What Happened to the Parliamentary Labour Party?
by Eamon Dyas
Blair’s legacy in the Parliamentary Labour Party
Nothing prepared the Labour Party for the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. It came as a complete shock not only to the party establishment but to the political culture to which the party had become acclimatised. His appearance on the ballot paper was an aberration only made possible by the play-politics which had come to dominate the way the party did business. Twelve of those among the Parliamentary Labour Party who proposed him did so merely to enable him to reach the required nomination threshold without which he was not eligible to stand. They held no brief for his polices or belief in his prospects of winning. As they admitted at the time, they proposed him as leader just to ensure that the procedure had the appearance of a contest. In so doing they were acting true to their belief that politics was first and foremost all about appearance, all about the show – something that the party, in all its years under Blair as its ringmaster, had managed to become.
Those who nominated Corbyn in defiance of their belief did so as a matter of duty – a duty to the smoke and mirrors of the performance. Corbyn was to be cast in the role of the honourable loser, the impractical idealist put there to act as a foil for the more pragmatic realism represented by the other three candidates. While he might offer principles that elevated the people above the dominance of the market everyone knew the world was now a place where the power of the corporations had long since buried such possibilities and what the modern world demanded was a continuation of the moderation, accommodation and compromise that had become the hallmark of New Labour. While he spoke a language that was based on humanity and common decency – something that might resonate on the streets – the others spoke a language that could be understood in the real power centres of the land – the corporate boardrooms and media editorial centres. Corbyn’s old-world socialistic views had been left behind by the advance of the sociologically derived perspectives that had been blended with the showmanship of Blair and had continued to fill the vacuum of his departure during the Brown and Miliband years. Consequently, the Labour Westminster elite knew in their bones that if they could not be certain of the winner they could at least know that it would not be Corbyn.
And even if the ordinary Labour member’s sense of reality faltered the mathematics of the election procedure was stacked against Corbyn. Although the ballot paper had four candidates the script said that the real contest was between Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendall. In reality Corbyn was pitched against a coalition of the other three candidates within which the vast majority of their second preference votes would be distributed in the event of nobody getting more than 50% in the first round. In that situation the only way that Corbyn could possibly win would be by gaining over 50% of the first-preference votes – something that was so outrageous that it wasn’t even considered a remote possibility.
Then the unthinkable happened. As the day of the election drew closer opinion polls were showing that Corbyn’s chances of winning were not as remote as his opponents had originally envisaged. At this point we had interventions from most of the Mandarins from New Labour. Alongside Tony Blair, people like Gordon Brown, Alistair Campbell, David Miliband and Jack Straw rushed to the media to warn the membership that Corbyn’s election would be a disaster for the party. Yet, despite this and despite an incessant and concerted anti-Corbyn media campaign Corbyn won with nearly 60% of the vote on the first ballot. The Guardian headline on 12 September 2015 reluctantly read “Labour leadership: Jeremy Corbyn elected with huge mandate”.
The impact on Westminster politics was seismic and Corbyn’s opponents were at a loss to know how to respond. They could not deny the mandate that Corbyn had just received and yet they felt him an alien in their midst. Although united in their anti-Corbyn instincts the majority of Parliamentary MPs did not have access to a political route which would have enabled them to traverse the distance between the world they knew and had come to rely on and the reality of what had actually happened. The thing that would have made this possible was something that either they never knew, or, if had known, they had long since forgotten. They did not understand politics. What they understood as politics was nothing more than a mixture of what was left over of Blairite showmanship, outlooks that conceived the world in terms of sociological sensibilities, and well-trod strategies of public relations determined by personal ambition.
Here, at last, for all to see, was the real legacy of Tony Blair. Although nobody knew it at the time, the commanding achievement of Tony Blair was his success in making the parliamentary Labour Party a politics-free zone. His policies were not constructed around any real guiding principles but rather a blind groping towards that political no-mans-land called the middle ground. After becoming leader he had set his sights on this landmark and in his subsequent journey across the intervening terrain he was compelled to jettison any political baggage which might slow him down. But the middle ground was a mirage and the closer it seemed to get the further it withdrew until pretty soon the parliamentary party had discarded all meaningful politics that had previously defined it. No doubt the parliamentary party never set out to do this but it was a price enough of them felt was worth paying if it succeeded in bringing the party to power.
