Chuka Umunna’s call for Labourites to unite around their new leader and show ‘solidarity’ does show a growing acceptance that Jeremy Corbyn is on the brink of being installed as the party’s new chief in just ten days’ time. But it also shows that the Blairites in the party are finally starting to come up with a plan for dealing with the rise of the hard left.
Labour’s centrist modernisers have spent the summer scratching their heads at the Corbyn phenomenon, which they hadn’t predicted at all – indeed, I was initially briefed by one of their number that ‘we will get hundreds of thousands of new supporters. Social media has changed how we communicate in a way we can’t grasp and it has blown open this leadership contest too.’ My source was right that there would be hundreds of thousands of new supporters and that social media would have a big impact on the leadership election. But given they were a Kendallite, their line about not being about to grasp the changes turns out to have applied more to their own way of thinking than it did to the wider party. The Blairites clustering around Liz Kendall were once aggressively assertive that she was going to win because they were convinced the membership was in the same place as they were.
Those Blairites then spent the summer in a state of confusion about what was happening to their party, though to be fair to Umunna, he has been much quicker off the mark than many of his colleagues in analysing the situation and starting to work on repairing his faction’s reputation. Now all his colleagues are coming to terms with the idea of a Corbyn leadership too.
It’s not just the Blairites who are seriously thinking about how things will work under Corbyn: those involved in all the three non-Corbyn campaigns have said to me in the past few days that they think the party will be surprisingly good at coming together for a while. There may not be the outpouring of fury that we are expecting in the days after 12 September, though that does not in any way mean there won’t be an attempted coup against Corbyn further down the line.
The chances are that the coup will come from those who have called for calm and unity now. Anyone smart, and that includes Umunna, will know that they will make a fool of themselves by trying to undermine a democratic result if they remove Corbyn instantly. Instead, it is better to bide time – not least because anyone who wants to get rid of the new leader needs a decent plan for how to do so, and there isn’t such a plan currently.
Incidentally, part of the recovery process for the centrists/Blairites/whatever you want to call them will have to involve moving on from the idea that David Miliband is the only saviour of the party. It is striking how many Kendallites slip into talking about ‘what happened to David’, as though they are still fighting the 2010 leadership contest. This leadership race looks as though it will finish with a clear win for Corbyn across all different types of supporter in the party, unlike the 2010 contest where David won the membership and MPs and Ed won the unions. David Miliband isn’t in Parliament, and if he returned to take over, it would look as though he only cared about being in power, not the other important jobs that an MP does, like serve his constituents. And besides, voters – and indeed Labour party colleagues – seemed to have enough trouble working out whether Ed Miliband was called Ed Miliband or David Miliband without David Miliband being the Labour leader in the 2020 election after Ed Miliband was the leader in 2015. If that doesn’t make your head spin, then nothing will.
But clearly anti-Corbynites have decided that the best thing to do isn’t to get angry, but to get even with the man they definitely don’t want to lead the party into 2020. And so Chuka Umunna’s speech calling for calm and unity is the first serious sign that the centrists in the party do still have some nous.