If there’s one positive thing I could say about someone like John Mann MP, it’s that thanks to him, I’m £20 richer. Shortly before the referendum, I made a bet that if the UK did vote to leave, there would be a rush to throw responsibility firmly at the feet of Jeremy Corbyn. I’m looking at a crumpled, rather forlorn £20 note that I claimed this morning, and wondering to myself if I should maybe buy a round of drinks for the members of the Fabian Society.
Labour is in a bit of a state at the moment, though to a certain extent all the major political parties are, apart from the SNP (who seem well prepared for another independence referendum) and UKIP (who, having sobered up after a bender true to Farage, are now wondering what the hell they’re going to do with their lives). Things have changed so much since I woke up on the morning of June 24th (vaguely horrified that I had lost a sense of my European identity that I hadn’t actually been aware I possessed) that a brief summary is needed: Corbyn came under pressure for an apparently lacklustre Remain campaign; calls for his resignation, which have been muttered in the Labour Right, grew louder. Over the weekend, Corbyn sacked Hilary Benn, and over the following days tens of Labour MPs resigned from the front bench. A secret ballot of MPs (which, we should remember, has no constitutional authority, but is still symbolic) of no confidence in Corbyn found that he commanded the support of only 40 MPs. The media has reported this as Corbyn having lost the support of 80% of his MPs; however, it is worth remembering that a small but significant number of MPs refused to vote in the ballot, citing it as a move against party unity (my own MP for Cambridge, Daniel Zechner, was one of them). As matters stand, Corbyn will face a leadership challenge from Angela Eagle, the former Shadow Business Secretary. Corbyn steadfastly refused to resign. His reason for this is his mandate from the rank and file of the party; just 9 months ago, Corbyn was elected with 59.5% of the vote (over 200,000). In the hours after the no confidence vote was announced, a large number of activists assembled in Parliament Square to support Corbyn. The BBC reported, initially, that there were about 100, though the real number seems to be closer to 10,000, according to the Metropolitan Police. The BBC also reported that the attendees were not Labour Party members, but actually members of the Socialist Workers Party. As someone who has spent the last few years studying the SWP, I can happily confirm that the SWP doesn’t have more than about 400 paid up members at this point, and good thing too (you can read why I dislike the SWP here). Certainly, there were a lot of SWP placards on the demonstration, but SWP placards are a bit like dandruff. They get everywhere, and generally only appear when I’m feeling stressed.
I have neither the time nor the energy to write a long nuanced piece, so the below is some scattered thoughts.
- The fact of the matter is that Corbyn does have a larger mandate within his own party than previous Labour leaders. He was elected with 59.5% of the vote. It has been claimed that the majority of Corbyn’s votes came from entryism into Labour from the far left, via the new £3 supporter system brought in by Miliband. However, even when we remove the £3 supporters, Corbyn still won 51% of the vote from full, paid up members of the Party (myself included). Corbyn, furthermore, appears to have the support of a majority of party members – A YouGov poll for The Times in May 2016 found that 64% of Labour members surveyed would vote for him again in a leadership ballot, and a further poll, reported in this morning’s Independent, found that he had the backing of 72% of members. According to reports on social media, since last weekend, 60,000 people joined Labour, with a majority of those listing “supporting Corbyn” as one of their primary reasons for joining the party. Among the grassroots of the party – which is, by Labour’s own rules, its sovereign body – Corbyn has considerable support.
- Conversely, Corbyn has never enjoyed huge support from the Parliamentary Labour Party. While Corbyn won the leadership with the largest mandate of any Labour politician, he did so with the support of fewest MPs. Corbyn scraped together the nominations he required to get onto the ballot at the 11th hour, with many MPs nominating him purely to “widen the debate.” Hostility within the PLP towards Corbyn has been prominent from day one. Within hours of his election, Simon Danczuk (currently sitting as an Independent following suspension from the party due to alleged sexual harassment of an underage girl) predicted a coup within weeks. Over the course of the last nine months, various Labour MPs have publicly criticised Corbyn, called on him to quit, and so on. The mass of resignations following the EU referendum, therefore, is hardly surprising.
- This, then, puts Labour in a quandary. As another leadership election will happen soon, there is a strong chance that Corbyn will win again. He has the support of the membership, and the big unions, like Unite, has given him their backing. This might underline the reason why certain elements of the Labour Party have tried to make sure that Corbyn cannot get onto the ballot paper in the first place.
- What this comes down to is questions of representation. The PLP is elected by its constituencies, but the leader of the Labour Party is voted on by the members of the party, which includes MPs, but also rank and file members. By this, one might assume that Corbyn is the representative of the Labour membership. However, the issue at hand is that the PLP are making clear that he is not “their” representative. In terms of simple voting power, this puts the 172 MPs who don’t want Corbyn as leader at odds with the 275,000 members and supporters of the party who did. Framed like this, a fair way of looking at it would be that the MPs should listen to their members. But even in an equal voting regime, MPs do have a more important role in that they sit in parliament and therefore can make or break the opposition.
- There’s also a further representational issue here. MPs are elected to represent their constituency – and their party. An MP must balance the work of the party with the work of the constituency, holding true to the values of the party but also representing what their local community wants. Hence, the issue an MP faces when their constituency asks them to take a line which goes against that of the party. But, on top of this, the MP is meant to represent their party ward. At time of writing, the BBC is reporting that 90% of constituency wards are backing Corbyn. Interestingly, it has emerged that the wards of Corbyn critics have called on their MP – as their local and party representative – to support Corbyn. In particular, Angela Eagle – who will likely challenge Corbyn for the leadership, and John Spellar (who only this morning was on the Daily Politics, accusing the party of being overrun by “Trots” (Corbyn evidently isn’t a Trotskyist, fyi)), both voted to support Corbyn by 90% (in Eagle’s case, a petition launched by her local constituency, calling on her to resign for ignoring them, now has almost 10,000 signatures) . This is clearly something the MPs in question have chosen to ignore. Thus, we need to ask ourselves who the MPs are representing – what they perceive as the interest of the Labour Party, or the members of the party.
