Heavy defeat could allow Labour’s hardliners to elect another Corbyn

Toby Helm
Jeremy Corbyn could emerge from an electoral rout more powerful as most of his backers are in solid Labour seats. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters

Heavy general election losses for Labour will make it easier for leftwing MPs to install a Jeremy Corbyn mark II as the next party leader, according to senior officials who have analysed the possible make-up of the parliamentary party after 8 June.

Some moderate MPs and those on the right of the party fear the total number of Labour members in the Commons could fall from 229 to about 160, leaving Theresa May with a massively increased majority and Labour with the smallest number of seats since the second world war.

But the silver lining for the Corbyn wing of the party (a core of 40 MPs on the left backed him in a vote of confidence last summer) is that the vast majority are in very safe Labour seats.

If, as expected, all but a handful are returned, this group will find themselves proportionately more powerful. Crucially, their task of mustering the necessary number of signatures – 15% of the party’s MPs and MEPs under current rules – to get their favoured candidate on to the ballot paper in any future leadership contest will be easier. Once a candidate is on the ballot paper, the election result is then decided by the mass membership, which overwhelmingly backed Corbyn in 2015 and last year.

One Labour MP on the right of the party, who is fighting to save his seat, said the election could result in many of Corbyn’s critics being swept away, but most of the leader’s core supporters being returned. “If we suffer heavy losses, then the left will proportionately be stronger and able to influence the succession,” he said. “This makes it all the more important that we fight our own battles to return as many moderates as possible.”

An Opinium/Observer poll this weekend shows the Tories 17% ahead of Labour, putting May in sight of a landslide and a majority approaching 100 seats. While Labour support has increased by four points to 30% since last weekend, backing for the Conservatives has also gone up by two points, to 47%. The Liberal Democrats are down three points on 8%, and Ukip down two points on 7%.

Separate analysis of the views of people who voted Labour at the 2015 election by Opinium shows that 24% now plan to vote for another party: 10% of Labour’s 2015 voters say they will vote for the Conservatives, 8% for the Liberal Democrats and 4% for Ukip.

Opinion in the party is divided over whether Corbyn would stand down in the event of a heavy defeat. Among those from his wing of the party who are being discussed as potential successors, were he to do so, are the shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who had a very healthy majority in Hayes and Harlington in 2015 of 15,700 over the Tories, and Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, who won Salford and Eccles with a comfortable majority of 12,541.

Among the few Corbyn backers who may struggle are the shadow minister Cat Smith (Fleetwood and Lancaster, majority of 1,265 in 2015) and Clive Lewis (Norwich South, majority 7,654). Most of the others are in very solid Labour seats which are not viewed as targets by the Tories, Lib Dems or Ukip.

Corbyn supporters have been pushing for a rule change to reduce the threshold for the number of MPs’ and MEPs’ signatures needed to get on a leadership ballot from 15% to 5%. But if they fail to cut the threshold, an election hammering could benefit them. In 2015, Corbyn needed 35 signatures, but this would fall in proportion to any election losses.

The party will this week announce candidates selected to replace 13 retiring Labour MPs. The national executive committee panel has so far rejected some Corbyn-supporting candidates. In Andy Burnham’s seat of Leigh, Jo Platt defeated Corbyn’s political secretary, Katy Clark, for the nomination, while in Hull West and Hessle, Emma Hardy, a local councillor, saw off Sam Tarry, who worked on Corbyn’s second leadership campaign.