UK Politics

Labour in 2017: Can Corbyn ride anti-elitism wave?

Jeremy Corbyn Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Can Jeremy Corbyn reach out beyond Labour Party members?

"Our job is to make Jeremy Corbyn the Left's Donald Trump", whispered a political adviser over cold sausage rolls at Labour's annual Christmas party,

"Trump shows if we take the anti-establishment message and run with it, anything is possible".

This most unlikely of strategies, to replicate the electoral tactics of a man Mr Corbyn has called divisive and wrong, is clear.

If you have lost trust in politicians, well, don't go for fake anti-elitism. Go for the real thing. Corbyn.

The Labour leader's office are convinced that the anti-elitist wave which delivered Jeremy Corbyn the leadership twice is the same that brought President Trump and Brexit.


How do they ride that wave? Efforts will be made in the early part of the year to roll out radical retail policies on the economy and the cost of living, with an attempt at every turn to avoid the potentially sticky wicket of Brexit.

Whether he will be able to sell his message beyond Labour's 515,000 members remains to be seen but we should see a return to the campaign rallies and speaking tours that played such a part of his summer 2015 leadership bid.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Can Jeremy Corbyn ride the wave of anti-elitism that delivered Donald Trump the US presidency?

Harnessing the energy of large crowds and speaking direct through TV into the living rooms of the general public, rather like one Donald J Trump, will be just one part of a new turbo-charged media strategy.

This will be first put to the test in the Copeland by-election. The resignation of Jamie Reed, one of Mr Corbyn's most prominent critics, will mean the party having to defend a 2,500 majority in a seat which Labour has held since 1935.

It should be an easy hold for an opposition party taking on a mid-term government; after all a governing party hasn't made a by-election gain, without a defection, for 56 years.

The bookies think the Conservatives have a good chance of taking the seat, but after outperforming many people's expectations in Oldham West and Royton, it would be foolish to write Labour off six weeks before voting begins.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Andy Burnham's mayoral bid in Manchester will be among high-profile contests

Next year's set of local elections will take place on 4 May and will see elections to English, Scottish and Welsh councils, as well as the first set of elections for newly created regional mayors.

The most high-profile race for Labour will be Andy Burnham's attempt to become the first directly elected mayor of the Manchester region. But there will be more competitive elections in the West Midlands, where MEP Sion Simon faces a challenge from Andy Street - the former managing director of John Lewis - who is standing for the Conservatives.

Outside of the inaugural mayoral contests, there will be elections to 34 councils in England.

This will be a challenging environment for the Labour Party; back in 2013 the party made substantial gains and is facing elections in swathes of safe Conservative shire areas.

The 2013 vote share of 29% was actually two points behind their final general election result and a replication of this result would not be too surprising.

Unite battle

The danger, perhaps, would be if Labour fell into third place behind a resurgent UKIP and Conservative Party. Should that happen, then it is likely the carefully maintained silence of Mr Corbyn's opponents within the Parliamentary Labour Party will break.

Perhaps the most consequential battles will be outside national electoral contests and within the movement itself.

Len McCluskey will face re-election for general secretary of Unite in April. Few individuals have been as vital as the leader of the UK's biggest union to preserving Jeremy Corbyn's position.

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Image caption Len McCluskey faces a battle for re-election as Unite general secretary

Moderates are organising hard to elect Gerard Coyne, a close friend of Tom Watson, someone who, they think, could deliver thousands of votes for a moderate candidate in a future leadership contest.

Momentum, the powerful grassroots organisation that supports Mr Corbyn's leadership, will also face internal challenges in 2017.

Since the party conference in Liverpool, a bitter dispute has broken out over who should hold the reins of power.

The organisation is facing internal squabbles over its future direction with a concerted effort to remove Corbyn ally Jon Lansman from his leadership role.

Momentum tearing itself apart could seriously imperil Jeremy Corbyn's efforts to make Labour a movement. This will be, of course, with a Parliamentary party doggedly against him but maintaining a Trappist silence following Mr Corbyn's 2016 re-election as Labour leader.

In all of this the key question for Jeremy Corbyn will be whether he can translate the powerful populist movement that took him to the leadership of his party in 2015 and 2016 onto a national stage.

Polling, with Labour at its lowest ebb since the dog days of Gordon Brown's government, suggests that it is a tall order.

But if 2016 has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected.

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