Steve Richards: Two figures will determine the fate of Jeremy Corbyn

Written by Steve Richards on 7 May 2016 in Opinion

The Labour leader may battle on in the coming months, but that does not mean politics is standing still.

After the elections what happens next in the Labour party? The immediate answer is that not a lot will happen in the Labour party. The MPs who declared publicly that the results were not good enough did not call for Jeremy Corbyn to go. Instead their comments were part of a familiar pattern, dissenters proclaiming loftily their criticisms without outlining their solutions to a multi-party onslaught, or who they thought could lead them to victory at the next election.

So far there are no clear, coherent alternative ideas, let alone a mighty figure for the dissenting MPs to credibly coalesce around.

Instead if a relatively inexperienced Labour MP is praised on Twitter for doing well in a TV interview he or she becomes a possible leadership candidate. Embryonic leaders should note that Tony Blair was an MP for thirteen years, engaged in big internal battles, before becoming leader. Neil Kinnock was an MP for around the same amount of time and partly formed by even more bloody civil wars before he acquired the thorny crown.  Now it seems that a single good performance on Newsnight makes an MP a future leader.

Those youthful potential candidates will not have a chance to test their leadership skills in the near future. Corbyn will battle on, but that does not mean politics is standing still. Politics never stands still.

There are two experienced figures to watch over the next twelve months or so. The first is the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell and the other is the deputy leader, Tom Watson. I do not believe that McDonnell would seek to remove his close friend and ally from the leadership and I have no doubt that Watson speaks the truth when he insists he does not want to be leader. But for different reasons they are the ones that have pivotal roles to play as the storms brew.

McDonnell acquires authority partly because he has been more effective and interesting in his new role than many of his internal and media critics had assumed. It is rare to be surprised in politics. McDonnell has surprised. When he was appointed shadow chancellor even some MPs who were sympathetic to Corbyn were horrified, believing the caricature of McDonnell, a ferocious short tempered hard left warrior, such a determined revolutionary that he fell out with Ken Livingstone in the 1980s in a dispute on which he was to the insurrectionary left of the GLC leader.

But McDonnell is proving to be more multi-layered than his caricature, seeking late in his career to match expediency with belief, gripped by the need to prove economic competence (he reads the findings of focus groups as avidly as New Labour’s leading figures used to do), knows the importance of narrative and how George Osborne impressively framed one about how Labour crashed the car and should never be given the keys again. He is also one of the few senior Labour figures to attempt fresh thinking, commissioning a review of the Treasury, establishing a group of formidable economic advisers, framing policies around what he calls an entrepreneurial state.

Sometimes he is spectacularly naïve, joking about Mao’s Red Book when perceived as a dangerous leftie, initially supporting Osborne’s fiscal rules in an attempt to prove credibility. But he is an impressive interviewee and in his good- humoured acceptance that he has made mistakes he unnerves interviewers.

If Corbyn were to go of his own volition McDonnell would almost certainly be a candidate, but if there is another leader in this parliament McDonnell’s policy agenda, and therefore McDonnell, could not be cast aside easily.  McDonnell also wants to win and to get the chance that he never thought he would have, to be a senior figure in a cabinet. If victory looks impossible under Corbyn he will be not be happy to anticipate glorious defeat. Again I do not envisage him wielding the dagger, but he will be a key figure if the Corbyn leadership falls into a deeper crisis, an ally who has discovered an appetite for power.

Watson has immense internal authority, derived from being the other elected figure in the leadership. He is also a good interviewee, calm and good humoured as he explains away the latest dramas in his party. On Friday Watson called for “patience”, an ambiguous plea and yet one that managed to be very clear. Evidently in Watson’s judgement the recently elected leader deserves more time, but the reference to patience implies there is a time limit. Either Corbyn appears to be a winner over an unspecified period or by implication impatience will become legitimate. Watson also added that, like Corbyn, he wanted the party membership to call the tunes. This suggests that Watson rightly judges the party members would not tolerate a change less than a year since they elected Corbyn to be their leader by an overwhelming margin. But, again implicitly, he does not rule out the idea that members might themselves lose patience, or perhaps will be encouraged to become impatient.

Unlike MPs elected more recently Watson and McDonnell, very different politicians, have decades of experience, years of mistakes to learn from, battles fought and lost, leadership crises, leadership bids, policies framed and re-framed. As with any profession, experience is an indispensable guide for politicians at moments of mountainous challenge. As a leader elected by a landslide Corbyn’s fate is partly in his own hands. The two others who will play a part in determining what happens to him and their party are the deputy leader and shadow chancellor.


Steve Richards presents a Post Referendum Rock N Roll Politics at Kings Place on Monday June 27th.


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