Trevor Fisher on a Labour engaged in splits, and Tory government splitting its sides
Last autumn the Labour leadership issues seemed possible to discuss objectively, with a clean up of a deeply confused rule book possible. Perhaps even a sensible mid-term election could be devised while the Fixed Term Parliament Act (FTPA) is in force. A snap election is hard to see* happening, and a mid-term election was discussed in passing during the summer 2015 leadership debates. This is no longer possible and with a leadership plot launched the situation is becoming more confused and dangerously fraught.
The context of what Kevin Meagher rightly described as a ‘putsch’ on Labour Uncut (29th June) is internal disputes in the Whitehall bubble, mirroring tensions over Labour’s direction. There has been little to justify a leadership challenge despite the EU referendum performance, and as Kevin Meagher pointed out, “The risk is that the current putsch plays straight into the hands of the Corbynites and inflicts lasting, long term damage on the party”. This is clearly true and while I suspect a General Election in the autumn is unlikely for a new Tory leader, if one was called the leadership dispute makes a Labour victory impossible
However the immediate issues are two fold, and centre on the nature of the putsch. The attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper failed, but only by 18 to 14 in the NEC vote. Had the vote gone the other way, I cannot see how a legal challenge was unavoidable. He is the elected Labour leader and the rule book while abysmal seems clear that the challenger, and only the challenger, would need PLP support. Now with two opposition candidates and a legal challenge to Corbyn still theoretically possible the next week alone will be damaging.
The second problem is what happens if the challenge fails and the plotters do not get enough votes to beat him. If they do not, then they are in a worse position than they were when they started. What is their Plan B? At the least damaging they have taken themselves out of the Shadow Cabinet, leaving Labour with the second string. There is more to the weakness of the Shadow Cabinet than just the fact it is the second choice, but its going to be an issue for the media. Corbyn might argue he has his supporters in place. But as someone neither New Labour nor a Corbynite, a ministry of all the talents is what I want. Instead Labour cannot claim to have the best talent unless there is a rapprochment. And this after a bitter dispute that is wholly unneccesary.
And if the plotters lose to Corbyn, what happens then? Do the plotters split from the Party? A divided leadership, PLP and Grassroots is being mooted, by Frank Field in Guardian Letters and Roger Godsiff in the Birmingham Post (7th July), but the chances of relegating Corbyn to grassroots party leadership alone are non existent. A leader who won two elections cannot be sent off the pasture and rules revision simply will not happen. While the plotters can make a case for Corbyn being a poor leader, there is no case for a leadership contest this summer. The plotters are playing Russian Roulette with the future of the Labour Party, and the political judgement behind the attempted coup is non-existent. What is going on in the heads of the PLP majority?
* Though Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer 17 7 16 suggested May could call a snap election. Not without modifying the FTPA which would have its own risks.