It’s obvious looking at the numbers that last night was a disaster for Labour, but when you dig deeper, it gets worse.
The Tories have managed to make inroads into what are supposed to be Labour heartlands. The much-discussed red wall stands intact, but has reduced in size and is riven with holes. People like Dennis Skinner – Dennis Skinner – have lost their seats. Labour also has fewer seats now than it did at its low point against Margaret Thatcher in 1983 under Michael Foot.
It’s impossible for Jeremy Corbyn to lead Labour into another election in such circumstances and – duly – he confirmed this morning that we would not do so. He hasn’t set a timetable for his departure yet; presumably the leader’s team is seeking to secure a transition to a “friendly” MP like Rebecca Long-Bailey. However, such is the level of anger in the Labour Party this morning, to delay too long will likely result in a challenge. It’s not clear when an election will take place, but it feels likely – for practical and political reasons – that it can’t be too far away; not least because the new Labour leader would need a few years to introduce themselves to the country and develop a policy platform.
It means the next few months will be a period of introspection for the Labour Party. A leadership election might well become a bruising but cathartic process for the party as it seeks to work out what went wrong.
So who might win, the Corbynistas or the moderates? The real tell-tale sign will be the composition of the Labour electorate. According to the Party it has just under 520,000 members at the end of 2018, many of whom joined to support Jeremy Corbyn. Many of the traditional centrist Labour members have quit the party in recent years, meanwhile many of those who joined to vote for Corbyn are still – notionally at least – still there. There are question marks about Labour’s figures though – how many of those joiners are in arrears, having paid to join and vote but then becoming disengaged later? Also, will the Corbynistas be able to rally so uniformly behind someone who isn’t Jeremy Corbyn? Will Labour see another influx of more centrist voters, seeking to seize the party back? Only time will tell.
Then there’s the question of who are the possible candidates – Rebecca Long-Bailey has been groomed by Corbyn to be his successor and is seen as a continuity candidate. Angela Rayner has been loyal to Corbyn, winning her favour with the Corbynistas, yet she’s reasonably moderate by their standards, meaning she could pick up votes across the divide. Similarly, Keir Starmer has also been a Corbyn loyalist, despite not sharing his political views, and is highly regarded in the party, including amongst moderates. As the standard bearer for Labour’s Remain position, he’s built support within the party. Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, is another strong contender, a leftwinger like Corbyn, but one that is seen as more pragmatic than him. Finally there’s Jess Phillips – a slightly more wildcard candidate – who has found popularity with her plain-speaking and forthrightness, however she’s unlikely to pick up votes from the dyed-in-the-wool Corbynistas and has alienated people in the past with her remarks. She has, however, become the first candidate to throw her hat into the ring.
One thing is certain though – unlike the 2017 election, this is an unmitigated disaster for the party and there is no hiding from it or claiming it as a “victory of sorts”. It will inevitably shake up the party. From their perspective then, perhaps it’ll turn out to be a blessing in disguise.