With the announcement that Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn had lost a vote of confidence by 176 MPs to 44, the confusion surrounding the Labour Party’s leadership and what it stands for rumbles on.
The scale of the vote shows a clear lack of trust in Corbyn among the parliamentary party after the EU Referendum result and the sacking of Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn, yet it may not see the end of the veteran MP’s time as leader. Under the first test of the Labour Party’s new leadership system after the resignation of Miliband, Corbyn was elected by 59.5% of party members and supporters, giving him a huge mandate in his eyes.
Since losing the vote, he has again reaffirmed his commitment to remain as leader and refused to resign, saying he ‘will not betray’ the members who elected him to deliver a ‘new kind of politics’ and claiming that the vote by MPs today had ‘no consitutional legitimacy’. On the contrary, Labour MPs in some camps have accused him of ‘creating a political vacuum’ and ‘refusing to accept blame for the referendum defeat’ after holding a rally of his own supporters in Parliament Square
His refusal to resign means that the party is likely to head towards a full blown leadership contest. Current Deputy Leader Tom Watson and former Shadow Business Secretary Angela Eagle (who resigned from the Shadow Cabinet in protest against Corbyn’s leadership) have already been touted as likely contenders, while Yvette Cooper said today that she would not rule out running for the position should it become vacant. Mr Watson and Ms Eagle are considered by some to be the frontrunners, with the thought that the current Deputy Leader would be easily able to present himself as a unity candidate with the support of both unions and party members. Contrastingly, the former Shadow Business Secretary received few votes when she ran to be Deputy in last year’s leadership contest, despite being reportedly well liked by party MPs.
Both Corbyn and potential leadership challengers are currently seeking legal advice on whether the leader would be automatically included in any future leadership election. There is thought to be disagreement on the issue among experts, with at least two differing interpretations on whether this should be the case. The leader’s own team have said it is ‘beyond question’ that he will run again should a leadership challenge arise.
Even if Corbyn is able to hold on to the leadership due to the backing of his supporters, he will face the increasingly difficult task of constructing a united and loyal frontbench team, with further resignations reported after the vote of no confidence and TV cameras showing the divides existing between members of his new shadow cabinet. Meanwhile, the Momentum group, an association of Corbyn supporters, has reported an increase in its own membership, suggesting an increasing conflict between the leader and his opponents around the accusations that MPs are ‘out of touch’ with the wishes of the membership.
The effect that such a divide will have on the Labour Party as a whole with a potential general election just around the corner could be devastating. Former Labour Communications director Alastair Campbell acknowledged that Corbyn had a mandate from members, but warned that the party could be ‘wiped out’ if he stays, claiming it had become a ‘sect built around one person’. Whether there is a path of unity ahead remains to be seen.