Labour’s uncivil war: will it ever end?

Peter Kenyon fears the prospects are slim

Labour’s right-wing declared war on newly-elected Leader Jeremy Corbyn immediately after the official result was declared a year ago. It started with a warning from Lord Mandelson reported in the Guardian on 25 September 2015 by Nicholas Watt: ‘The former minister and adviser to Tony Blair offers his view in a private paper that circulated to political associates last week in which he urges them to dig in for the “long haul”. In his paper, Lord Mandelson writes: “We cannot be elected with Corbyn as leader. Nobody will replace him, though, until he demonstrates to the party his unelectability at the polls. In this sense, the public will decide Labour’s future and it would be wrong to try and force this issue from within before the public have moved to a clear verdict.”

Even assuming Corbyn survives the last minute media barrage to unsettle Labour’s internal electorate and secures a second Leadership election victory, his opponents will not accept the decision of party members in 2016, anymore than they did in 2015. They are not democratic socialists. The question for the rest of the party is how can electability be restored with battalions of snipers at large?

Team Corbyn has not covered itself in glory in its first year. The management of relations with the Parliamentary Labour Party, the Party General Secretary, party staff, policymaking and the media all pose questions. As matters stand there are no means available to the Party to hold its elected representatives to account for damaging the reputation of the Labour Party or trashing the brand. That is what has been going on now relentlessly for a year by those on the right belittling Corbyn’s achievements, ridiculing his standing and asserting that he is unelectable. If they succeed, the battle-lines will simply be redrawn and the conflict will continue from the left. There have been calls by reasonable voices from both sides of the leadership contest for the result to be accepted and the PLP to get back to the business of opposing the Tories. The first test of that resolve will be during the pre-Conference season Parliamentary session. Will the Labour front-bench have a full complement of spokepersons to take on the Tories? Will the Labour benches be full to cheer on Corbyn at the Despatch Box for Prime Minister’s Questions? These are questions that every Constituency Labour Party with a sitting Labour MP could be putting directly to its elected representative now. This shouldn’t have to be done. But how else can those who choose to ignore a democratic vote of eligible members, registered affiliates and supporters begin to be held to account? MPs who fail to support the Party’s elected leader are on strike. In any other working situation, they would get their pay docked.

But no. They claim they are not accountable to Labour Party members. They say they are accountable to the electorate. Wrong. With one or two exceptions (if that) there is not a single Labour MP who could resign from the party and seat, trigger a by-election, and secure re-election under another label. Legal regulation of political parties by the Electoral Commission under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 means politicians cannot play fast and loose with imitation party names that could mislead the electorate. Think of it as an anti-splitters charter. Events over the past 12 months have revived the issue of parliamentary candidate selection and brought re-selection into sharp focus. Threats of de-selection are a very blunt weapon, a bit like waving one of those over-sized foam rubber hands about in a crowd.

What is more worrying is that there are so many people obsessing about the electability of the Labour Party when Gordon Brown failed in 2010 and Ed Miliband failed in 2015. Now the Tories are hell-bent on rigging parliamentary boundaries in the wake of legislation passed with the help of the Liberal Democrats in the last Parliament. At the time of writing the Boundary Commission has just published its timetable for what in effect is the opening of another battlefront for internal squabbling in the Labour Party. Mainstream media (MSM) speculation is that up to 200 Labour seats will be affected – we only have 231 MPs. So a period of sober reflection would be helpful on that matter.