Measured in such terms Tony Blair was a success for the Labour Party but it was he who had gained the reins of power and not the party. The party in the meantime had been reduced to a hollowed out hulk that had lost any idea of itself and what it was supposed to represent. Under Blair, politics in the party had been replaced by issues and issues were chosen or discarded not on the basis of how they might fit into a wider strategy for social change but rather on how they may or may not contribute to easing the path to power. Issues like protecting the mutual friendly societies in order to provide an alternative to conventional for-profit banking were jettisoned early on because Blair instinctively felt that depriving the members of building societies of the windfall that came with their privatisation would be a vote loser. Similarly with the issue of council house sales. Aware of the vote-winning track record of this policy for the Conservatives, rather than abandon it he in fact expanded it. Underneath all of this of course was an awareness of the power of big business and its capacity to do damage to Blair’s ambitions in the event of its access to the market being thwarted. So even when there were votes in a particular issue, if that issue had the capacity to offend the free market ideologues, he backed off (as was the case regarding the issue of the re-nationalisation of the railways).
The example of decisions such as these, taken as they were on issues that still resonate as major ingredients in any politics that claims to have as its object real social change, show just how far the party had moved from any form of coherent politics. Blair could never view such issues for what they were in terms of a traditional Labour perspective – as the defining atoms which when bound together define the politics of the party. Blair was always fearful of the prospect of Labour’s politics being defined by any series of issues or any combination of policies that rendered the result unmalleable. Viewing issues in such a fashion ran the risk of congealing into something that restricted the party’s ability to evolve and move – something that was essential if it was to continue to have the ability to chase down and occupy the forever shifting middle ground. Far better to view issues as disparate things that had no relationship with each other. That way the party could constantly reinvent itself in the context of the prevailing needs of the moment.
But his way of viewing politics as a form of fashion is not conducive to its development but rather its abandonment. As far as the Parliamentary Labour Party was concerned the situation was compounded by the fact that Blair, in order to advance his project, made it his business very early on to loosen the ties of the Party with the trade unions. It was the trade union connection that had always kept the parliamentary party grounded. As long as they represented an alternative power base Labour in parliament would have a route to the wider world outside the Westminster bubble and keep the issue of social change to the fore. Once that tie was loosened the Labour Party at Westminster became even more remote and with it any danger (as Blair saw it) of politics re-emerging within the Parliamentary Party (the trade unions finally showed their resentment at this treatment when they provided the defining factor in ensuring the election of Ed Miliband as leader in 2010). Of course the party also had to be provided with something that continued to give it a reason to exist – something that the members could view as the purpose behind the pursuit of power. Blair provided that in terms of preaching principles of “fairness”, “tolerance”, “opportunity”, and “equality”. But just as wars are made up of contending armies who believe that God is on their side and not on the side of the enemy such principles in politics are always also claimed by the opposition.
The Conservative Party was also claiming that similar principles underlaid its policies and in the absence of a coherent political philosophy it was impossible for anyone to know what, if anything, was the purpose of the Labour Party. Such a relationship with abstract principles is not what is required if the party in question makes any claim to represent the underdog and the oppressed. Principles such as these need to be interpreted in terms that genuinely challenge the status quo. Issues need to be taken up on that basis and policies made to cohere around such issues in a manner that provides a real alternative to the current way the world is organised. But for Blair such a thing was beyond his capacity to accept. For Blair the game was all about gaining power and retaining it at all costs, even if that cost was the loss of any capacity of the party to define itself politically. Nothing he did was advanced on the basis of providing any real alternative that offered the prospect of society being reconstructed but rather on the basis of how the existing arrangement could be tweaked in order to gain, or retain, the voter beyond the Labour heartlands.
The question of leadership.
