Corbyn’s Challenge: To survive and prosper

Can Corbyn survive? And if so, can he provide effectively leadership – for he may linger on but lack the capacity to place his imprint firmly on party policy, strategy and organisation. These are the two questions this article will address. I will briefly address the first question before moving on, in more detail, to the second.

How secure is Corbyn’s leadership? He was elevated to Labour’s highest office with a huge democratic mandate which greatly strengthened his legitimacy. Further protection is afforded by the rules governing a leadership challenges. Triggering a contest requires 20% of MPs nominate a challenger whilst the incumbent would automatically be on the ballot.

Not only does Corbyn’s massive endorsement suggest he would be very difficult to dislodge but both the party’s traditional reluctance to depose leaders combined with the absence of an obvious successor make the effort more perilous: any effort to forcibly him risks precipitating bitter internal strife.

But there is another option for those wishing to terminate Corbyn’s leadership – persuade him to retire voluntarily. The most likely form this would take would be for the bulk of the shadow cabinet to threaten mass resignation. They may be tempted to do so if the party performs very poorly in forthcoming elections (local, London, Scottish, Welsh and by-elections), if it is lagging well behind in the polls and if Corbyn’s personal standing sinks to rock bottom. However, the new leader has around a year or so breathing space before these particular storm-clouds really darken.

This brings us to the second, more immediate, question: can Corbyn manage the party effectively? Party leaders perform multiple functions such presiding over the formulation of public policy, shaping campaign strategy and overseeing the co-ordination of party activities but effective party management is a condition of effective leadership. Party management is about preserving party unity, mobilising collective effort and enabling it to respond swiftly to external challenges.

Not only do Corbyn and his closest advisers have negligible experience of party management they are confronted by a range of managerial obstacles more formidable than faced by any predecessor in a generation. The most obvious of these is the minimal support and loyalty he can call upon in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Fewer than 10% of MPs can be considered to Corbynites. Recall almost half of those nominating him did not vote for him in the leadership race. A substantial segment is implacably opposed to him: they do not believe he can succeed, do not want him to and will do their best to ensure he does not.

But these are a minority and there are many others who are either preparing to give the new leader the benefit of the doubt, biding their time or simply calculate that their careers will best be served by a show of loyalty. This amorphous group, mainly on the centre and soft left, dominate the shadow cabinet and the frontbench in general.

They accept Corbyn has a very strong mandate and whatever their reservations (many of which are deep) and forebodings about the future (often intense) show some willingness to work with Corbyn. But they have little ideological affinity to the new leader and their loyalty will be contingent on his ability both to manage the party in a consensual spirit and to revive the party’s flagging electoral fortunes. If he fails, their loyalty will soon begin to evaporate.

How, then, should Corbyn enact his managerial role? Broadly speaking, we can distinguish between two styles of managerial leadership, the transformative and the consensual. For the former, the leader’s prime managerial responsibility is enhancing the party’s capacity to operate as a vehicle of social or political transformation. Philip Williams in Kavanagh’s The Politics of the Labour Party (Unwin Hyman, 1982) describes this role as that of the ‘pathfinder’ who feels ‘a duty to lead in a particular direction’ and is endowed with his ‘own vision and destination in mind’. It is a style animated by a clear sense of mission with the leader’s election platform conceived as conferring a democratic mandate for realising it.

By contrast, the consensual approach envisages the leader’s role principally as a stabiliser whose priority is sustaining party cohesion through balancing the various interests and institutions of views which compose the party. Stabilisers will have their own principles and their own sense of the course they believe the party should follow but are prepared to dilute this to minimise internal party factures.

Corbyn may find the transformative option more tempting. He clearly envisages Labour as an agency for radical change, he campaigned on a strongly left wing platform and has repeatedly emphasised that his sweeping victory has given him a mandate to implement it. Finally, he may well reckon that such an approach will have resonance as there is some evidence that his authenticity and his clear and forthright leadership style impress many tired of the banalities, evasions and insincerities which have become the stock in trade of so much political discourse.

Transformative politics would, of course, provoke entrenched resistance in the PLP but its adherents believe this could be overcome through mobilization of the extra-parliamentary party. Labour’s greatly expanded membership base, they believe, offers a formidable source of energy, drive and creativity which could surmount opposition and facilitate the pursuit of transformative politics. The democratisation of policy arrangements, with the active involvement of the grassroots in decision-making would compel MPs to accept the democratic will of the party. Added to this, some Corbynities are prepared to revive mandatory reselection of MPs as a pressure point against recalcitrant parliamentarians though Corbyn himself seems to be lukewarm about this.

The alternative approach to party management is the consensual one. The core argument here is that, irrespective of how much support Corbyn has amongst the party membership and within the affiliated unions, he cannot manage the party effectively in the teeth of PLP opposition. The premise behind this approach is that Labour’s ruling stratum must remain a coalition which accurately reflects the actual balance of forces within the party. Corbyn should concentrate on widening his political base in the PLP and, therefore, the emphasis should be less on driving through the leader’s programme through the mobilization of the wider party than on persuasion, conciliation and compromise.

Of course, the assumption here is that a sufficient number of centre and soft-left MPs and NEC members are prepared to play ball. Whilst there is a solid block of irreconcilables others, advocates of this approach would argue others can be wooed. Several senior figures – mostly much younger than Corbyn – still have their eyes on their leadership and may consider their prospects can best be advanced by a co-operative rather than a combative approach to him. Their calibrations may be influenced by the powers of patronage and career advancement Corbyn has available. Finally and above all, exponents of consensualism would warn transformative leadership – calling in the wider party to redress the imbalances in the Parliamentary one – runs a serious risk of heightening tensions within the party, polarising opinion and alienating many of those who may be prepared to co-operate.

It is as yet unclear which option Jeremy Corbyn will choose. On the one hand his personal style and attitude towards the conduct of politics may predispose him to the consensual. The appointment by John McDonnell, with his approval, of economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, Danny Blanchflower and Simon Wren-Lewis – highly-regarded but scarcely from the radical left – to the panel of economic advisers can be taken as signs of his willingness to practice the politics of accommodation. Further, presumably he is well aware that (in sharp contrast to Blair) he lacks a firm grasp the main centres of decision-making within the party and is hemmed in by an array of institutional constraints. Added to this, he has indicated that his preference is for a tolerant, liberal and pluralistic approach to settling differences within Labour’s ranks.

On the other hand, he is, above all, a conviction politician, animated by deeply-felt moral values and ideological attachments and may find too much compromise distasteful. Further, he may well feel under obligation to satisfy the hopes and aspirations of those placed their faith in him during the leadership race. His appointment of radical leftists such as Seumas Milne as his Director of Communications and, in particular, the controversial and abrasive Andrew Fisher as head of policy suggest he may indeed be contemplating a more transformative approach.

A concluding though: transformative politics can work if the leader enjoys the confidence of the electorate at large (recall Thatcher): engaging in bold, unflinching and determined leadership then becomes feasible. But in the absence of that confidence, particularly when a party is plagued by poor electoral results consensus-defying transformative politics may amount to a form of political euthanasia.

Eric Shaw is Honorary Research Fellow, Division of History and Politics at the University of Stirling