Corbyn: popular, but not with Labour MPs – why?
Peter Kenyon and Mike Davis explore events post the EU-referendum as Labour plunges into a parallel leadership contest
Years on the backbenches are not the ideal training ground for Party leadership, but that’s where working with centre left allies becomes crucial to long-term success
Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson one said ‘a week is a long-time in politics’. Now we know it can be just a weekend, as the events of 24-26th June 2016 proved. As we go to press a Labour leadership contest looks set to run in parallel with a Boris-less Tory contest led by Michael Gove and Theresa May. Any Labour challenger to Corbyn needs 20% of MPs/MEPs –that’s 51 in all. At a time of maximum Tory disarray and division it is extraordinary that Labour MPs decided to launch a coup against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Or did they? Talking to MPs, there was a sequence of events starting on Friday 24th June, which may help put the sacking of shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn and the subsequent cascade of resignations from the Shadow Cabinet in a different light from that generally being reported.
There is no doubt there was a coup but not involving the 172 Labour MPs who eventually voted No Confidence in Corbyn.
His unpopularity in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is not news. But there has been a period of 10-months in which a broad-church Shadow Cabinet has been working well – landing blows on the Conservative government.
Why did it fall apart so quickly. One possible explantation is the Labour Party’s public reaction to the EU-referendum vote.
Corbyn’s statement was not cleared with the Shadow Cabinet. But a three-hour meeting followed during which the thrust of that statement was criticised and alternative approaches were suggested. In his closing remarks, Corbyn apparently took no notice of anything that had been said and read from a prepared statement. The cause of dismay is best summed up by an apparent willingness on Corbyn’s part to accept the result and get on securing the best deal for the British people without questioning the consequences.
His email message to members issued later on Friday 24th June, said: ‘I will be making clear to both Remain and Leave voters that Labour will fight for the exit negotiations to be accountable to an open, transparent parliamentary process. And we’ll do everything to secure the best deal for the people of Britain at every stage.’ Nothing about the cruel Leave campaign deceits that would be, and now are being exposed: extra money for the NHS, halting immigration, trade access to the single market without freedom of movement. Nothing about those shocking lies that were intended to encourage people to vote Leave and succeeded.
If that account is true, it is hardly surprising that members of the Shadow Cabinet were very angry going into that weekend.
Had he taken a leaf out of former Labour leader, Tony Blair’s infamous, anti-democratic playbook and was treating our shadow cabinet with contempt – fixing the outcome beforehand, ignoring or suppressing dissent and carrying on regardless? Part of the problem lies with Corbyn’s advisers, who have failed to map a course towards some kind of conciliation. This was always going to be tough, but essential, given the small core group of loyal MPs. Years on the backbenches are not the ideal training ground for Party leadership, but that’s where working with centre left allies becomes crucial to long-term success.
A no-confidence motion was tabled for the PLP on Monday 27th June by Margaret Hodge, the MP for a Barking constituency that voted Leave. At virtually the same time Hilary Benn informed Corbyn that he had no confidence in his leadership giving the leader little option but to sack him. A little more resilience by Corbyn in the face of adversity might have avoided the avalanche of resignations that was to follow. News of the sacking was like a thunderclap in a snow-covered Alpine valley. For the plotters it achieved what they had been waiting for these last ten months – a justification for their treachery. Previous attempts had all failed after each parliamentary by-election, all four of which Labour won. They failed to find them in London and other mayoral elections, all of which Labour won. They failed to find them on local election results where Labour held steady. So they blamed Corbyn for ‘a lacklustre’ EU ‘Remain’ campaign, saying that he lacked the leadership skills to win a general election, which they feared could come following a new Prime minister.
The fact is Corbyn fought hard for a ‘Remain’ vote. But he was careful not to be seen cosying up to either the Conservatives, or former Labour leader Tony Blair. He toured the country, not joining Tory fear-mongering and threats, but arguing EU-In for jobs, for workers’ rights, environmental protection and stressing that acting together EU states could tackle tax evaders. He was steadfast on free movement of labour. At the same time he argued for EU reform on democracy, transparency and economic policy, on exactly those areas that were a key weakness of the Cameron campaign and fuelled the protest vote. Alan Johnson was leading Labour’s ‘In’ campaign. The broadcast media shut out virtually all Labour leaders. Tory Brexiteer Boris Johnson obscured Labour’s Alan Johnson on the airwaves and in the television studios. A classic example was the Laura Kuenssberg BBC programme at prime time purporting to be on the arguments for in and out with not a single Labour voice to counter an hour of Tory talking heads. Congratulations to the 40 Labour MPs who refused to join the 172 who voted No confidence. Already the big trade unions Unite, GMB and Unison have rallied with Len McCluskey saying ‘The extraordinary behaviour of Labour MPs has achieved nothing beyond diverting from a Tory government in crisis.’
Corbyn’s statement in response to the no confidence vote, in a secret ballot to preserve anonymity, was defiant: ‘In the aftermath of last week’s referendum, our country faces major challenges. Risks to the economy and living standards are growing, the public is divided. The government is in disarray. Ministers have made it clear they have no exit plan, but are determined to make working people pay with a new round of cuts and tax rises. Labour has a responsibility to give a lead where government will not’.
As the dust settles on the referendum with Chancellor Osborne still talking of more austerity and cuts, it is vital that the Labour movement maximises its opposition and highlights how the Tories are not fit to govern, having got the UK into this terrible unnecessary fiasco.
Labour’s NEC must give a lead. At the time of writing no date had been set for an emergency meeting. Positions are hardening on both sides. Truths have to be confronted. If the allegations against Corbyn of anti-democratic behaviour in the conduct of Shadow Cabinet business are true, then that has to be countenanced and resolved. We are aware that the PLP’s no confidence vote has no constitutional legitimacy within the Party’s Constitution, but it is the realpolitik. That clock cannot be turned back. Looking forward the Party’s response to the vote to Leave the EU must be revisited as a matter of urgency, debated and decided by the party as a whole. A conciliatory statement from Corbyn referring the matter to the National Policy Forum might be a helpful first step to enable all sides to step back from the brink. We are hearing too many voicing concern about party splits.
In the meantime, an urgent reconstruction of the Shadow Cabinet is needed to ensure Labour MPs get on with doing what they were elected to do: provide effective opposition to the government and promote Labour’s alternative, which combats Tory austerity and UKIP’s xenophobic populism.
The challenge for the labour movement is to rally support for Corbyn elected on a massive 250,000 member/supporter mandate. Momentum and other party bodies must pull out the stops. We need to mobilise the maximum number of members and supporters, especially those in the trade unions to re-elect Corbyn with a mandate as strong as the 60% that got him elected just ten months ago. But only if he demonstrates his willingness to listen to his parliamentary colleagues and transform how he handles Shadow Cabinet business can he really succeed. Long-standing Labour members remember that Blair was elected Leader in 1994 with a huge popular mandate from the membership. We remember all too painfully how that ended. Repetition of the ‘popular mandate’ mantra cannot obscure anti-democratic conduct in the Shadow Cabinet. Corbyn is better than that. His inspirational and radical approach to democratic socialist politics is very precious. It must be rescued from the debris of June 2016’s final weekend.