Jeremy Corbyn

In Context: challenges to Corbyn leadership

In Context

In Context: challenges to Corbyn leadership

In the last two days an unprecedented number of members of the Shadow Cabinet have resigned. Citing the lack of leadership shown by Jeremy Corbyn during the Referendum campaign, it seems certain that a leadership challenge is about to be made.

Challenges to to the leadership of political parties is nothing new. Indeed, politics is power and many politicians crave, or fear, that very thing.

Jeremy Corbyn

Challenges to Labour Leaders

Jeremy Corbyn may take some comfort from the fact that the Labour party has not got a tradition of voting out it’s leaders: they tend, as was the case with Miliband, Brown and Blair, to resign prior to any challenge being launched. Indeed, only once since the parties inception in 1906, has a leader of the Labour Party been unsuccessful in retaining the leadership when challenged.

That sole occasion came in 1923 when JR Clyne was replaced by Ramsey MacDonald as Leader of the Labour Party. On that occasion, the context was very different though. Labour had just received 3 times the number of seats in Parliament and, unlike now, party rules allowed the parliamentary party to elect it’s leader. They actually also appointed Clyne as deputy to MacDonald so there was significantly less doubting of his capabilities.

Timing of the Challenge

Normally a leadership challenge is made when leaders have been in position for a much longer period of time. Matthew Smith, writing for the Times in 2016, collated a list of the challenges made to the leaders of the Conservative and Labour Parties and the respective amount of time that they had been in office.

Leadership Challenges

On this count, Jeremy may consider himself to be quite unfortunate.

Historical examples of attempts to seize power

Julius Caesar

One of the most famous attempts to seize power was the assassination of Julius Caesar. Caesar was assassinated by members of the Roman senate, including his close friend Brutus. Despite succeeding in killing Julius Caesar, they ultimately failed to wrestle control of the Roman Senate which after a period of unrest remained under the control of Caesar’s followers.

Pisonian Conspiracy

At the height of Emperor Nero’s despotic reign a number of statesmen plotted against him. Led by Piso they intended to have Nero assassinated and replaced. Most accounts suggest with Piso intending to claim the throne but there are suggestions that other conspirators had other intentions. The plot was discovered and the conspirators were executed or exiled. The lot was one of the events that contributed to Nero’s eventual suicide in AD68.

Mary Queen of Scots

In 1567, Protestant rebels in Scotland arrested Mary. They forced her to abdicate in favour of her infant son, James VI. A regent that they approved of was appointed. Mary went on to become a thorn in the side of her English Cousin, Elizabeth I and became implicated in a plot to overthrow the English Queen. As a result, she was executed.


In 1653 Oliver Cromwell led a squadron of forty musketeers into Parliament. They forced the dissolution of the Rump Parliament and imposed military rule under Cromwell as Lord Protector. Cromwell’s military rule of Britain lasted until his death. He was followed as Lord Protector, briefly, by his son. The monarchy was restored under Charles II and with limits on it’s power, in 1660.

Coup de 18 Brumaire

In 1799, Europe was in turmoil. Austria had declared war on France. The elite regiments of the French army were fighting overseas, in Egypt. Elections had taken place that had shock results.  As conflict with Austria stumbled from defeat to defeat for France, it also faced civil unrest. A coup replaced one government. One person, Napoleon Bonaparte, was viewed by many as a saviour. He picked his moment. Troops from his command were stationed around Paris. One by one different parts of the governmental system were addressed. Ministers resigned, en masse. Leadership was impossible. Unless, of course, Napoleon was allowed to lead.


The situation in France in 1799 bears the closest resemblance but is a wholly different context. The co-ordinated resignations and making governance impossible is highly similar. It is no coincidence though, it is one of the most common ways of forcing change in elected bodies.

Leave a Reply