Jeremy Corbyn was rejected by the electorate. There is little doubt in that. Labour will now change its leadership and possibly its very shape. But what will happen?
Jeremy Corbyn’s desire for a reflection period should surprise no one. (It has, but that’s beside the point.) On the day he was announced as Labour leader, he was still suggesting that the election should have been much later. Corbyn has seen a lot in his time as an MP, he joined the parliamentary party to the then post-war low for Labour representatives in parliament. He’s seen Labour parties differing as widely on policy from Foot to Blair, and he understands the importance of measured consideration before rushing into a radical change. Corbyn’s rise to leader is in some circles seen as the result of an overreaction to an election, and the electoral turmoil that has haunted the Labour party in all election contests since – with the notable exception of the 2017 general election. I would expect Corbyn to remain as leader not long into the new year, with Corbyn likely timing the election to replace him some point in the late spring or early summer but I would be almost certain that there will be a new leader for the party conference in Liverpool in September.
Historically, Labour have held elections through a complicated electoral college which gave power to the MPs and the unions at the expense of the membership. However, this was changed in 2014 by Ed Miliband – who ironically only became leader due to the electoral college – and was replaced by a one member, one vote system, in an alternative vote elimination. This has given power to the membership, but it was thought that the final direct run-off would limit any insurgent radical, however, at its first test it delivered a Jeremy Corbyn leadership with 59% of all first-round votes. This demonstrated the power of the membership in choosing the leader they want. This power is not unlimited, though as for an MP to get on the ballot, they must receive nominations from 10% of the Parliamentary Labour Party as well as 5% of Constituency parties (22 MPs/MEPs and 33 CLPs) – or two trade unions could take the place of the constituency parties. This would be unlikely to stop many candidates as the Labour left now have enough to nominate their candidate without the need to borrow.
However, there is one chink in the membership’s right to choose: this time to think could lead to the PLP making the choice themselves. Many of Labours leaders in the past have been elected without the membership voting. No opponent of Gordon Brown was able to muster enough nominations to get on the ballot, so he was elected unopposed. If Corbyn and McDonnell are able to appoint a successor that has wide support within the PLP, this could be the option in which the least blood is spilt. While the membership is yearning for a vote, I wouldn’t rule this out.
Sir Kier Starmer, shadow Brexit Secretary has long been seen as a potential successor to Corbyn. A former director of public prosecutions, he was described as “one of the brightest lawyers of his generation” by the Guardian in 2008 and would mark a clear change from the current path of the Labour party. He was first elected to Parliament in 2015 to the Holborn and St Pancras constituency in central London. He has clashed with Corbyn in the past, backing Owen Smith’s 2016 bid to oust the leader, agreeing with him on little but their shared love for Arsenal. Starmer appeared nationally very little on the campaign, potentially unwilling to dirty his name in support of Corbyn’s pledges. Starmer enjoys much higher name recognition than his potential opponents and is the current bookies favourite.
Another lawyer from the class of 2015, Rebecca Long-Bailey is a Corbyn loyalist, she rose to Shadow Business Secretary after resignations of more senior colleagues. The fast-rising star of the left, she was one of the 35 who backed Corbyn in his initial run for leader as well as in 2016, putting her in a tight group of MPs who have been on the bandwagon since early on. She will likely have the support of the Left’s most powerful Jo(h)ns: McDonnell and Lansman. This puts Long-Bailey in a position to inherit much of Corbyn’s grassroots support; for better or for worse. If she gets the backing that is to be expected, she could quickly find herself Labour’s first female leader.
Shadow Education Secretary and roommate to Rebecca Long-Bailey, Angela Rayner has impressed during the campaign with her sharp debating skills. A career trade unionist, Rayner may have the ability to prise the all-important union support away from a momentum backed candidate. She backed Andy Burnham in 2015 but switched to Corbyn in 2016 being part of the 18 MPs to endorse him against Owen Jones’ challenge. This diversity across the party would make her the most likely candidate to be appointed by the parliamentary party. The Ashton-under-Lyme MP is young, dynamic and has the street-cred of being in a twitter spat with Piers Morgan.
Swept into office in the Labour landslide of 1997, Yvette Cooper has sat on the front benches of the three-party leaders before Corbyn, a Junior Minister under Blair and Brown, she became Ed Miliband’s Shadow Home Secretary alongside husband Ed Balls who was his Shadow Chancellor. Third place in the 2015 race, the Oxford-educated seems to be the most centrist name put forward in serious circles to take over, which could be to her detriment. Her ties to leaders of the past who are not terribly welcome in the party in its current state, in addition to her husband being regarded somewhat as a joke, could lead her to underperform if she were to put her hat into the ring.
Emily Thornbury, Corbyn’s neighbour to the south seems to be considering a shot at leadership. She nominated Corbyn in 2015, despite not supporting him for leader in the interests of widening the debate. Staying in Islington may not help accusations of Labour being led by the North London elite
Jess Philips, young and straight-talking, Philips has been a divisive figure online drawing much support as well as abuse. Tom Watson warned that this may not be the right time for Philips to be leader, after she seemed to be talked into the possibility of running by journalistic heavyweight Rylan.
John McDonnell, Corbyn’s career number two, has ruled out a bid and does nothing to stop issues of Corbyn’s toxicity as he is just as bad if not worse.
David Miliband, Runner up to brother Ed in the 2010 leadership election, there was a suggestion in 2015 that he would have performed much better than his brother against Cameron. Foreign Secretary under Gordon Brown but hasn’t held a seat in parliament since 2013 and is based in New York City.
With current further suggestions becoming increasingly ridiculous, there may be many more contenders than those outlined here. This time in 2015, no one would have seen a Corbyn getting onto the ballot paper, let alone winning comfortably. Only time will tell what direction the party will move to in the coming months and whether the new leader will be able to claw back anything from the Conservative landslide they are up against.
CORRECTION: This article was updated on 9th January 2020 to reflect the fact that candidates needs 22 MPs/MEPs not 21 MPs as previously stated.