Consequently, when the Labour Party was elected into government Blair’s relationship with the country and the party was similar to that of an enlightened despot. The only sense in which the relationship differed lay in the fact that, instead of policies being constructed on the basis of the whim of the despot they were constructed on the basis of what Blair identified as the middle ground. In such a situation the shifting middle ground was just as problematic as the whim of the despot. In both instances the relationship between despot and policies is one that is not conducive to the development of party politics.
A political party, with a membership that cohered around a particular political perspective, was the last thing that Blair’s project required. What Blair required in the role of enlightened despot was not a political party but an organisation capable and willing to implement his policies at any given time without establishing the credentials of such policies in terms of a defined political outlook. Unable to guarantee control of the wider party he could and did manage to exert control over the main prize, the Parliamentary Party. It was through the Parliamentary Party that he could ensure the compliance of the wider membership – a membership that in the final analysis remained susceptible to arguments mustered on the basis of Blair’s promise of the party in government. Blair was very aware of the need to refashion the relationship of the Prime Minister with his cabinet for the cabinet plays an important role in establishing discipline among the ranks. The capacity of the Prime Minister to exert control over his or her parliamentary colleagues has always been dependent upon the power cabinet appointments provide to dispense rewards and issue punishments. Although in Blair’s time the Parliamentary Labour Party retained the power of electing the shadow cabinet while in opposition (something that was abolished in 2011) it was the prerogative of the Prime Minister to make the actual appointments while in government and Blair used this power very skilfully.
This, in tandem with the fact that the wider party had been convinced that the main purpose of its existence was to retain power at all costs, meant that a fire blanket could be thrown over any spark of dissenting politics that might emerge within the parliamentary party. Such was the influence he held over the cabinet that the peculiar talents of such diverse individuals as David Blunkett, John Prescott and Clare Short, rarely felt the need to offer dissent but rather they became the enthusiastic advocates of Blair’s way of doing things. An example of how effective Blair’s methods were at stifling actual politics was illustrated in the case of Clare Short. In early March 2003, she threatened to resign at the prospect of Blair taking the country to war in Iraq, only to announce just over a week later, in what must be one of the most dramatic and inexplicable volte faces in modern politics, that not only would she remain in the cabinet but vote in support Blair’s resolution for war in the House of Commons! Such was the level of personal and organisational control that Blair exerted over his cabinet. It was only in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq that Blair’s power began to wane. By 2005 the implications of that decision was beginning to be felt. On 28 April 2005 the BBC’s Political Correspondent, Nick Assinder, observed:
“It is precisely Tony Blair’s allegedly presidential style of government and leadership – previously used to Labour’s advantage on campaigns – that is now being played down, even abandoned. Where he was once seen as a guaranteed vote winner for Labour he is now seen by many as a liability.”
It wasn’t so much that Blair had committed Britain to an illegal invasion that bestirred the majority of the parliamentary party at the time, it was more that the decision had become a vote loser. If, as had been the case with Margaret Thatcher and the invasion of the Falklands, the thing had turned out to be a vote winner (as Blair no doubt thought it would) there is little likelihood that there would have been such a rounding on him as began in 2005 and which led to his resignation in 2007.
But Blair remains the only Labour leader, since Harold Wilson in 1974, who has been successful with the electorate. That is an awesome fact and one that continues to exert an influence on the parliamentary party and provides the only model of success for many, if not the majority, of them. With the exceptions of Gerald Kaufman and Dennis Skinner, no serving member of the Parliamentary Party has known any other template for success. So, even though the Chilcot Inquiry found that Blair’s autocratic style of leadership was one of the central components in the disaster of Britain’s involvement in Iraq, and despite the fact that the Blair style was abandoned under the leadership of Ed Miliband, that leadership style remains one that is associated with success for many in the Parliamentary Party and no doubt fashions their current perception on how a proper leader should behave.
The peculiarity of Corbyn.
