Jeremy Corbyn

What next for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left?

Oh (dear), Jeremy Corbyn. The former Labour leader is facing potential political oblivion after his successor and former shadow cabinet ally Sir Keir Starmer confirmed that he would not be standing as a Labour candidate at the next election. 

“What I said about the party changing, I meant it”, Sir Keir told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday morning, as he welcomed the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s decision to take his party out of special measures.

It comes after the EHRC found in October 2020 that Labour, with Jeremy Corbyn as leader, had breached the Equality Act by failing to effectively address anti-semitism. Corbyn did not accept the findings of the EHRC, prompting Sir Keir to withdraw the whip from his predecessor. We now know this to be a permanent move. 

Starmer’s decision to escort Corbyn into the political wilderness now begs the question of how the former leader might react. We are in uncharted territory; never before in modern British politics has a former leader been kicked out of the party they once marshalled with such relative haste. It leaves Corbyn with plenty of options — as his legacy and political project hangs in the balance. 

Stand as an independent MP

The obvious choice for Jeremy Corbyn would be to once again run as the MP for his current constituency of Islington North, but this time as an independent.

Islington North is a Labour stronghold, voting for a Labour MP at every opportunity since a by-election was triggered in the constituency in 1937. A challenge from Corbyn as an independent, however, would turn the constituency into a bitterly divided battleground — a microcosmic acid test for the ascendant forces of Starmerism as they battle an increasingly beleaguered foe. Literally besieging Corbyn’s most fortified castle. 

A quick scan of recent history does not necessarily bode well for the Islington North faithful. In 2019, thirteen incumbent MPs changed parties or ran as independents. None succeeded. Among those to lose their seats on these terms were veteran Labour MP Frank Field and all the Change UK turncoats, a derisory showing which led to the party’s prompt dissolution. 

However, some factors suggest a Corbyn run in Islington North in 2024 could produce different results — potentially inviting comparison with former Conservative MP Douglas Carswell, who successfully challenged his former party on two occasions: first, as a UKIP candidate in a 2014 by-election and, then, at the 2015 general election. 

Furthermore, Corbyn has represented the seat since 1983, with his socialist politics appealing to both diverse working-class constituents as well as wealthier left-wingers in the area. His name recognition would also incite a media circus — far exceeding the non-existent coverage of Frank Field’s ill-fated showing in 2019. 

What would such a circus, and the heightened scrutiny it would invite, mean for Sir Keir? One key figure from the Labour right recently told that “the leadership thinks it may have more to gain from a Corbyn challenge [in Islington North] than lose — as it will show voters in the rest of the country that Starmer has completely broken with the Corbyn era”.

One potential hitch for the leadership is that, given Corbyn’s enduring influence in the Constituency Labour Party (CLP), local members may deliberately hijack the Labour candidate selection process to produce a weak candidate. Members sympathetic to Corbyn’s plight may choose someone seen as fallible, leaving the path to a Corbyn victory wide open.

As things stand, the Labour NEC currently decides which candidates to longlist after an extended series of intimate interviews. The process has produced a number of controversies, not least of all that in Bolton North East, which saw Angela Rayner ally Leigh Drennan blocked from standing. This caused some commotion in the wider Labour family, but a selection contest in Islington North would be under the spotlight like no other.

Expect NEC figures to treat the candidate selection process in Islington North with the utmost sensitivity and care. 

A new left-wing party 

Another option for Jeremy Corbyn would be to create a new electoral vehicle which could compete across the country and patronise new left-wing talent. There are a few potential pathways the former Labour leader could take here, involving a variety of already-established organisations. 

Firstly, Corbyn is the director and founder of The Peace and Justice Project, outwardly a human rights campaign vehicle focussed primarily on subjects deemed central to Corbyn’s legacy. These include austerity, foreign war and international politics.

But some on the Labour right feet the body could easily resurface as an electoral vehicle. 

Were the Peace and Justice Project (or the “Corbyn Project” according to its Twitter handle) to venture into the realm of electoral politics, the body would likely gain the support of the left-wing, grassroots campaigning vehicle Momentum. Initially set up in the wake of Corbyn’s successful run for the Labour leadership in 2015, Momentum has been fighting a losing battle in the Labour Party in recent years. It has lost key NEC races to pro-Starmer campaigning groups like Labour to Win and has had very few of its endorsed candidates selected to run in 2024. 

