How long does it take to rebuild a political machine? Twelve months? Two years? Three years? Maybe it can’t be done at all.
Jeremy Corbyn has won. Everyone within Labour’s ranks acknowledges that now. The issue concentrating minds is how long it will take to remove him, how bloody the process of removing him will be and how much effort it will take to repair the damage once he has been removed — assuming the damage is reparable.
This is why Labour MPs are thinking about the machine. Perhaps one or two innocent souls within the Parliamentary Labour Party think it will be over by Christmas — that the wider party (including, presumably, its new members) will come to its senses and Labour MPs will swiftly isolate their new leader before moving in for the kill. A new leader will be anointed, and the dog days of the Corbyn summer will seem like a bad dream.
But most Labour MPs appreciate the scale of the task in front of them, and the nature of the opposition. ‘There are some people like Tristram and Chukka sitting there thinking, “This is great, we can just wait for him to fall flat on his face, then they can swoop in and pick up the pieces,” ’ one MP tells me. ‘But it’s not going to be like that. He’s going to control the party, the resources of the leader’s office, the constituencies, the selections, the lot.’
For all the brave talk of resistance and immediate fightbacks, Labour’s modernisers and pragmatists are simply not going to be ready to mount a serious challenge to Corbyn for many months, if not years, after his election. Among other members of the shadow cabinet, there is a growing consensus that it may take up to three years.
First, they will have to build up a base within the constituencies. ‘The reality is there are too many of the New Labour MPs who simply have no connection with their constituencies. It’s going to take time to build up those links again,’ said one senior backbencher. Another shadow cabinet figure agrees. ‘For years, all Labour party members were asked to do was turn up to pack out Ed’s speeches. That’s going to have to change.’
Another problem is that the opposition to Corbyn is fragmented, and needs to be pulled together. Some MPs plan on refusing to serve under him and retreating to the back benches to regroup. Others prefer a strategy of accepting shadow cabinet positions and fighting from within. ‘The problem is, if you look at who’s saying “stay and fight”, it’s the old guard,’ says one shadow cabinet member. ‘It’s fine for them. They’re not the ones who will be in there doing the fighting.’ Then comes the need to assemble a coherent alternative vision: should Labour’s pragmatists set out a radical alternative prospectus? Or move towards Corbyn to win credibility with an activist base that has lurched dramatically to the left?
All this will have to be done at a time of a purge, with anti-Corbyn MPs fighting for their very survival. ‘There’s no doubt in my mind we are going to see a move toward deselections on quite a large scale,’ says one shadow cabinet minister. ‘In some of the northern seats where the MPs are well dug in, it may be possible to fight them off. But in the big metropolitan areas there are too many of Corbyn’s people. It’s going to get ugly.’
The ranks of the rebels will be further diminished next May, when elections are held for 126 English local authorities. ‘We’re looking at the potential loss of hundreds of councillors,’ says one MP, ‘but Corbyn’s circle aren’t worried by that. They think it will clear out a raft of people loyal to the “old party” and opposed to Jeremy.’
How long does it take to build a political machine? A long time. Possibly more time than the Labour party has.
Dan Hodges is a former Labour party official.