This week we saw our first major casualty in the race to lead the Labour Party. Jess Phillips, dubbed in some quarters as ‘the charisma candidate’, is sparky, passionate and unafraid to criticise what has come before. You might think that after suffering such a historically brutal election defeat, presenting yourself as the opposite to the last guy would put you in good stead. But the climate in the Labour Party is much more complicated than that right now.
The crux of the issue is that while the country has rejected Corbynism, the membership hasn’t. A much cited YouGov poll states that Jeremy Corbyn is the most popular Party leader for the past century among members. The poll asked respondents whether they had a favourable or unfavourable view of each of Labour’s past 13 leaders and JC came out on top of the pile, with 71% of respondents stating a favourable opinion.
As it happens, the poll is a little more nuanced than the headline suggests, and Corbyn is not actually top if you look at net favourability. However, this is still a significant finding and bad news for those hoping to elect a leader who resonates with the country. After all, as numerous polls and the election result itself has shown, the nation has a rather less glowing view of Jeremy than 71% approval! We’ve got a Corbyn-leaning group picking a leader who is seeking to represent an anti-Corbyn country. Not an easy circle to square and the reason, in short, that a Jess Phillips type couldn’t hack it.
The remaining four candidates are being extremely careful not to alienate the Corbyn base. Rebecca Long-Bailey is of course going the full way and effectively pitching herself as more of the same, while the others attempt to win a broader church by delicately moving to their own brand of Labour while carefully defending Corbyn’s legacy. The Labour Party has always indulged in retrospective self-loathing far more than the Conservatives. David Cameron was very different to Thatcher but he never called her a war criminal. Johnson is different to Cameron but does not say a word against him. Labour should learn from this, and evolve into a Party that the country can get behind, while outwardly maintaining support for Corbyn (for the meantime at least) to keep the members onside.
The impact of this is that we are unlikely to see the instant revolution and outright rejection of Corbynism some assumed would happen when the exit poll was released on December 12th. Tony Blair isn’t going to gallantly reappear on a horse to rescue the Party. The next Labour leader will have to be someone endorsed by a group of people who, by a margin of 71% – 29%, still support Jeremy Corbyn.