So then the supposedly impossible happened. Corbyn won and by a landslide. Now what?
I am going to try and speculate on what might happen in the next few months, to consider especially the question of whether the Labour party is going to fall to pieces over the decision its own supporters have made. I don’t think that this outcome is inevitable. Whether or not this happens depends on Corbyn. The power is his. This is going to be a tricky task for him.
First and foremost, he will need to manage the political reality that the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party did not back him. He and his supporters have given no indication as to how they will deal with this.
The easy answer is to say that the voters in the contest have endorsed it. But this leaves open the question of how to manage those who will dissent, using exactly the same justifications as he did in his backbench rebel days.
He has said that his rebellions were based on principle. This seems to imply that anyone who does not toe his line is a renegade. This will get him nowhere. Those who rebel against him will be motivated by principles of their own. Just because he does not agree with them, it does not follow that his own backbench rebels will be any less morally motivated than he was.
He also overlooks that, in his career as a rebel, he frequently defied democracy in the sense that he defied democratically elected Labour leaders and governments. He of course will claim that he was following his conscience and principles and no doubt he was. But his opponents are going to claim the same.
You cannot be all for freedom of conscience for yourself. You must be for it for others, too. That includes your opponents. Otherwise your adherence to such a principle means nothing. It is a claim for your exclusive right for your own conscience to be respected but no one else’s.
Unless Corbyn shows some sign that he is able to recognise that dissidents’ motives are morally motivated, then he has no chance of meeting them half-way and forging the necessary compromises he is going to have to make if he is going to lead.
Leadership means authority and authority means the right to make decisions and expect others to respect them. Now this can be done democratically, as a result of an exhaustive discussion and debate but in the end a decision has to be made and others expected to comply with it.
However, a democratically elected leader elected by majority vote also needs to account for the interests of the losers, those who have lost the vote, as his opponents have. If there is no effort made to accommodate them, then the Party will split.
The second task follows inextricably from the first. He will need to manage the demands of his supporters and resist the temptation of using them as a kind of ‘Red Guards’ to batter dissidents into line or rein them in if their enthusiasm runs ahead of them.
Though he has spoken much of courtesy and civility, he has spoken to these words more to his opponents and to the Tory press and less to his own supporters who hurl invective like ‘traitor’, ‘Tory’, ‘turncoat’ lavishly at his leadership rivals, with Liz Kendall especially the target of some particularly vindictive barbs.
This bodes badly – unless he is able to convince his supporters that his opponents are morally motivated and will need to be reasoned with, not barracked out of the Party, the Party will split.
There is no doubt that Corbyn himself is a decent man but this will not take him far. He will need to manage dissidents in the PLP and the enthusiasms of his own supporters. But the word ‘manage’ sticks in many of his supporters’’ throats. But manage them he is going to have to do.