Corbyn Fights to Stay Labour Leader With U.K. Vote a Long Shot

  • For Labour leader, avoiding wipeout might be enough to hold on
  • Brown got 29 percent in 2010, Miliband had 30 percent in 2015

Why the U.K. is Heading to the Polls… Again

Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is campaigning for next month’s U.K. election with his eye already on the next battle: to remain party leader even when defeat seems all but inevitable.

Under Gordon Brown in the 2010 general election, Labour picked up 29 percent of the vote, compared to the Tories 36 percent, while in 2015 Ed Miliband got 30 percent behind David Cameron’s 37 percent. Polls currently put Labour on between 28 and 30 percent, which Corbyn’s supporters say would be good enough for him to hold on, even if Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May wins close to 50 percent as projected.

“He’ll make the argument that he’s not lost votes, he’ll say he’s got the same number of votes as Miliband on a more left-wing manifesto,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “For those that want to be convinced, they will be convinced.”

For signs that Corbyn is looking past June 8, look no further than his own words at the launch of Labour’s election manifesto, a crowd-pleasing medley of tax hikes on the rich and promises of free university tuition geared to the grassroots that elevated him as head of the party.

Asked about the contrast between support for Labour election pledges and opposition to him as a potential premier, Corbyn ignored the prospect of occupying 10 Downing Street in favor of talking about his role at the helm of the party.

‘Very Proud’

“I am very very proud to lead this party, I was elected by a very large number of members and supporters, ordinary people all over this country,” Corbyn told reporters in Bradford, northern England. “I’m very proud we have a party that’s diverse, inclusive and pluralistic and this manifesto is a product of that process.”

Corbyn’s leadership of Labour has been under almost constant threat from the party’s moderate lawmakers since his surprise win in the aftermath of Miliband’s defeat in the 2015 election. They forced a leadership vote last year, which Corbyn won, and are maneuvering for another attempt to unseat him.

A poll of 1,021 voters by ComRes on May 11 showed public support for Labour manifesto promises, including bringing the railways under government control, renationalizing the energy industry and banning zero hours contracts -- but negative ratings for Corbyn. While 46 percent said they “liked” Labour, only 27 percent said they liked its leader.

Watch more: Corbyn Unveils U.K. Labour’s Election Manifesto (Video)

Labour is currently lagging May’s Conservatives by as much as 20 percentage points in what has been turned into a presidential-style campaign and faces the loss of dozens of seats. But for Corbyn’s chances as leader, he’ll just need to avoid a wipeout or exceed expectations.

The Tories responded to Corbyn’s manifesto by re-doubling their attacks on his leadership. They launched a new campaign poster claiming Corbyn’s policies would mean “£58 billion extra debt and taxes in just one year.”

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said the financial “black hole” in Labour’s manifesto would hurt “every single family” and showed Corbyn “can’t be trusted to run the economy or negotiate the right deal for Britain.”

The decline of the U.K. Independence Party and the Liberal Democrats means he is fighting with May over a larger slice of the votes, so he could score a result that appears better than, or close to, his predecessors.

The Faithful

Among rank-and-file members of the party, Corbyn has plenty of support for his old-school socialist brand of politics. A feature of the election campaign has been rallies in districts where there is high party membership and thousands gather to hear him speak.

At the manifesto launch, he told supporters booing at a journalist asking about his personal poll ratings that “it’s not the cult of personality.”

“This is something that’s brought more than half a million people into membership of our party because they’re excited about what we can do together for the good of everybody else,” Corbyn said.

Corbyn got a boost last month by the re-election of his ally Len McCluskey as leader of Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union and a major funder of the party. McCluskey will try to use his influence to help force through changes to leadership rules at September’s party conference to ensure a left-wing candidate on future ballots.

For McCluskey, success would be holding on to 200 seats, he told Politico. Labour won 232 seats in 2015. A week after a leaked version of the manifesto, Labour has had a small uptick in opinion polls. Panelbase on Tuesday showed support for Labour up 2 points to 33 percent.

If Corbyn does decide to go, he’ll want to ensure his successor comes from his wing of the party, supported by the mass movement that he has helped to galvanize.

His mentor Tony Benn, the left-wing former cabinet minister who died in 2014, believed that real change in this country has always been brought about by mass movements and that’s a position Corbyn shares, according to Colin Talbot at the University of Manchester.

To them, “the electoral outcome is a consequence of a mass movement, rather than a cause of it,” Talbot said. “That’s why he’s so happy going around addressing rallies, because he thinks they mean something’s about to happen.”

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