However, endorsing Corbyn either as an independent or as the head of a new party would see Momentum proscribed under Labour rules. One wonders if this would act as a disincentive to push ahead with a new left-of-Labour party or whether unbridled scored-earth politics will become the chosen policy of the organisation. 

It is also worth noting that Corbyn’s closest allies such as Rebecca Long-Bailey, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Richard Burgon would face suspension if they backed a Corbyn run in any capacity. 

Another option for Corbyn would be to join an existing third party, seising an existing organisation’s campaigning infrastructure and supporter contacts. 

One such vehicle could be the People’s Assembly, a body whose stated aim is to form a “coalition” between trade unions and other left-wing organisations. The group was set up in 2013 to challenge the Con-Lib government’s economic programme, but has recently been revived under the leadership of new National Secretary Laura Pidcock, a former Labour MP and arch-Corbyn ally, as a Starmer-critical pressure group. 

Pidcock, who served as shadow secretary of state for employment rights in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and lost her seat at the 2019 election, recently resigned from Labour’s NEC in protest that the party would not restore the Labour whip to Jeremy Corbyn. She argued that the party had become “hostile territory for socialists”. 

On its website, the Assembly openly describes the Starmer’s Labour party as “weak and ineffective”. “We all know the conditions facing us right now. A rampant Tory government, oblivious to the harm they are doing. A weak and ineffective opposition, scared of its own shadow. A catastrophic cost of living crisis”, the site reads. 

Perhaps it is telling that Corbyn recently attended an Assembly “National Demonstration” in Trafalgar Square, speaking to the crowd alongside fellow left-wing Labour MPs John McDonnell and Diane Abbott. Corbyn and Pidcock are known to be close, with the latter frequently touted as an heir-in-wait to the Corbyn project. 

Another potential vehicle for electoral Corbynism could be Enough is Enough, the well-established cost of living campaign group formed of left-wing Labour MPs and trade union officials. The group nominally seeks to pressurise the government into adopting its five demands namely: securing a real pay rise, slashing energy bills, ending food poverty, building decent homes for all, and taxing the rich. But the organisation has also been viewed as an institutional challenge to the Labour party’s monopoly on the British left and providing a voice to Starmer critics who see the Labour leader as not going far enough. 

The appeal of the group’s lead figures in left-wing Labour MP Zarah Sultana and firebrand RMT union leader Mick Lynch has seen the group collect the contact information of thousands of supporters. This could provide the perfect backdrop for an entry into electoral politics. 

A London mayoral bid

Since his suspension from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) in 2020, rumours have circulated that Jeremy Corbyn may be willing to run as mayor of London in 2024.

From 2015-2019, London was somewhat stronghold for Corbynism, with Labour retaining its 49 seats in the region at the 2019 contest, bucking the national trend.

There is also precedent for a left-of-Labour candidate successfully winning the London mayoral election, which Corbyn may seek to emulate. In 2000, Ken Livingstone was elected as an independent, running as a left-wing critic of the Tony Blair government. Livingstone took 39% of first preferences, massively outpolling the Conservatives (27%) and Labour candidate Frank Dobson (13%). In 2004 Livingstone returned to Labour, and won a second term under the party’s banner.

Current London Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan, confirmed to be running for a third term in 2024, is currently wrapped in controversy over the London Ultra-Low-Emission Zone (ULEZ) scheme. However, he has recently been flaunting his anti-Brexit credentials in preparation for the upcoming contest, and it remains to be seen how far Corbyn can challenge Khan’s political dynasty in the capital. Khan recently received the backing of Islington North CLP during his re-selection bid. 

Speaking on the topic in November, Khan said: “I was elected by Londoners on two occasions to serve our great city, giving back something to this great city that’s looked after me and my family. … This week the rumour is Jeremy Corbyn standing against me and no doubt there will be someone else next week!”. 

All of the above?

Of course, there is nothing stopping Corbyn from trialling all three of these options to inflict as much damage as possible on the Labour leadership. 

The former Labour leader could run for the London Mayoral election, due to take place in May 2024, in a bid to build momentum for a contest in Islington North. This could then provide the platform for the creation of a new political party, or even inspire a merger of left-wing campaigning vehicles, creating a new body which could threaten a prime minister Keir Starmer after 2024. A Corbyn-headed outfit could prove a successful UKIP-of-the-left after the next election. 

In the end, Starmer has taken no persuading to be hardline on Cobrynism — so how much persuading will Corbyn need to go scored-earth on Starmerism?