Jeremy Corbyn yesterday swept to victory again in the Labour leadership election. He strengthened his hold on his party and made the rebel MPs look both foolish and factious. UK democracy needs a strong opposition to challenge government when it is wrong and to unify in the national interest when that is right. Given the small Conservative overall majority the Leader of the Opposition and how he flexes his three line whip can matter.
I wrote just once about the substance of the campaign, as it always looked like a one horse race. I concluded “Mr Owen Smith…would drive Leave voters who used to vote Labour in their droves to Eurosceptic parties who do accept the verdict of the British people (in the referendum)..,.. That is why he is my favourite for Labour leader. I don’t expect my dream to come true”.
It was a bizarre campaign from Mr Owen. He tried to pose as the unity and future victory candidate, yet he challenged an incumbent leader who had very recently won a huge mandate from the party and who had enjoyed unprecedented success in enrolling many new members during his first year in office. He adopted many of Mr Corbyn’s left wing policies, recognising their popularity with the Labour membership, yet allied them to his toxic views on Europe and party unity. He has done more to cement the party’s drive in the very direction his followers fear.
Mr Corbyn’s task is a big one. Can he reunite Leave voters in the Labour heartlands with his party? Does he have a policy on borders, migration and access to public services that can attract enough electors to stand a chance in 2020? Can he get enough of his wayward MPs to work with him, to fill the posts of Shadow government and to do the detailed work Bill by Bill, SI by SI that proper opposition entails?
Mr Corbyn should not be underestimated. He has shown a unique ability to lead and mirror the mood in the modern Labour party, and he has tapped into wider worries amongst left of centre voters. He is able to mobilise and motivate socialist voters in ways which eluded previous Labour leaders. He may just want to run a widely based radical left movement with a Parliamentary arm. He still has a long way to go to bring together an effective Opposition and make it look like a credible alternative government. Meanwhile the membership base of the Labour party is testimony to his strength as the recruiter of a political movement.
It remains to be seen whether Mr Corbyn is wise enough and strong enough to reconnect with all those Leave voters in the Northern cities, or whether just as in Scotland Labour is about to discover it can lose more of its old heartlands. With Mr Owen they had no chance.