From a democratic socialist standpoint, the accountability of elected representatives is an unresolved matter. The original Chartists thought annual elections were the way forward. One of the oldest institutions in the UK with local authority responsibilities that kept to that pattern until 2004 was the City of London. But most members of the establishment generally scoff whenever that Chartist demand of the 19th century is resurrected. The Labour Party has very tight disciplinary requirements of its elected representatives in local government. In the light of PLP behaviours over the past 12 months, there is now a strong case for the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) to address disciplinary requirements for members of the PLP both in the House of Commons and the Lords. The chances of that being progressed before or at the 2016 Labour Conference are small. Not least because the NEC is finely balanced in its allegiances. New members (including the two extra pro-Corbyn supporters in the constituency section) do not take their seats until the last full day of Conference. So they can play no part in decisions either before or during Conference itself. There may, however, be a case for a motion to be tabled and debated at Conference about members’ expectations of the PLP in future. Going back to the mistakes made by Team Corbyn in the past 12 months, the following issues loom large:

  • messages
  • media management
  • PLP relations
  • conduct of Shadow Cabinet business

It seems clear, at least to this correspondent, that a Corbyn ‘business as usual’ stance is not on option. Winning back the readiness of the bulk of the 172 Labour MPs, who expressed ‘no confidence’ in his leadership, to support the frontbench will require changes in methods of working. Corbyn has got to get out of the bunker and into the tea-rooms. Shadow Cabinets will have to be conducted collegiately. Policy will have to be discussed and debated much more readily.

Part of Blair’s legacy was accumulating too much power in the Leader’s office at the expense of the General Secretary, NEC and the wider membership – trade unions, socialist societies and individuals. Part of an adult debate in the wake of the last 12 months ought to be how to rebalance that power in the interests of the Party as a whole. A starting point could be the reintroduction of Shadow Cabinet elections detested by Blair, but not formally abandoned until 2010 with the election in Opposition of Miliband as leader. Treated as a test in loyalty to the Party leader and effectiveness at the Despatch Box, they could help Corbyn confound his naysayers.  A condition of standing could be a signed undertaking to support the Party Leader, and breaches could carry the risk of exclusion from selections to stand at the next general election.

Reintroducing members back into the policy-making process is long overdue. In recent weeks there have been explicit references to democracy in Corbyn’s speeches in the wake of ‘exclusions’ from voting by administrative means. What has been missing are effective on-line tools to enable large numbers of people to take part. Outgoing National Policy Forum (NPF) chair Angela Eagle MP commissioned a website facility called ‘Your Britain’ which didn’t attract many users, cost a lot of money and was virtually impossible to find. That is due to be replaced by a new front-end with a recognisable web address URL (or something similar). This is part of a very modest set of ideas to drag the Labour Party online in the 21st century. The ideological significance of a ‘digital’ membership card, or an application for smartphones and other handheld computing devises to go out talking to potential voters cannot understated. This is about empowering members. There appears to be significant resistance among Labour Party senior management and regional staff to these projects.

Democratic socialists have no difficulties recognising the significance of members to the electability of the Labour Party. We the members are not a sufficient condition, but we are necessary. In addition to the challenges for Corbyn managing relations with the PLP differently, are those mobilising members. Corbyn has been offering some easy to engage with messages all too often drowned out by those members of the PLP with no regard for the Labour brand or the party’s future electability. These are derived from Labour policies – affordable housing, free education for all, free health and social care at the point of use, secure enployment, living incomes for all. Corbyn’s vision has brought hundreds of thousands of people back into the party. He has now got to confound his internal opponents by mobilising that support on the doorstep. It cannot be done with Team Corbyn as currently constituted. There is a need for a committed democratic socialist at the heart of his strategic team who understands all facets of communication, including TV and social media. That requires delegation and trust. His social media team have to be liberated from internal bureaucracy in both the Leader’s Office and Party HQ. They should be trusted to use their initiative. How many families are there in the country who are not affected directly or indirectly by the risk of loss of employment, reduced working hours, loss of secure terms and conditions, illness, unaffordable housing, or disappearing public services? Most people who voted in 2015 did not make the connection between those risks to themselves and their families, and the Tories. That has to change too. The MSM will not do that job for Labour. That is why the messages have to be clear and direct. That is why the PLP has to remember you have to be an adult to stand for Parliament. The time for behaving like spoilt children is over. Conference 2016 is the time to put an end this very unhappy episode and restore hope to Labour voters – past, present and future.

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