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Love's Labour's Lost

Louise Wilson

Another day, another tussle within the Labour party. Since the outcome of the Brexit vote in June, the resulting uncertainty and lack of clarity seems to have been mirrored within the ranks of the Opposition.

The battle lines drawn even before Jeremy Corbyn’s election have only heightened in tensity in recent weeks. One side claims Corbyn embodies the original spirit of the party and should continue to lead. The other side believes Corbyn is unelectable, unable to engage with the electorate and unfit to lead, having lost a vote of no confidence among his MPs. The former points to Labour winning the London Mayoral election and a number of by-elections over Corbyn’s nine-month reign; the latter points to poor performance in the polls, bolstered this week by the Conservative’s 16-point lead in an ICM survey.

A spate of resignations from the Shadow Cabinet, including of Shadow Scottish Secretary, Ian Murray, were hoped to force Corbyn to stand down. He hung on, buoyed by the support of left-wing MPs and certain that he continues to hold the confidence of the membership. After a few days of will-she-won’t-she, Angela Eagle announced she would challenge the leadership (unfortunately this was on the same day as Cabinet announcements were being made, meaning it was somewhat drowned out). Owen Smith followed suit two days later, leading Eagle to withdraw.

The messiness of the situation is one of stark contrast to the Conservative leadership battle, which began and ended within the space of three weeks. Even the Green Party of England and Wales, a party often grouped alongside anarchist movements, has had a less dramatic time in their own leadership election (voting for which began earlier this week, with result to be announced at the party’s conference on Friday 2nd September).

A head-to-head between Smith and Corbyn will continue over the next two months. Ballots will be issued the week commencing Monday 22nd August and voting close on Wednesday 21st September. The first of a series of hustings between the two is to take place on Thursday 4th August in Cardiff.

The winner will be announced at a special conference in Liverpool on Saturday 24th September. The embattled leader remains the favourite to win, with odds of 1/5 being offered compared to Smith’s 7/2. A recent Opinium poll also suggested Corbyn had double the level of support of his rival, though here in Scotland, only 22% of people believe Corbyn is doing well as leader, according to YouGov. That has not stopped some Scottish Labour heavyweights getting behind him, including Deputy Leader, Alex Rowley, and veteran trade unionist, Neil Findlay.

The set timeline assumes, of course, that the High Court does not overturn the decision of the National Executive Committee to allow Corbyn on the ballot automatically. This has been one of the more controversial aspects during the whole furore, owing to a lack of clarity in Labour’s constitution:

“Where there is no vacancy, nominations may be sought by potential challengers each year prior to the annual session of party conference. In this case any nomination must be supported by 20% of the Commons members of the PLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.”

It was agreed by 18 votes that Corbyn should appear on the ballot, meaning that “any nomination” only refers to those of challengers and not the incumbent. 14 members of the NEC felt the other way – particularly given that it is less than clear that Corbyn would have been able to secure to 50 names needed to secure his place.

There was perhaps an element of self-preservation in the decision: Not having Corbyn on the ballot would have caused considerable upset given then strength of his support among regular members. Smith, to his credit, has offered to work with Corbyn over recent weeks should he win, specifically suggesting the role of President could be on offer. This was not kindly received.

The turmoil is set to continue for some time, with neither side willing to back down. And even once this current debate is settled by the membership, it is unclear what the next steps will be. Whoever wins, a split within the party is not unthinkable. How this will impact Scottish Labour is even less apparent. The Scottish electorate is not particularly enamoured by Labour as a whole right now, and with neither Smith or Corbyn having particularly strong ties to Scotland, this seems unlikely to change whatever the outcome. Should part of Scottish Labour splinter away, its already diminished ranks could shrink to near-irrelevance.

The question is, which side will inherit Labour’s name and record?

There is much at stake.

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