toxic.
So Labour is back to where it was at the beginning of the summer, with a vast chasm between a leader with a mandate from the members and MPs claiming a rival mandate from their voters. With this difference. Those divisions are now more starkly exposed, more deeply entrenched and more poisonously bitter. One MP speaks about “taking bodyguards” to protect him at the conference. Another expresses genuine fear that fist fights – or worse – will break out in Liverpool.
If there can’t be a genuine peace between the two sides, could there at least be some form of truce? In his victory speech, a much crisper and more polished performance than 12 months ago, Mr Corbyn made magnanimous-sounding noises about wiping the slate clean. His campaign manager and shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, tells us that the party can move on from the venom that has flowed over the summer. “What is said on tour, stays on tour.” Even some of Mr Corbyn’s most implacable critics know that it would sound churlish to snipe this weekend and have largely fallen silent for the moment.
Beneath the surface, though, it is already evident that the party is as riven as ever. There will now be a struggle for control of the party machinery at both national and local levels. There is also the question, of importance to the country as well as to the Labour party, of whether it can become at least semi-functional as an opposition to the Tories in parliament. I can find some MPs willing to unresign and return to take on a frontbench role. Some will do so for fear of retribution in their constituencies or for careerist reasons. Some argue that the parliamentary party now has to make at least a show of being co-operative or the membership will carry on blaming the MPs, rather than the leader, when things go wrong. One of this tendency says: “We have to stop being an excuse for his failings.”
Others are prepared to return to the frontbench on the grounds that it is their duty to be a voice for the 9 million people who voted Labour at the last election and to provide an opposition to the Tories. Yet many say they will only do so if the parliamentary party is allowed to elect at least some of the frontbench. That would give them a way of returning on their terms and with at least some shreds of dignity. Mr Corbyn’s circle sound extremely resistant to that. From their point of view, they have good reasons not to accept the demand. They don’t see why he should agree to elections that would surround him with hostiles in his top team.
Nor do they see why he should concede to the demands of the parliamentary party when he has just seen off its attempt to unseat him. The general emollience of his victory speech had a streak of menace when he warned Labour MPs “to respect the democratic choice that has been made”.
With or without shadow cabinet elections, a lot of senior Labour figures will not serve in his team anyway. They say they cannot bite their tongues for long when, as they see it, the Labour party they love is being destroyed. They ask how it is possible to sit on Mr Corbyn’s frontbench when 172 of them have publicly declared him unfit to be leader of the opposition.
One thing they will now have time to ponder on is why their advice was rejected by the party. It might be convenient for moderate Labour MPs to blame the failure of the challenge entirely on the flaws of the challenger, but it would also be wrong. What the last three months have exposed again are fundamental weaknesses on the centre-left. Labour MPs often express dismay at Mr Corbyn’s claims to be building a “social movement” superior to his parliamentary party. They mock it as the politics of protest and a betrayal of Labour’s founding purpose, set out in Clause I of the party constitution, to aim for power. The former frontbencher Tristram Hunt wittily despairs that his party is becoming “the political wing of the Stop the War coalition”. They are right to say that there is a big difference between rousing rallies of the already converted and the harder challenge of moving enough of the wider population into your column to win a general election.
Sound as that analysis might be, you can see why Team Corbyn are not receptive to lectures about electability from critics who can’t win – can’t get anywhere near winning – an election in the Labour party. Comprehensively out-organised by Team Corbyn and their union backers in last year’s contest, the anti-Corbynites vowed to do much better this time. They have developed some infrastructure in the form of the groups Labour Tomorrow and Saving Labour. The latter claims to have signed up 120,000 new members. But the result speaks for itself. Momentum out-recruited and out-organised them. Labour has now become the largest political party in western Europe. That may say nothing about its capacity to win a general election under its current leadership, but it does say something.
Love him or loathe him, Mr Corbyn – or what he represents – is capable of attracting and enthusing support. If they are ever to get their party back, his opponents will have to do the same. And they will have to offer a more enticing prospectus than begging people to join Labour to save the party from itself. They have again failed to beat Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps the best thing Labour moderates could do now, strange as this may seem, is to try to learn from him.