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Why the odds are stacked against Jeremy Corbyn, the outsider

Jeremy Corbyn’s political career has come full circle. He first entered parliament by defeating his predecessor as Islington North MP, Michael O’Halloran, who had split with the Labour party and stood against it as an independent in 1983. Four decades later, Corbyn is now the Islington North MP rumoured to be plotting a run against his former party.

Even by the standards of our turbulent era, the last eight years have been an extraordinary rollercoaster ride for Islington North’s longest- serving representative. A triumphant outsider in the 2015 leadership contest, who nearly beat the odds again in the 2017 election, he resigned after electoral disaster in 2019, and was then ejected from his party by his successor, Keir Starmer. With his exile now officially confirmed, Corbyn must decide if he is willing to run for office against the party he has served for a lifetime.

Electoral history is not encouraging for those planning an independent Corbyn campaign. Nearly all big party MPs who fight on in new colours go on to lose – including all 15 former Labour or Conservative MPs who stood against their former parties in 2019. Since 1945, only four incumbent Labour MPs have prevailed over their old party as independents.

Three of these victories have come in coalmining seats – most recently in Blaenau Gwent in south Wales, where Peter Law defied the New Labour central machine and won as an independent in 2005. These MPs could run as defenders of tight-knit mining communities against a distant and indifferent political class. This is a harder trick to pull off for a recent party leader defending a seat in the heart of London.

Nor does the fourth case – that of Dick Taverne in Lincoln – provide much cause for hope. Running as “Democratic Labour”, Taverne triumphed in a byelection he triggered after deselection, then narrowly clung on in the February 1974 election when the vote split almost exactly three ways. He only lasted until October when the delicate local balance shifted against him in the year’s second general election.

Labour is more dominant in 2020s Islington than in 1970s Lincoln, so it improbable that a three-way split will offer Corbyn a route through the middle. To win, he will probably have to convince most of Labour’s support base to favour their local MP over his former party.

This is a hard task indeed, but not impossible, and Corbyn starts with some big advantages. The man who led Labour’s last two general election campaigns has a higher profile than any other recent exile.

Corbynism is also a distinct political project, one with an organised and vocal constituency, particularly among young London-based leftwing activists. If Corbyn stands in Islington North, we can be sure he will have many eager young supporters pounding the streets on his behalf. No previous exile could draw on such resources.

The great unknown is whether similarly broad and deep support for Corbynism’s “new kind of politics” exists among the voters of Islington. Corbyn’s supporters are ardent, but they are thinly spread – a local Corbynite majority in Islington is improbable, despite popular stereotypes about privileged metropolitan liberals.

Islington North is in fact a complex and polarised place, where wealth and privilege coexist with extreme deprivation, and liberal white graduates mix with large ethnic minority communities. Building an election-winning coalition will require Corbyn’s supporters to stitch together support from Labour-leaning groups with very different political identities and priorities, not all of which chime with the former leader’s radicalism.

Yet the toughest challenge of all may be overcoming traditional loyalties in an area where Labour is totally dominant. Though party attachments are weakening, the frequent failure of those running outside of the big tent is testament to their continued force. Most estimates of “personal votes” are small, reflecting the tendency to see general elections in terms of the national party contest, not the competition between local candidates. In an election where Labour are favoured, but not guaranteed, to win nationally many Labour inclined voters will be tempted to play it safe.

Source: The Guardian