Jeremy Corbyn returns to parliament this week having passed the one-month marker as Labour’s leader, where he will look forward to a string of elections that could determine when and how Labour moderates decide to challenge his leadership.
The stability of Corbyn’s leadership depends critically on how his party does in the elections for London mayor, English local government, the Welsh assembly, the Scottish parliament and the second set of police and crime commissioners. Corbyn will be desperately hoping that Labour wins back the mayoralty after two terms of Boris Johnson. The contest is likely to be focused on party appeal rather than the personalities of either Sadiq Khan or Zac Goldsmith, and national and local factors will almost certainly decide the outcome.
In 2012, Johnson won 1,054,011 votes (44%) to Ken Livingstone’s 992, 273 on a 38.1 % turn out. Livingstone then was quite a divisive figure, and few think Goldsmith has the same, rare popular appeal as Johnson.
Corbyn’s critics say he has had a shaky start to his leadership; wavered on a set of second-string issues and has been slow to provide a coherent alternative political agenda. Labour moderates have made it clear that if his performance has not improved by next spring, and if his first contact with the electorate takes the party further away from power, then moves to persuade the party membership to consider a new leader will start in earnest.
Their ability to act is, however, largely in the hands of the electorate. Only voters can destabilise Corbyn; not MPs who currently appear out of step with the new party membership.
Demographic changes, including the large ethnic minority vote, should help Labour. These in part explain the seven seats Labour gained in the 2015 general election, taking its overall tally to 45 of the 73 Greater London parliamentary seats. A YouGov poll for the London Standard last week showed the capital is only just beginning to form its view, with 29 % supporting Khan and 28 % supporting Goldsmith. Some 44% of Londoners, including more than half of women, are “not sure” which candidate to back yet.
Corbyn’s supporters are riding on the potential of their leader’s leftist politics to win back Scotland, and this will be put to the test in the first Scottish parliament election since 2011. Corbyn has already visited Scotland twice since he was elected in September.
The SNP currently has 53 constituency seats in parliament and 16 regional seats. Labour, by contrast, won 15 constituency and 22 regional seats. Since those elections in 2011 the SNP is benefitting from a post-referendum surge in support : a TNS poll published last week showed the SNP on 56% of the constituency vote, Labour 21% and the Conservatives 12%.
This would mean Labour has regressed on on its May 2015 result in Scotland by 3%, just inside the margin of error, and the SNP is at least 10% ahead of its 2011 election result. Such a result would give the SNP 71 seats, Labour 26 and the Conservatives as many as 24.
Corbyn can legitimately argue that it is a long road back to Scotland, and its identity politics is sui generis. But scrutiny of the SNP record is growing and Scotland could be the litmus test of whether Corbyn’s politics can make an impact.
In England there will be 2,260 council elections in May, including in 36 metropolitan borough councils, 19 unitary authorities and 71 district authorities. There will be all out elections in Rotherham and Sheffield– a test for Corbyn’s ability to withstand Ukip inroads in the old northern working class base.
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said: “The difficulty for Corbyn is that these local elections will be tested against a high water mark of progress for Ed Miliband in 2012, a contest held against the backdrop of George Osborne’s ‘omni-shambles’ budget.”
In the local elections in 2012, Labour gained 823 seats, taking 38% of the vote; the Tories 31% and the Liberal Democrats 16%. It was probably the single most successful electoral night Miliband experienced. If Corbyn can take the Labour vote over 40% it would be one of the best local election results for the party since 1997. A vote in the low thirties would be worrying.
In the Welsh assembly elections, Corbyn has to withstand a triple challenge from Plaid Cymru, Ukip and the Conservatives. The Tories increased their share of the vote in the general election, holding on to all their seats and gaining three more, including two from Labour. Ukip polled well in former coalfield constituencies.
In the one poll published so far, Corbyn does seem to have had some impact at the expense of Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems. It showed Labour on 42% (+5 on its May result); the Conservatives on 26% (-2); Ukip: 16% (+1); Plaid Cymru: 10% (-2); Liberal Democrats: 5% (+1); and the Greens on 2% (-1). But Labour have been in power in Wales for 17 years, and the Tories want to turn the election into a referendum on Labour’s oversight of the NHS.
The police and crime commissioner elections, last held in November 2012 – when they attracted a derisory 15% of the population – will coincide with the local elections. There now seems a cross-party consensus that this new feature is here to stay.
Given that independent parties won 27 % of the total vote, taking 11 of the 42 posts, it will be difficult to read much into how the main parties can gain from this round of elections. But Labour did take only 32% of the vote, and the Conservatives 39%; figures that can be improved on. Corbyn would like to see the figures reversed in what is the only England-and-Wales-based election taking place next spring.
Whatever happens, the appeal of Corbynism will be tested – and the debate about his electability will no longer be a matter of opinion, but a matter of evidence.
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