When the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party considers Corbyn as an alien in their midst, they are right. Corbyn is indeed an alien force to that majority but he remains an alien because the Parliamentary Party has been gutted of politics by Blair’s New Labour project. Corbyn came from a tradition within the party that was always a minority and had been left relatively undisturbed by the Blairite project. It was treated by Blair as a harmless eccentricity neither capable of gaining ground nor disrupting his grand plans. The problem was, when the general membership was given a voice under Miliband and that voice had long been crying out for a political alternative to the Tories, there was nothing in the party capable of providing it except the eccentricity of Labour’s left wing. In the past it would have been instinctive for the party to generate a coherent right-social democratic response to meet any challenge.
In 1981, after the election of Michael Foot as leader, four leading right-wing members of the parliamentary party resigned to form the Social Democrats and were subsequently joined by 28 Labour MPs (most of whom were already in danger of de-selection). Nonetheless the vast majority stayed loyal and cohered around an alternative social democratic position epitomised by the likes of Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman. There was no concerted campaign of rushing to the media to feed its ongoing anti-Foot campaign and no systematic leaking of damaging material. There was no such campaign because those within the party who opposed Foot believed that the party continued to have a role in opposition and did not want to damage that role by allying themselves with the hostile press. Instead, for the most part, they held their own counsel and bided their time. The party, to all intents and purposes, continued to present the face of unity to the electorate and did so until the next election in 1983 three years after Foot had became its leader. The party overwhelmingly lost that election to the Conservatives but it retained its cohesion in the context of a virulent anti-Foot media campaign (the Daily Mirror being the only paper which supported the party) and despite, or maybe because of, the fact the ex-Labour Social Democrats had gone into an electoral alliance with the Liberal Party in the years leading up to the election.
The post-Blair Parliamentary Labour Party has been rendered incapable of such a response. Those who differ from Corbyn cannot formulate an organisational or political alternative and remain disunited and incoherent. Made up as the dissidents are, of “moderates”, believers in “good causes,” Zionists, sociologists, residual Blairites, and careerists, they have failed to produce any identifiable political position and because they view the party as an organisation which serves no purpose unless it holds the reins of government they retain no sense of responsibility for preserving unity in the party while in opposition. In their frustration all they can do is to flail about in a disjointed, irrational, and irresponsible manner – something that would not have happened if the individual MPs involved had not long since jettisoned any concept of themselves as part of a movement that has an important role to play even while in opposition.
The response to Corbyn’s election
On 22 November 2015, The Telegraph published a piece by its Political Correspondent, Ben Riley-Smith, on Corbyn’s first 10 weeks in office. It is revealing now to look back at that time and see just how hostile was the establishment and the media to his leadership from the outset. But hostility from these quarters was only to be expected. What is more revealing is to see how the dissidents within the parliamentary party coalesced in ways which provided the headlines on which the hostile media gorged. It was not just a matter of the media reporting on the dissension inside the Parliamentary Party; the media was being actively recruited in the service of those dissidents. No longer capable of generating an honest debate inside the party because they lacked a coherent political position they resorted to providing the mud and smears which they knew the hostile media would lap up and regurgitate in ways which suited their agenda. They wanted rid of Corbyn. He was the spider in their hair that distracted them from looking good for the electorate. It has been said with justification that the majority of those who oppose Corbyn are not Blairite but that is beside the point. They are the product of an apolitical culture which has been created through decades of Blair’s influence on the Parliamentary Labour Party and their rush to the media as an ally for changing the Labour leadership is testimony of his abiding influence. In such circumstances it is no surprise that the only tactic they can employ is the manipulation of the media. In that sense they remain Blairites in an era when Blair has gone out of fashion.
Within days of Corbyn’s election some dissidents within the Parliamentary Labour Party were already briefing the press on the formation of Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet – briefings that led The Telegraph to castigate the process as “chaotic” and describing Corbyn as “begging Labour MPs to serve in his defence team.” Then into the second week of his leadership that quintessential Blairite Mandarin, Lord Mandelson, leaked a paper to the media in which he gave direction to the dissidents by providing them with a focus they would later adopt as a substitute for policy. Mandelson said that the election of Corbyn was akin to “putting two fingers up to the voters.” He was, according to Mandelson, unelectable – a mantra that has been repeated almost non-stop ever since.
