‘Defeat would be a big blow’: Labour faces double trouble of Corbyn and Abbott in Islington and Hackney

<span>A cafe in Finsbury Park, in Corbyn’s constituency, at the time the former Labour leader was suspended. </span><span>Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian</span>
A cafe in Finsbury Park, in Corbyn’s constituency, at the time the former Labour leader was suspended. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Ever since the Labour party withdrew the whip from Jeremy Corbyn in 2020 after he claimed that antisemitism in the party had been overstated, there has been much speculation about whether the former Labour leader would run as an independent.

Last week that question was finally answered when Corbyn announced that he would stand independently in Islington North, the constituency he has represented for 41 years, on a platform of “social justice, human rights and peace”.

“It’s a big gamble,” says a local Labour councillor. “If he’s defeated, it would be a terrible blow to him.”

Although Corbyn enjoys high levels of recognition, defeat is a distinct possibility, not least because it’s extremely rare for independents to win at general elections. Both Corbyn and his neighbouring MP in Hackney North, Diane Abbott, have been left out in the cold – Abbott has been suspended for more than a year. Keir Starmer would doubtless take it as a validation of his tough stance if the eponymous godfather of Corbynism is democratically rejected.

For these reasons, his friends say Corbyn has deliberated long and hard. They also emphasise that he remains emotionally attached to a party he joined 58 years ago as a 16-year-old.

Standing against him as the Labour candidate will be Praful Nargund, an Islington councillor and private health entrepreneur – it’s perhaps significant that Corbyn emphasised last week that he would “never take donations from private healthcare”.

That kind of statement plays well to many in Islington (even the ones with private health insurance). And in Highbury there is no shortage of Corbyn supporters, but not all of them will be supporting Corbyn.

“It’s really difficult,” says a government worker in her late 20s, who wishes to remain anonymous. She used to be “obsessed” with Corbyn, she says, “but I’m probably going to vote Labour, although I do feel really upset about Palestine”.

Her boyfriend, David, is less troubled. “Corbyn had his chance as Labour leader and he wasted it. I want to see a change at the national level, so I’m voting Labour.”

Sue, a middle-aged woman who can’t give her surname, says she is “conflicted”. She wanted to see Corbyn readmitted to the Labour party and is dismayed that he was rebuffed while former Tory MP for Dover Natalie Elphicke was personally welcomed to the Labour party by Starmer.

A Labour insider insists that Corbyn was given “many opportunities to row back” on his repudiation of the party’s position on antisemitism. There have also been suggestions from Labour that Abbott has dragged her feet in complying with her investigation process.

But Abbott is adamant that Starmer is wrong to claim that the decision about whether to let her back into the party – due to be taken on 4 June – has nothing to do with him. “It has EVERYTHING to do with him,” she tweeted on Friday.

Leaving aside all these internal political struggles, Sue thinks Corbyn has been a great community MP. “I want to vote Labour, but it seems a bit of a kick in the teeth to him,” she says, adding that at the moment she is “50/50”.

There is no such deliberation from two pronounced Corbyn supporters.

“Jeremy Corbyn has always stood firm for what he’s believed in,” says Jim Munro. “Lifelong Labour supporters like me have to make a statement. It may just show the Labour party that they need to rethink some of the things they’re doing.”

Further up Highbury Park, the Primal Scream singer Bobby Gillespie is on his way to celebrate his wife’s birthday. “I’ll definitely vote for Corbyn,” he says.

He described the former Labour leader as a “great British patriot who wants the best for everybody”. Getting into his stride in a long disquisition on the state of Britain, he says he’s disillusioned with parliamentary politics, quotes Noam Chomsky and denounces the “worldwide network of financial capitalism” before finishing off with a two-fingered salute and: “Fuck Labour.”

All that said, most people I spoke to in Highbury were intending to vote Labour, although perhaps not with the same passion that Gillespie was intending not to. Some expressed their dislike of the Corbyn cult – one woman scoffed: “He hasn’t changed his mind since he first met Tony Benn” – but most just saw a Labour vote as the most effective means of helping to oust the Tories. No one had heard of Nargund, and no one was strongly in favour of Starmer.

The calculation that Corbyn’s people are making is that some of the nearly 200,000 members who have left Labour since Corbyn resigned as leader four years ago will volunteer in Islington North as canvassers. But the local councillor argues that such an influx would alienate rather than gain voters.

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“I don’t think a Corbyn fan club from across the country, and possibly across Europe, has got the canvassing experience and organisational capability,” he says.

Rumour persists that some senior figures in the local party, to which Corbyn has been very close over the years, might yet defect to his cause or help his campaign surreptitiously. But they are so far just that: rumours.

Of course Islington North is only one constituency, and it is not going to determine the election. So large is the Labour majority that even if Corbyn splits the vote, it won’t allow in a third party. Yet politics is not just pragmatic. It’s also about symbolism and even sometimes romanticism.

If Corbyn were to win, against national trends, it would be a small but heartening victory for the embattled left. But by the same token, defeat would mean an ignominious end to a parliamentary career that has spanned five decades and will almost certainly be the final nail in the coffin for Corbynism.