Does Jeremy Corbyn Need the Labour Party?

MPs who split from their party tend to lose their seats, but the former Labour leader could be an exception.

by Ell Folan

22 November 2022

Former Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn win Islington North in 2019
Former Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn has held his Islington North seat since 1983. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Ever since Keir Starmer removed Jeremy Corbyn from the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) in 2020, allies of the Islington North MP have suggested he could run as an independent candidate in the constituency he has represented since 1983. Last week, when senior Labour figures said Corbyn would never stand for the party again, a rumour circulated that he might even run to be mayor of London.

But in either case, would he win? In 2019, 13 incumbent MPs switched parties or ran as independents in their own constituencies. They set a pretty poor precedent: none succeeded, even those who had served for decades, like Labour’s Birkenhead MP Frank Field, who left the party and promptly lost the seat he had represented for 40 years. Change UK – a party formed entirely of turncoat MPs – disbanded less than a year after it started, when the electorate rejected all of its candidates. 

Not only is the precedent poor, but Labour’s majority in Islington North is enormous (48.7 percentage points), making it even harder for an independent to overturn.

Yet it is not unthinkable that a popular incumbent could win. While Corbyn would hardly be the first person to split from his party, he would be the first former Labour leader to do so since before the second world war. It is possible a unique set of circumstances could help him pull off a shock win.

Since 1945, nine incumbent MPs in Great Britain have switched parties between elections and held their seats: three independents, four Social Democrats, one Democratic Labour MP (Dick Taverne) and one Ukip MP (Douglas Carswell). It clearly can happen, under the right conditions.

When it comes to Corbyn, these conditions may well exist. The former Labour leader is famously popular in his local area, according to both interviews with his constituents and his electoral record (having been re-elected nine times, always with an absolute majority). Not only that, but Corbyn remains popular with Labour voters nationally – a fact that is even more relevant in a constituency where six in 10 voters backed Labour in 2019.

Electoral Calculus rates Islington North as being substantially more left-leaning and socially liberal than the UK as a whole – in 2016, just two in 10 voted to leave the EU.

Corbyn also has three advantages by virtue of having been Labour leader. Firstly, he has almost 100% name recognition – instantly overcoming a major obstacle facing independents. Secondly, his candidacy will attract widespread media attention. And finally, he will almost certainly be able to rely upon his thousands of supporters nationally to boost his campaign by volunteering as activists – helping to counteract the loss of the Labour machine and its money. 

However, while Corbyn would have specific advantages in his favour if he ran as an independent, he would face specific obstacles too. While he may be popular with Labour voters, so is Keir Starmer – indeed, Corbyn’s local party nominated Starmer in the 2020 leadership race. Turning the race into a referendum on Starmer would be unlikely to work.

Not only that, but after years of criticism Corbyn is still unpopular amongst the wider public – and while Labour voters are the most numerous group within Islington North, close to 40% of voters backed a different party in 2019. It’s not at all beyond the realm of possibility that Tory and Lib Dem voters could tactically unite behind a centrist Labour candidate.

Mayor of London. 

So, what about running for mayor? On the face of it, this is a much more daunting task. Islington North is a geographically small constituency, with an electorate of 75,000. Greater London is an enormous, sprawling city and has an eligible electorate of six million people. The financial cost and activist labour required to run a competitive campaign might well prove unachievable.

Not only that, but Corbyn’s popularity within London when he departed the Labour leadership was very low – and London as a whole is much less leftwing and liberal than Islington North. Even Labour’s candidate, Sadiq Khan, only won 40% of first preferences in 2021. To win under the first-past-the-post system now used for mayoral races, Corbyn would need to win nearly one million votes in a city where the Greens and small leftist parties have never managed more than a few hundred thousand votes combined.

However, on the other hand, London has already elected a socialist as mayor, and it did so twice. In 2000, Ken Livingstone was elected as an independent, running as a leftwing critic of the Tony Blair government. Livingstone took 39% of first preferences, massively outpolling the Tories (27%) and Labour (13%). Notably, Livingstone triumphed in 12 of the 14 London assembly constituencies. In 2004 Livingstone returned to Labour, and won a second term under the party’s banner.

It might not work out like this for Corbyn though. There are lots of reasons why Livingstone won, that do not apply to him: Livingstone was the leader of London’s regional council in the 1980s; he benefited from a backlash against Blair in 2000; Labour ran a poor campaign at the time; Labour was not incumbent (but will be in 2024), and so forth. But still, it cannot be denied – London has elected an independent socialist before. It might do so again.

Not only that, but if Corbyn were to set his sights lower than winning – say, earning 15-20% to build support for a new left party – it would be an eminently achievable goal. Before he withdrew following a delay to the election, former Tory MP Rory Stewart was polling well over 10% for the last mayoral race. And Stewart, famously, had few resources or activists. What he did have was media attention – and Corbyn will be guaranteed that too.

In short, Corbyn would be in with a very strong chance of winning Islington North as an independent. The constituency is demographically favourable to the left, he has a long record as the incumbent and he has universal name recognition. But winning the post of mayor in a city where Labour themselves only polled 40% in 2021 is a tall order.

Having said that, the situation is entirely unprecedented. Unless you’re over 100 years old, you have never had the chance to vote in an election where a party leader has run against his former party. Corbyn benefits from something many politicians strive for – virtually everybody knows who he is and what he stands for. He would enter any electoral contest with an enormous advantage in terms of fundraising, volunteers, name recognition and media interest. Given all that, anyone writing him off for a high-profile race hasn’t been paying attention to British politics since 2015.

Ell Folan is the founder of Stats for Lefties and a columnist for Novara Media.

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