Labour leadership race: Senior MPs must show some emotional intelligence and offer to help Jeremy Corbyn make the party electable if he wins

Next Saturday's election is only the end of the beginning

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The Independent Online

Jeremy Corbyn is likely to become Labour leader at the end of this week. After which, Labour politics will become properly weird. For a while, he will enjoy a novelty honeymoon with the general public, I think. I have heard of women pensioners, some of them members of their local Conservative associations, who want him to win and say they would vote Labour if he did. They like him, they say, because he is sincere and not one of those plastic politicians. He is also of retirement age, they don’t say, and quite old-fashioned in his style.

At the same time, civil war in the Labour Party will break out, but initially in phoney form. As Chuka Umunna, speaking for the Federation of United Blairites and Brownites, said last week: “We have to accept the result when it comes, and we’ve got to support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.”

He attracted more attention for the first part of that sentence than he did for the equally important second part. I think he is right about both parts. If the result is close on Saturday, it makes a legal challenge more likely. Goodness knows there are enough holes in the running of this election that any decent lawyer should be able to take the party to the cleaners and back. But politically it makes sense to accept the result and move on to the second part of Umunna’s sentence.

It is clear to those outside the magic Corbyn bubble that Labour has no prospect of a “return to office” while he is leader, but the best way to make that point is to offer to help Corbyn make the party electable. In this, Umunna shows some emotional intelligence, a quality that has been in short supply among Labour centrists, including me.

One Labour MP whose thinking is close to both Umunna and Liz Kendall’s says: “We have got to acknowledge why we failed. We have to meet these new supporters where they are at. They are not all mad lefties, otherwise they would not be voting Corbyn-Jowell in London.”

If Corbyn wins, this MP says, his supporters “are going to be very quickly disappointed. There is only so long that they can say it was the fault of the Tory media. When they fall off the train of Corbyn enthusiasm and hysteria, are we in a position to catch them? If we just say, ‘I told you so,’ they’re not going to come our way. We’re the ones who’ve got to try to pick up the pieces and save the party.”

That is why, although the likes of Umunna, Tristram Hunt and Rachel Reeves won’t serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, they will not go into internal opposition. Corbyn’s supporters are “going to blame us anyway” when it goes wrong, says another MP, “but we mustn’t make it easier for them”.

Their main problem is going to be answering the question: “Do you want Corbyn to be prime minister?” They can fend it off by saying, “Let’s see how he does,” but not for long and Kendall said “No” unequivocally early on in the leadership campaign.  

On Corbyn’s side, all the early incentives are for generosity in victory. He needs to make it as easy as possible for Labour MPs – and indeed party staff, many of whom are nervously considering their futures – to stay on board. The wilder talk of some of his supporters of purging the party of Blairites has been disowned by Corbyn’s spokespeople. The Blairites could be forgiven for hearing, “Not yet, not yet,” rather than outright condemnation of plans to deselect MPs and to expel members who supported other candidates. But the actual fighting war will be postponed until both sides have re-armed.

Corbyn has to fill about 25 front-bench positions over the weekend, so that the official opposition knows who will be speaking for it in Parliament on Monday week. With just 14 Labour MPs who positively supported him, he needs several fellow-travellers and careerists just to keep the basics of a parliamentary party ticking over. Filling the rest of the 80 or so frontbench positions can probably wait.

His most paradoxical appointment will be chief whip: the person responsible for encouraging Labour MPs to vote according to the party line. Corbyn has voted against the party whip more times than any other MP. Whoever he chooses will have no choice but to be like a cuddly Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean: “The Code is more what you call guidelines than actual rules.”

Later, there will be a reckoning. I don’t know how long the phoney war will last, but Labour MPs will look to Tom Watson, as the deputy leader, and John Cryer, as their chair, to organise a change to Yvette Cooper, if she runs Corbyn close on Saturday, or possibly someone completely new such as Dan Jarvis.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, will legislate for boundary changes that would mean most Labour MPs would have to be reselected. This Saturday is only the end of the beginning.