Labour in 2016: What will Jeremy do next?

For a man who spent over 30 years in the same place, 2015 must have come as quite a surprise to Jeremy Corbyn. Vaunted from backbench obscurity to the leadership of one of Britain’s great political parties, the Islington North MP now finds himself at the centre of an unprecedented moment in the centre-left’s history. Perhaps even more surprisingly, he remains in the job 100 days after winning it, as yet unchallenged despite the hostility of his opponents and missteps of his own making. So what awaits him in the year ahead?

That Mr Corbyn enjoys immense institutional advantages is now plain for all to see. The Labour leader moved quickly to shore up his majority on the party’s ruling National Executive Committee, which now sides with him on all the important procedural issues. Corbyn’s back office, which resembled something out of the Thick Of It in his early tenure, has been gripped by the divisive but fiercely intelligent Seamus Milne. And the Labour party’s swollen membership remains enamoured with its chosen one.

What is less clear is what Corbyn will do with the levers of power that now present themselves. It has been suggested that the leadership will conduct a reshuffle of the Shadow Cabinet early in the New Year to give greater ideological coherence to its project. But there are potential pitfalls inherent in such an approach. Oust a popular frontbencher with many friends, and Corbyn may find himself with an unmanageable slew of resignations. The Labour leader also lacks a cadre of seasoned allies to step into any vacuum: overpromoted or unseasoned loyalists could do as much damage to Corbyn’s authority as those agitating against him.

Then there is the question of policy, largely forgotten by Labour in its descent into chaos over recent months. The debate over Syria saw Corbyn impose a de facto anti-interventionist line in spite of the free vote secured by his Shadow Cabinet. But the stars may not align for him so perfectly if he tries to push the envelope elsewhere. In particular, demanding a change in policy on Trident would bring him into conflict with the trade unions as well as the PLP. Mindful of their members, the union are largely behind Corbyn for now. But defying their clear will on the nuclear deterrent could store up problems, especially if he wants their backing and financial clout in any leadership re-run.    

And what of Labour in the country? By virtue of the influx of members that accompanied his election, Corbyn has clearly changed the shape and inclination of the party he now leads. But while clearly more left-wing than some of those going in the opposite direction, the new recruits may not all be willing foot-soldiers in a bid to remould platform and parliamentary party. As the Guardian’s John Harris has noted, veteran left-wing flamethrowers and young community activists are already yanking Corbyn’s ginger group Momentum in different directions. That could limit the leader’s room for manoeuvre at grassroots level.

The Labour leader enters the festive season secure in the knowledge that he holds most of the trumps. The members are still strongly behind his leadership, and his opponents are struggling to fashion a compelling alternative to it. But politics is not just about what you hold in your hand. It is how Mr Corbyn plays the cards that will either cement his leadership or send him back where he came from. 

Photograph: Jeremy Corbyn MP

Larry Smith

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search