- Having spoken to many Labour members from various wings of the party over the last few days, there is a fairly universal feeling of disgust at the situation, if not always targeted at the same players. The vote for Brexit has caused considerable distress, as well as fulfilled the reality of some legitimate fears about the rise of the extreme right of the Tory party, an increase in xenophobia (racially motivated hate crime skyrocketed after the vote, with a 57% increase in reported incidents) and a further fear about the degradation of workers’ rights as Britain leaves the EU. Labour should, at this point, present a united opposition; there is no real way back into the EU at this point – not without causing outrage by ignoring a popular vote – and the responsibility for preserving progressive policies lies in Labour’s hands. Therefore, the political infighting is distressing, and this is really notwithstanding the anti-Corbyn feeling within the PLP. The timing of this coup is notable; could matters not have been held off for a few months, or longer, until the political landscape was more stable? Diane Abbott makes this point very well in a comment piece for the Guardian, here.
- Timing wise, it is also hard to shake the feeling that this was, in some way orchestrated. This is not to say that every Labour MP who resigned, or voted against Corbyn in the ballot, was part of a pre-planned coup, but it is interesting that The Telegraph, of all papers, reported on June 13th that there were movements being made within the PLP to remove Corbyn well before the results of the referendum came out. To quote the piece, anti-Cobryn MPs intended to remove Corbyn by “fanning the flames with front bench resignations and public criticism they [the MPs] think the signatures needed to trigger a leadership race can be gathered within a day.” This is perhaps the only time in history that a Conservative paper has predicted the future with any accuracy. In other words, then, in the event of a Brexit, a time when we need a united opposition, anti-Corbyn MPs (or at least some of them) planned to use the crisis for political infighting. This, frankly, is unacceptable conduct. A leadership challenge could easily have emerged at a less divisive time.
- This other kind of fact must be said. I think it grossly unfair to characterise every Labour MP who has voted against Corbyn as some sort of saboteur. There certainly are a small, but significant group of MPs who have sought to undermine Corbyn since day one, and anyone involved in the party could probably reel their names in an Arya Stark-esque list. However, this does not mean that all 172 MPs are like this. Many, I am sure, are good, principled people who are, quite understandably fed up, frustrated, and deeply worried about the state of the party, and the state of the nation. I’ve had a lot of discussions on social media with Labour Activists, calling for all the MPs who voted against Corbyn to be deselected. While I am leaning more and more towards deselection in some cases, I think we cannot afford to fall into an us vs them binary. Really, Corbyn supporters should be reaching out to more moderate MPs, and try to win them back on board, rather than demonising them. The left has never been good at this, alas. History repeats itself, as they say.
- There is a real question of what will happen if, or when, Corbyn wins the leadership (again). I can see a number of possible outcomes:
- Corbyn wins, decisively. Labours MPs rally behind the leader, who would now have two mandates from the membership, and Labour buries the hatchet, and gets back to the work of being the opposition. Also, Joss Whedon writes season two of Firefly and Bloodborne comes out on Xbox One, cos fuck me if I’m shelling out for a Playstation 4.
- Corbyn wins. Some Labour MPs bury the hatchet, and accept the decisions of the members. Others defect to other parties, possibly the Liberal Democrats. Labour survives, in reduced form, and focuses on a democratic socialist opposition, but deals with lower polling, and a long, hard slog to get back to prominence.
- Corbyn wins, decisively. Majority of Labour MPs try to break the party. Corbyn and his supporters either 1) enter into a protracted legal battle over who is the “true” Labour Party, 2) form a new party of the left, with a possible progressive alliance with Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, the Green Party, and the Liberal Democrats.
- Corbyn wins but Labour MPs succeed in forcing him out by other means – a refusal to work with him. Corbyn unable to form an opposition and quits.
There are also some possibilities if Corbyn either loses the leadership election (which seems unlikely, judging by polling support) or, more likely, is barred from the ballot paper.
- Labour will lose members. Lots, I expect. Corbyn supporters, socialists, and those on the soft left appalled by the party’s actions resign from the party, and join other left of centre groups – the Liberal Democrats, in my opinion, probably wouldn’t get too many of Labour’s newer, younger members as the tuition fee u-turn is still fresh in their minds. The Greens could benefit from this, as could Plaid and the SNP.
- Labour loses a significant chunk of its members, but many leftists stay on, with the hope to try and win back the party for the left. The mood is toxic, the coup is called a betrayal, and Labour struggles to reassert itself with a sullen membership, a threat from UKIP on the right, the Greens on the left, and a Tory party reinvigorated by Prime Minister Michael Gove, or Teresa May.
Where do I stand on all this?
- I voted for Corbyn, and I will do so again. I do so not uncritically, and with a certain amount of fear in my heart about the possibility of a split in Labour regardless of the way things go. My hope, however, is that if we make it through this, the left in Labour will build a stronger presence that goes beyond the work of one, principled man.
- If Corbyn does go, I am, at time of writing, considering resigning my membership of the party. This may well change. I may decide to stick it out, and help build a new left bloc up, or I may throw in the towel. I would not judge anyone who did quit, or did stay, regardless of my feelings on the matter.