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Jeremy Corbyn re-elected as Labour leader

Samira Shackle
September 24, 2016

The British Labour Party has again chosen Jeremy Corbyn as its leader in a clear vote. But it is nonetheless a divided party that heads into its annual conference.

Jeremy Corbyn Parteisieg England
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D.Lawson

Jeremy Corbyn urges unity after triumphing in leadership contest

Jeremy Corbyn has been re-elected as leader of the British Labour Party, winning 61.8% of the vote, a larger margin of victory than last year. In his acceptance speech on Saturday, he vowed to bring the party back together and "make Labour the engine of progress for our country."

It was not a surprising result: Corbyn was the odds-on favorite to defeat his challenger Owen Smith, who won 38% of the vote. Yet despite the decisive victory, it is unlikely Corbyn's critics will be silent for long.

"All the leadership contest has done is test the temperature of the patient; it hasn't dealt with the fever," says Matthew Cole, lecturer in history at Birmingham University. "Things may fall a bit quieter for a while after this leadership contest, but in the end things will not be resolved while Corbyn is leader. He faces the fact that 80 percent of his colleagues, even if they nominally support him, are known to be opposed to him."

Moving forward

The results of the leadership contest were announced in Liverpool on the eve of Labour's annual conference. This is usually a time for political parties to set their policy agenda for the coming year, but this year's event will be overshadowed by the ripples of the leadership contest.

"It's a very strange time for them to have a conference, as it is inevitably going to be much more about the Labour Party and where it's going than about policies," says Oliver Patel, research associate at the European Institute of University College London. "All these divisions in the Labour Party have been played out on a local level, relatively out of the spotlight, and conferences are very much in the spotlight. I'm not sure what that's going to look like on the ground, but I don't think it's going to be pretty."

Corbyn’s first challenge will be to decide how to unify the party, and his decisions on the shadow cabinet will be closely watched. He previously said he wanted to "wipe the slate clean" and welcome back colleagues who had resigned in protest at his leadership. Some will return, although Smith has said he will not.

Policy questions

The Labour leadership will be keen for the conference to focus on policy issues, though this may be challenging given the huge divisions within the party. Engagement is at record levels – more than half a million party members, trade unionists and registered supporters voted in the contest – but so are tensions. These are particularly distinct between established members and the parliamentary party on one side, and new members and the Corbyn-supporting Momentum campaign group on the other.

The coup was in part precipitated by anger at Corbyn's perceived failure to campaign effectively in favor of remaining in the EU, and Labour has yet to articulate a clear position on the matter. "He has an unclear view on the EU," says Patel. "We are in a weird situation where Conservative MPs are actually saying that it is terrible this is happening within Labour, because no-one is holding the government to account."

On defense issues, Corbyn - a long-time proponent of nuclear disarmament - is at odds with official Labour Party policy and a majority of party members. "At the conference, they'll be looking for issues on which they can find common ground," says Cole. "Education is clearly one where there is some mileage for the Labour Party, and Theresa May has thrown down the gauntlet to them."

Yet the future of the Labour Party itself will inevitably be a high priority, with continued speculation about a split in the party happening in the future. "Despite the margin of victory, I don’t think this will quash dissatisfaction," says Labour member Owen Kean. "The language used during the contest – with each side accusing each other of being Blairites or Trotskyite entryists – will leave its mark. It's difficult to have a rational debate in that context."