This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph.
When Keir Starmer announced last week that his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, wouldn’t stand as a Labour candidate at the next general election, he didn’t know his declaration would almost immediately be eclipsed by Nicola Sturgeon’s shock decision to quit as Scotland’s First Minister.
At the time he was probably pretty irritated. Nearly a week later, he can look back and think it could hardly have gone better. Yes, there were howls of outrage from Corbyn and his supporters, but instead of commentators and columnists writing about how Starmer was quite happy to serve under Corbyn and campaign for him to be prime minister, they turned their word-guns on Sturgeon.
Starmer describing the period of Corbyn’s leadership as “appalling” went down well with his supporters, but left the rest of us laughing in ridicule, given he supported him in a senior role in his shadow cabinet for three years. But he got away with it.
So, what now for Corbyn? Is he a spent political force or could he still influence the course of Left-wing politics and be a thorn in the prospects of Starmer becoming prime minister? Starmer will hope he follows in the footsteps of Jeremy Fisher, of Peter Rabbit fame, who declared: “I have lost my rod and basket; but it does not much matter, for I am sure I should never have dared to go fishing again!”
Corbyn is about to turn 74 – young by American presidential standards – but he is of an age where he might relish spending more time with his allotment. And yet, like any other politician, the former Labour leader possesses a well developed sense of ego. I suspect he’s grown to enjoy the approbation freely dished out by his more “culty” supporters.
Diane Abbott told The News Agents podcast this week that Corbyn has no intention of standing as an independent against an official Labour candidate. That’s arguable. He’s currently looking at challenging Starmer’s decision through the courts, something which may garner huge publicity, but is unlikely to succeed.
The big question is this: if he stood as an independent in his constituency of Islington North, could he win? Could, yes; would, not at all certain.
He has a majority of more than 26,000 over the Liberal Democrats. In 2019 he secured 34,603 votes, 64.3 per cent of the total electorate. The Lib Dems achieved 8,415, with the Conservatives trailing in third place on 5,483. If Corbyn stood as an independent he’d need to get at least 15,000, but more likely nearer 20,000 to triumph over an official Labour candidate. That’s a pretty tall order, given most MPs only have a personal vote of 1-2,000. But no one doubts he’s an assiduous constituency MP and he’s been there for 40 years. And in theory, Lib Dems and Conservatives could vote tactically for Corbyn to deliver a bloody nose to Starmer.
What is in little doubt is that if Corbyn does stand, it will be box office from a media viewpoint. Labour would be well advised to pick a candidate with a surname that begins with A or B, so they appear above Corbyn on the ballot paper. In a close election, these things can make the difference.
For Starmer, there is another dangerous scenario. Before a likely autumn 2024 general election, there is the small matter of the London mayoral election. Sadiq Khan intends to run for a third term, although I still think there’s a fair chance the lure of the Commons and a ministerial job in Starmer’s cabinet might prove too tempting for him. Meanwhile, it is said that there are plenty of people in Corbyn’s inner circle who think he is more likely to win a mayoral election than retain his constituency seat.
The final and most dangerous scenario is that, on general election day, it is Jeremy Corbyn who ensures that Keir Starmer falls short of the number of MPs needed to propel him into Downing Street. Yes, that may sound preposterous, but hear me out.
We all know that electoral success is usually achieved by whichever political party can build a big tent coalition. Margaret Thatcher did it in 1979 by attracting working class voters to support the Conservatives for the first time. Boris Johnson repeated her success in 2019, while Tony Blair did it in 1997 by attracting the soft Tory middle-class vote.
Starmer hopes to repeat that feat in 2024, but he risks going too far and losing the hard-Left vote. I judge that around 10 per cent of the electorate fall into that category. If the majority of those voters switch to the Green Party, or an as yet unformed Socialist left party, it could potentially cost Labour quite a few marginal seats.
In each election there are usually a dozen or so seats which have majorities of under 200. Some are even in single figures. Of the top 25 marginal seats in the UK, seven are ones which the Tories won from Labour in 2019, some for the first time.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if a Jeremy Corbyn intervention meant they all stayed Conservative and deprived Keir Starmer of the chance to become prime minister? Stranger things have happened.