A week, then a weekend and now a couple of hours is a long time in politics. Peter Kenyon reports
I was with two leading members of the Labour Shadow Cabinet in the Palace of Westminster as Big Ben struck 7pm last night. The mood was intensely pessimistic. The National Executive Committee (NEC) had earlier voted 17-15 to hold a secret ballot on whether Jeremy Corbyn required nominations from MPs and MEPs to be on a Leadership ballot paper. Their expectation was that Corbyn would have to find enough nominations to get on the ballot. That was considered highly unlikely in the circumstances following that fateful vote of no confidence by 172 to 40. But hey presto, within a couple of hours Jeremy Corbyn had won the latest round in the struggle between members and the Parliamentary Labour Party. If a leadership contest goes ahead the NEC voted 18 – 14 that he will automatically be a contender.
Can it be business as usual for Team Corbyn? In short, no. Mike Davis and I wrote about why Corbyn had lost the confidence so rapidly over the weekend of 24/25 June in Chartist 281 July/August 2016. More evidence is now emerging about the ways in which relations with the PLP have been mis-managed by Corbyn himself, his close allies John McDonnell, and Jon Trickett and some of Corbyn’s advisors.
He will have to counter the allegations against him robustly and convincingly in the days ahead. The best way of doing that will be to take on the Tories under their new leader, Theresa May, head on, both in the House of Commons and in the media. There needs to be an open debate in the PLP about the Brexit vote and how best to respect that democratic decision, without letting the Tories off the hook. The Conservatives called the calamitous referendum in the first place. (Some well-placed criticism of acting leader Harriet Harman and shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn would not be out of place either for allowing the referendum legislation through last Summer without regard for safeguards for the Union, or consideration of risks to the economy.)
Corbyn’s fiercest critics over his alleged lukewarm engagement in the EU Remain campaign are going to have to be confronted, just like the lies told by the Brexiteers. Every Labour Party member, supporter and affiliate needs to get busy, both inside the party and on the doorstep. No leader has succeeded in reaching out to encourage so many people to re-engage with mainstream party politics as Corbyn. In recent weeks, another 130,000 people have joined at the full membership rate of £46/£23, not the 2015 knock-down registered supporter rate of £3. Bizarrely, today’s Special NEC disenfranchised all of them, but offered a two-day window for Registered Supporters to re-engage or join afresh for £25. Talk about trashing the Labour Party brand.
A public apology to all those people should be made by Corbyn. Just as he should apologise for failing to listen to former members of his shadow cabinet whose considered contributions has effectively been ignored (not just since the Brexit vote) but according to both loyalists and sceptics, since he was elected. Why no one spoke out earlier is another example of that misplaced loyalty in Labour’s ranks, that plagued the party under Tony Blair’s leadership. Don’t they realise that the age of deference in civic society is dead? Just like the majority of the PLP need to wise up to the death of the age of entitlement. Members want a say in the party’s response too.
As uncertainty mounted last weekend over whether or not Corbyn had a right to be on a leadership ballot paper under the latest party rules, Chartist has learned that there is a hole in Labour’s economic policy locker – it is empty, according to former Labour economic advisory committee member Danny Blanchflower. That begs questions about what John McDonnell has been doing these last nine months. McDonnell needs to be tasked with defusing the Blanchflower bombshell. We have also heard that Jon Trickett, Corbyn’s chosen election supremo has lost the confidence of the PLP too for failing to listen to advice during preparations for the May 2016 elections. We have never favoured such positions being in the gift of the leader, whichever wing of the party is in charge. Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband’s confidence in former Scottish MP Douglas Alexander was entirely misplaced as the loss of all Labour’s Scottish seats bar one in the 2015 General Election abruptly demonstrated. Corbyn should consider letting the NEC and PLP agree new arrangements for appointing the person(s) in charge of general election strategy whenever it comes.
Undoubedly, others will have other ideas about how the sceptics and wavering loyalists to Corbyn can be encouraged to resume frontbench roles as part of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. But that process of reconciliation needs to start now we know that Corbyn is on the ballot. Neither Angela Eagle, nor Owen Smith has the ability to attract new members in the measure achieved by Corbyn. Chartist calls on them both to stop wasting members’ time and money on their futile challenges. If the folly goes on we expect Corbyn to be re-elected. That then bodes ill for Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, who is widely regarded as the chief-conspirator, orchestrating the call for a vote of no-confidence in Corbyn and shadow cabinet resignations on air with militaristic precision. Can he survive?
In the meantime, weaknesses in the Party’s organisational capacity to take difficult realities onto the doorstep in those areas it has traditional represented are also too evidently apparent. Similarly, members are not being offered advice and encouragement to get busy wherever they live, however, remote the prospects of winning. As Corbyn sets about demonstrating his capacity to lead he needs to energise, empower and enable Labour’s grassroots to flourish as a campaigning force as well as rallying to his aid. Not everyone is on social media, where are the simple Labour leaflets with powerful messages to counter the daily propaganda of the main stream media?