The news that former Labour leader, allotment owner, and Hamas-enthusiast Jeremy Corbyn is considering standing against Sadiq Khan in the next London Mayoral election raises an interesting question. A lot has been made recently – not least by our own Henry Hill and Peter Franklin – about the Tories facing a challenge from a new party of the right. Could Keir Starmer and Labour face the same from their left?
First, context. Corbyn was expelled from Labour by Starmer in 2020 over the party’s ongoing anti-Semitism crisis. Currently, he remains the MP for Islington North. Rishi Sunak’s attempts to tar Starmer with the Corbyn brush at the last two PMQs has meant some Labour figures are arguing their leader should make clear his expulsion is permanent, and that he will not be allowed to stand for the party ever again.
So by threatening to stand against Khan, Corbyn is attempting to show his successor the damage he could do if he is not appeased. By standing as an independent against the Labour candidate, he would be imitating his friend Ken Livingstone in 2000. After Livingstone won that election, he was eventually adopted as the Labour candidate in 2004 (and then in 2008, and then in 2012) after the party admitted it has been wrong to oppose him. Corbyn clearly hopes he could do the same.
Could he manage it? Last year, Corbyn established his ‘Project for Peace and Justice’. Ostensibly this is an organisation established for campaigning for a ‘fairer society’ via various Zoom calls with other worldwide progressives. But it has long been speculated that it could be the basis for a new party if Corbyn’s exile is made permanent. Clearly, it would be a socialist organisation aligned with the same fringes and discontented lefties as George Galloway’s little-lamented Respect.
The problem for Corbyn is that Starmer has been remarkably successful in moving the party on from Corbynism. Having been elected on a manifesto promising to keep most of Magic Grandpa’s agenda whilst putting the man himself out to pasture, Starmer has wasted no time in not only expelling his predecessor from the party, but in seizing control of the internal party machinery. He has excluded the Corbynites from top offices. Old New Labour hacks have more influence now than Corbynistas.
Time and again, Starmer will take any opportunity to distance himself from his predecessor, even when it involves pulling a veil over his own service in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet. The man who couldn’t sing the national anthem has been swapped for one who opens his party conference with a hearty rendition of “God Save the King”. The Shadow Brexit Secretary who pushed Corbyn into a second referendum now argues he could take advantage of Brexit better than the Tories. And so it goes.
Making it clear that Corbyn’s expulsion was permanent would not only rob Sunak of an attack line, but it would provide Starmer with the clean break he has been hoping for. Think Kinnock taking on the Militant tendency, or Blair scrapping Clause IV. He could show the voters that his party really is under new management – something only confirmed if Corbyn runs against Khan and loses in 2024. It would be tight, but after fourteen years of Tory rule one imagines swing voters would opt for Khan, despite his execrable management of our capital.
More importantly for Corbyn, despite the success of his leadership in energising Labour’s membership, the transition from the colossal failure of 2019 to Starmer’s twenty-point plus lead in the polls now has won over many to his cause. As members and MPs swallowed the junking of Clause IV by Blair in return for winning an election, they are now so desperate to be back in power that they will take the various compromises and ostracisms required to get Starmer into Number 10.
Nonetheless, I will issue a word of warning for the former Director of Public Prosecutions. The revolt of Respect over Iraq and dissatisfaction with Blair’s centrism paved the way for the mounting frustration amongst activists with Labour in government under New Labour and then in Opposition under Miliband. That culminated with Corbyn’s election in 2015, and mirrored the left’s growing power under Wilson and Callaghan as the membership’s revolutionary zeal butted against the the leadership’s tepid corporatism.
As such, Starmer may expel Corbyn, achieve his final triumph over the hard left, and ride the wave of Omnicrisis and indifference into power at the next election. But as his activists watch as the dream of socialism in one country morph into the reality of managerialism in one term, their dissatisfaction will grow. Jacinda Ardern is currently experiencing something similar in New Zealand. This will be the point at which Labour will be most vulnerable to a challenge from its left.
And that’s why I look forward to seeing John McDonnell’s election as London Mayor in 2028.