A history of party leadership challenges, and what they might mean for Corbyn

The threats to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership ratcheted up a notch this week. With poor results for Labour expected at this week’s local elections, The Sun reported that the veteran Labour MP Margaret Hodge is being lined up to issue a leadership challenge to Corbyn, before dropping out and allow other challengers to come forward.

That a leadership challenge against Corbyn is brewing should be news to no-one. What is perhaps surprising is quite how allergic the moderate wing of the Labour party is to Corbyn. As the chart below shows, provoking a leadership contest this close to the last election would be unprecedented in modern politics.

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The most contemporary example is of course the Conservatives’ deposition of Iain Duncan Smith in 2003, just over two years into his term. The Tories are hardly adverse to jettisoning a leader they feel jeopardises their electoral chances, and they had a more plausible list of potential successors than the Labour party of 2016, so the idea that Jeremy Corbyn could be challenged so shortly into his term shows just how aggravated the Parliamentary Labour Party is.

Even Michael Foot, the Labour leader most likened to Corbyn, was given a nearly three year reign without a leadership challenge being issued – despite the steady stream of defections from Labour to the newly formed SDP during the first year of his leadership.

Perhaps the most interesting challenge, as far as Team Corbyn are concerned, is the one John Major called on the future of his own leadership in 1995. Sick of constant speculation that a leadership challenge was coming that November, Major seized the initiative and called the election himself, calling on his opponents to “put up or shut up”. Having trapped Michael Portillo into announcing for Major, the only opposition the then Prime Minister would face was from John Redwood.

Corbyn could employ this strategy himself, to devastating effect. The Labour party’s current membership composition is hopelessly pro-Corbyn. Indeed, polls indicate that – despite the hostility of the moderate wing of the Labour party, the media, and the public in general – the party membership may in fact be even more pro-Corbyn than when he was elected.

As long as Team Corbyn consider this to remain the case, they can hold the threat of a “put up or shut up” contest of their own in their back pocket. The moderate wing of the Labour party know they need to coalesce around a single candidate if they are to stand any chance of winning. If Corbyn prompts a contest at short notice before their candidate can find their feet – as Major did – they could choke the rebellion off at birth. A second defeat at the hands of the left wing of the party will make it almost impossible for the moderate wing to issue another challenge before the 2020 election.          

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