An unprecedented attempted coup by Labour MPs against their leader was crushed yesterday as Jeremy Corbyn won a second resounding mandate from party members in the space of a year.
Winning by a wider margin than his landslide election just over a year ago, Corbyn delivered a chastening blow to rebels that means he will almost certainly lead Labour into the next election, despite the party’s poll ratings sitting at historically low levels.
Corbyn greeted his victory with a call for unity that was echoed by some of his strongest critics, including his opponent Owen Smith, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who had recently stated that Corbyn could not unite the party, and Hilary Benn, the former shadow foreign secretary whose sacking triggered mass resignations from the Labour front bench and a vote of no-confidence by three quarters of the parliamentary party.
Corbyn triumphed by a margin of 62.8 per cent to 38.2 per cent for Smith, winning 313,209 of the 506,438 ballots cast and carrying every category of the Labour electorate, including full members, registered supporters and union affiliates.
However, initial results suggest that Scotland was the one part of the UK where Smith won a majority among Labour members, and Dugdale couched her call for unity in a demand for Corbyn to deliver “deeds, not words” in re-uniting the fractured Labour party.
Attention now turns to the debate over how a new shadow cabinet will be assembled, with Corbyn’s opponents arguing for front bench roles to be elected by the parliamentary party.
Former shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray is among those who has said he will not join Corbyn’s team unless there is a return to shadow cabinet elections. However, the leader has called for ordinary party members to be given a say in the make-up of the front bench.
Speaking following the announcement of the result in Liverpool, where the party’s annual conference opens tomorrow, Corbyn said he wanted to “wipe the slate clean” after a bruising contest, and called on Labour MPs to “work together and respect the democratic choice that’s been made”.
He promised to tackle claims of bullying and intimidation that soured the campaign, saying: “Our party has a duty of care to our members. That means intervening to stop personal abuse and abiding by the principles of natural justice in the way we handle it.
“Politics is demeaned and corroded by intimidation and abuse. It is not my way and it is not the Labour way and never will be.”
Labour has more than tripled in size since its general election defeat last spring to become the largest political party in western Europe, Corbyn said, with a “nationwide movement” able to win support for the election of a Labour government.
“I have no doubt this party can win the next general election whenever the Prime Minister calls it, and form that next government,” he said. “To do that, we have all got to work together.”
Smith dismissed talk of moderate MPs mounting a breakaway from Corbyn’s leadership. “I have no time for talk of a split in the Labour movement,” he said. “It’s Labour or nothing for me.”
But he added that it “falls primarily to Jeremy Corbyn” to heal the divisions in Labour and turn around the party’s “dire” poll ratings.
The call for unity was echoed by senior Labour figures. Former leader Ed Miliband, whose reforms to the leadership election process paved the way for Corbyn’s victory, posted on Twitter: “Congratulations to Jeremy on his victory and commiserations to Owen.
“Now is the time for the party to unite and to focus on the country.”
A tweet from Benn said: “Time for unity.” However, former shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander insisted she would not serve on Corbyn’s front bench.
Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, a Corbyn ally, said the leader’s victory had been “decisive” and that “democracy has spoken twice in a year”.
“From my point of view, that should send a clear signal to our party that the members, as of now, want the party to come together,” Lewis said. “Clearly, that is going to mean trust and movement from both sides.”
Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson said: “The most important thing is that both candidates said they want to bring the party back together, they want unity. I think we are looking at an early general election and that must now be our sole focus – taking on Theresa May and the Tories.”
Watson said the party had been put on an election footing and insisted that Corbyn had made clear he did not want to “punish” MPs who refused to serve in the shadow cabinet.
An exit poll conducted by YouGov suggests Smith had won in Scotland, although the sample size was just 51. Internal canvassing figures from the Smith campaign seen by Scotland on Sunday appeared to support the exit poll’s findings, with a survey of almost 13,000 Labour voters giving the challenger a 5 per cent lead. The Smith campaign also claimed to have won among younger voters under the age of 24.
Corbyn’s victory none the less poses a challenge to Dugdale, who just over a month ago warned: “I don’t think Jeremy can unite our party and lead us into government”.
Despite her strong endorsement of Smith, the Labour group at Holyrood was also split, with MSPs including her own deputy, Alex Rowley, backing Corbyn, and Neil Findlay MSP helping to lead his campaign in Scotland.
Yesterday she said rebels in the parliamentary Labour Party had to respect the result, but called for a concrete show of faith from Corbyn that he aims to bring the party together, including the reintroduction of shadow cabinet elections.
Dugdale said: “The first thing I’d want to do is congratulate him on his victory. The second thing is to point to his task now, which is to unite and unify the Labour Party.
“I think he can do that, but he has to want to do that, and the parliamentary Labour Party has to want to do that too. There is a desire to unify, but those words are going to have to turn into deeds soon, so we can see what that looks like.”
Asked what she thought that should entail, she warned against being “too prescriptive” but said: “There is a sense that concessions from different camps are required, and the types of things that could be considered within that are, yes, some form of return of elections to the shadow cabinet.”
She added: “Personally, I would like to see all the talk of de-selections cease. Equally, the parliamentary Labour party should look at the result today and recognise that that deserves some respect too.”
Gemma Doyle, the former Labour MP for West Dunbartonshire who worked on Smith’s campaign, said the scale of the vote for the challenger was also a mandate for Dugdale as leader. “It shows she’s in tune with where members are and what they want,” she said.
Polls put the Tories as much as 14 per cent ahead of Labour, and Corbyn’s personal approval ratings lag well behind Theresa May’s. His triumph was immediately seized upon by the Conservatives, who released a campaign video that painted Labour under Corbyn as “divided, distracted and incompetent”.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said the result meant Scottish Labour was “hopelessly divided” and that moderate voters would be “utterly dismayed” by Corbyn’s victory.
“It is a sign of Labour’s utter mess that an attempt to get rid of Corbyn has succeeded only in strengthening his grip on the party,” said Davidson.
“This result now leaves Scottish Labour hopelessly divided.
“Kezia Dugdale has repeatedly attacked Mr Corbyn in recent weeks but we know that her own deputy and many members of her team have urged the party to back him and his brand of hard left politics.
“Mr Corbyn’s election means that, at both Holyrood and Westminster, Labour is simply incapable of providing a strong opposition to anybody apart from itself.”
Conservative Party chairman Sir Patrick McLaughlin said: “One hundred and seventy-two Labour MPs don’t think Jeremy Corbyn can lead the Labour Party – so how can he lead the country? Instead of learning lessons from the past, they have engaged in a bitter power struggle that will continue even after they’ve picked a leader.”