Much has been made of Jeremy Corbyn’s assumed incapacity to hold the Parliamentary Labour Party together in the event of his Labour leadership victory. His views are out of step with Labour MPs, only a tiny number backed Jeremy’s nomination out of genuine conviction, and his hundreds of rebellions against the party whip place him in a weak position when endorsing party discipline. Will chaos necessarily reign?
All this has led Matthew D’Ancona to reflect upon the torrid time Iain Duncan Smith had as Tory leader by way of direct comparison. Unfortunately for Matthew, the comparison doesn’t work. Whereas Jeremy is and IDS were serial rebels, there were entirely different dynamics in play. Whatever you think of Jez’s politics, I’m sure most would agree that his breaking the party whip rests on deep-seated principles. The same might also have been noted about the execrable IDS under John Major. He might have ideas that belong in the Museum for Social Darwinism, but no one doubts the sincerity of his views, and especially that of his long-standing Europhobia that put the Quiet Man on the wrong side of his leader. But that are where the similarities end.
Jeremy is many things, but an organiser/factionaliser he is not. Plots in austere kitchens over value beans on toasts and used tea bags are not his thing. IDS on the other hand was one of Major’s “bastards” who semi-openly engaged in skulduggery to thwart his government. Jeremy was rebellious. IDStreacherous. Therefore using IDS as a base comparator is, well, mistaken. Instead of looking to the past, as Matthew has done, we should try and understand the schisms and dynamics at work in the PLP afresh.
Some folk like Phil Wilson in Sedgefield have talked tough – “Jeremy Corbyn has shown no loyalty to any Labour’s leadership in all his years as a member of parliament, I don’t know why he should expect any loyalty now” – but can we really look forward to few Labour MPs turning up for Prime Minister’s Questions? I don’t think so.
Assuming Jeremy wins, he will have an unassailable democratic mandate enhanced by the ludicrous purge of the selectoral roll. Many MPs have been perturbed by the new numbers signing up not because they’re “hard left“, but because they’re an unknown quantity entirely. In most cases, membership secretaries scrutinising the updated lists are finding few if any familiar names from the local activisty/movement scenes. Being reasonably well-versed with what passes as a hard left “scene” in Stoke, none showed up in my constituency membership. Yet really who knows where these new people are coming from unless we talk to them? Some of our newbies were attracted by the contest to vote for Jeremy, but a larger proportion were not. It was about the general election and doing something about the Tories. One told me he was inspired to join thanks to the shower who’ve taken over Stoke’s City Council. However, regardless of their moves and motives, few are likely to be impressed if their MP – assuming they have a Labour member – starts playing silly buggers in the Commons. It’s one thing to have principled opposition, quite another to pull an IDS. And MPs have to be very careful. Jeremy has ruled out mandatory reselections, but they’re unnecessary anyway. Once the Tories complete their boundary review and fix the shapes and composition of constituencies to their advantage, many Labour MPs will face selection battles in their modified seats. The reward for open skulduggery is likely to be a P45, so they have an incentive to behave – a point not missed by Jez himself.
When it comes down to opportunities to rebel, well, there’s not going to be that many. As the opposition, the whip’s office is not going to command MPs to troupe through the lobbies in support of People’s QE or Nato withdrawal. Already, Jeremy has signalled his intent to have MP working groups dedicated to certain subject areas formulating policy. Some could simply refuse to engage, but that runs the risk of offending the members as per above. When it does come to votes, in the main it will be against legislation. Is anyone really going to rebel over the scrapping of social security provisions when it returns to the house? The attacks on trade unions? More sell offs and privatisations? Of course, the government are looking to make hay by plotting vote traps. That could pose some difficulties, but by sticking a flashing neon sign over their intentions so far in advance they can be planned for and circumvented.
The second point is the impotence of open opposition anyway. This has already taken the form of some leading figures declaring they will not serve in a Jeremy-led shadow cabinet, and talk about establishing ‘Labour for the Common Good‘, which is supposed to be a way of re-elaborating Third Way-ism (remember that?). Or making our values face the future, as a Liz Kendall soundbite might have it. On the latter first, while my ex-boss and Chuka Umunna have a point about their wing of the party lacking intellectual heft (which is surprising, considering their links to think tanks, and the voluminous output of Progress) it’s not going to spark a fire under anyone’s bushel. Partly because already, despite wanting to reach out to the rest of the right, the centre, and the soft left, I understand only Progress-associated MPs have been asked to join. And because if this leadership contest has demonstrated anything, it’s this section of the party is actually very weak.
Unlike the old Labour right who are deeply rooted in and whose views and sentiments are expressed by members at all levels of the organisation, Progress is very much an elite project – despite its open membership – that doesn’t promote from the grassroots but feeds off the think tank’er/bag carrier/spad nexus. It produces MPs with little in the way of social roots, and privileges a dialogue among the cognoscenti. Little wonder then it was merely brush aside as an irrelevance as the Labour leadership battle was joined. As such, by walking away from the shadow cabinet they make their own position in the PLP much weaker. As they vacate the scene there are plenty of MPs who would never otherwise have had a chance of a front bench role come forward and will relish it. Two, three years down the line, as politics has moved on and new faces become established, who’s going to have any time for the bearers of the Blairist screed when they’ve marginalised themselves?
If Jeremy does win, it doesn’t have to be popcorn time for Labour’s enemies. He will be in a strong position vis a vis the PLP, and the pressures bearing down upon it are likely to curb most rebellious enthusiasms. At least for a time.
This article first appeared at All that is Solid