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Post-Brexit Labour: Our Own Omnishambles

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daria

I was planning on writing about something else this morning, like strategies to avoid Brexit, political and constitutional dilemmas of the same, or the soul-crushing reality of being a life-long Mariners fan (where life-long is measured in the life of the franchise and not me).

Alas.

As expected, the vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership by the Parliamentary Labour Party easily passed, 172-40, or 81% of sitting Labour MPs (who voted; there were a handful of abstentions and even several “soiled ballots” — so roughly 75% of Labour MPs are on record as opposing the leader).  This follows the resignations of two-thirds of his shadow cabinet, and all the various positions have yet to be filled (and considering when one adds in parliamentary private secretaries and junior shadow ministers, simply stated, there might not be enough Corbyn supporters remaining in Parliament to fill all the roles). Indeed, this morning the SNP has stated that it will request to be named the official opposition (no link, as this is just breaking):

A bit more on the news we mentioned earlier that the Scottish National Party will today ask to be declared the official Oppositon at Westminster.

They say their leader Angus Robertson enjoys more support than Jeremy Corbyn.

There are 56 SNP MPs – but only 40 Labour MPs have expressed support for Mr Corbyn.

They also say they are able to fill all the relevant shadow posts to the government, unlike Mr Corbyn.

They point to Parliamentary rules which say the official Opposition must be “prepared to assume power.”

A source said: “We have looked at Erskine May (the Parliamentary rule book) and will put it to the Speaker that the Labour Party no longer meet obligations to remain as the official Opposition.”

The expected response from the Corbyn and Momentum corners are that none of these MPs ever supported Jeremy, so this shouldn’t be a surprise and holds no democratic legitimacy. This is partially true.  It’s no secret that a significant share of the PLP were wary of Corbyn’s leadership, and a core of those on the right and center of the party took themselves out of contention for shadow cabinet positions (which troubled me; the shadow cabinet would have been more effective and representative had Liz Kendall and / or Yvette Cooper taken a role for the sake of the party). And yes, a significant group of MPs have been dreaming of a coup against Corbyn from September, so to some degree this was long in the cards.  However, from what I’ve heard, the majority of the PLP were firmly in the center — not knee-jerk hostile to Corbyn, and willing to give him time and a chance. It stands to reason that anybody who agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet was at minimum open minded about Corbyn’s leadership. It’s one thing to accept that a disaffected core existed on the right of the PLP hoping for this moment, but it’s another thing entirely to explicitly and publicly lose the support of 2/3rds of your own shadow cabinet.

As I stated yesterday, it’s close to impossible to lead an effective opposition, government, or even a marginalised political party if an overwhelming majority of your MPs are rebelling against your leadership. The response of Corbyn and his supporters is to hang on and cite the democratic mandate of the 251,417 (59.5%) votes he received in last summer’s leadership election. As I don’t shy away from stating, I was one of those 251,417.

However, there’s an alternative narrative of democratic legitimacy that is not likely to be warmly received by Corbyn’s supporters.  As MilitantlyAardvark said in comments yesterday: “A decent case could be made that MPs are elected by the people of their constituency and therefore represent a broader and more genuinely democratic section of Labour voters than the relatively small number of party members.”  This narrative is also here in The Guardian:

A defiant Mr Corbyn tonight brushed off the thumbs-down that four in five colleagues gave him, by reciting the rulebook which puts the leadership decision in the hands of the members who he believes remain as loyal as ever, although – amid such chaos – can that be assumed? More fundamentally, the rulebook becomes immaterial when there is no ability to do the basic job. The rules of a charity may, for example, put the appointment of a chief executive in the hands of the trustees, but that chief executive will not be able to function if the staff all want him out. And in the Corbyn case, the option of replacing “the staff” does not exist without showing contempt to the electorate, since they are not mere party functionaries, but MPs elected by 9.3 million Labour voters. And if the election comes this year, there would be no time to go for wholesale reselections to pick a new slate of Corbynite candidates, even if Mr Corbyn had not solemnly promised to avoid this unwise course.

That’s right. The PLP were elected by 9.3 million voters in May 2015. These people are (or at least should be) significantly more important to the operation of a major political party with aspirations (however dimming) of one day again returning to government.

That argument has not nor will it make any headway amongst the core Corbyn support.  Reviewing the discussion in the various pro-Corbyn and Momentum groups I belong to in social media, the tenor is that any criticism of Jeremy is apostasy. The PLP is the enemy (aside form the 40 who voted confidence) including those who once served in the shadow cabinet but have since resigned. It’s fascinating to read. And depressing. Politics in a democracy requires the building of coalitions, of compromise, of reaching consensual outcomes. Jeremy’s core support doesn’t appear to reflect this reality or even accept its legitimacy.

Unlike the Leave Campaign, the Corbyn team and supporters have a plan should he be allowed to stand, and win, the forthcoming leadership election:

“We will offer the most radical leadership reform package ever,” said one insider. “Reselection, recall, a lock on leadership elections that only members can remove. We will bring it.”

This is elaborated upon here. It’s difficult to say if this is really the plan, or wishful thinking taking the shape of rumour.  It would help solve the dilemma I wrote about yesterday, that if we’re going to allow the leader to be elected by, and only by, a direct vote of the membership, the elected leader needs the PLP on side. Having Corbynistas take control of a majority of the Constituency Labour Parties, and force re-selection of candidates for Parliament, is a means to this end.  It will result in bad blood, and could possibly result in a fundamental split in the party, where Corbyn and Momentum have control of the name and machinery, while the PLP breaks off to form another SDLP SDP (or even join the Liberal Democrats), presumably dragging a share of their CLP supporters with them.

Regardless of how this ends up, if there’s a snap election between October and December, there’s probably not enough time to seize control of enough CLPs, nor will there really be enough time for a proper leadership election to progress. Last summer’s leadership election took three months from the close of nominations to the declaration of the winner.

Effectively, the Labour Party has defaulted on its job to be an organised opposition to the equally disorganised Conservatives precisely when the country needs precisely that.

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