It has to be said that Corbyn was not helping his case at this point. The establishment media were at this time on the prowl seeking any remark or comment they could extract from Corbyn in order to damage him and he, unused to handling the media from the position in which he now found himself, made the mistake of facilitating them. In his third week six members of his Shadow Cabinet publicly criticised him for saying that he would not use nuclear weapons if Prime Minister with Maria Eagle, his defence secretary, among them. What the situation, and the interests of the Labour Party, required at this time was for those with front-bench experience to provide Corby with the benefit of their experience of handling the media. Instead, during this initial sensitive period, on this issue and in response to his gaffe regarding the “Shoot-to-Kill” policy, his opponents within the parliamentary party showed an over-eagerness to be part of the establishment’s strategy to undermine him. As a result, at a time when trust could have been constructed among all who were prepared to defend the party at this vulnerable time, we had the spectacle of a party in turmoil being handed to the media and Corbyn’s attempt to form a cabinet along broad lines being deliberately thwarted from the outset. Responsibility for this lies full-square on the shoulders of Corbyn’s opponents. Since then the situation has gone from bad to worse with claims of Corbyn’s unelectability being the cornerstone for the continuing attacks on him and the focus of what passes as a debate by his opponents taking place in the media rather then the party.
Much was invested by Corbyn’s opponents in the prospect of a bad showing by the party in the local government elections in March. Surely that was going to be the occasion when their castigation of him as an electoral liability would be borne out by events. In fact, considering the level of public undermining embarked on by his opponents, the local government elections were remarkably successful for Labour. Voices were raised claiming that Labour should have done better but such voices were mainly from the direction of those who had done all in their power to ensure a bad electoral outcome for Labour.
Corbyn’s lack of leadership and the anti-Semitic smear campaign
An important element in the attempt to bring about this outcome was the scurrilous and artificially-generated row about the alleged growth of anti-Semitism in the party since Corbyn became leader – a row, timed as it was, a few days before the local government elections, could not have been designed to do more damage. On 27 April the Labour Party Member of Parliament for Bradford West was suspended from the party for reposting a cartoon map originally posted by an American anti-Zionist Jew on social media. It carried an obviously humorous and ironic caption the context of which was the migration of American Jews to the illegal settlements in Israel and it posited the alternative scenario of Israeli Jews being compelled to move to the United States. No reasonable reading of the social media posting which had been posted nearly two years earlier would warrant a charge of anti-Semitism, though it was anti-Zionist. However, it has been the object of Israeli propaganda for years past to ensure that the term anti-Zionist is perceived as being synonymous with anti-Semitic and those who serve this object in the UK are always on the lookout for issues on which they can advance this agenda. Here then was an ideal opportunity to trade on the ignorance of the general electorate to use the issue to smear Corbyn’s leadership as being responsible for an alleged growth of anti-Semitism in the party. Of course it was never mentioned that the MP involved, Naseem Shah, was not a Corbyn supporter. Although she had been appointed by Corbyn to the unpaid post of Parliamentary Private Secretary to his right-hand man, John MacDonnell, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Naseem Shah was in fact one of the new intake of Labour MPs’ (she had defeated George Galloway in the 2012 election) and had adopted a neutral position in the conflict between Corbyn and those who opposed him.
The following morning Ken Livingstone was approached by the media for his impression on the growth of anti-Semitism in the party in the context of the Naseem Shah incident and in the course of his reply in which he defended Naseem Shah he quoted the historical fact that in the 1930s the Hitler government had sought to introduce a policy which would involve working with the Zionists to move large numbers of Jews to Israel. This then became the main focus of the campaign, and sensing a big pro-Corbyn scalp, the Zionists and their supporters in the party descended on Livingstone. Nothing highlighted the relationship of many of the current members of the Parliamentary Labour Party with the media than the sight of the pro-Zionist John Mann, with television cameras conveniently in tow, ambushing Ken Livingstone on the streets as he was on the phone. Livingstone was then subjected to an avalanche of abuse and followed in a threatening manner by Mann along the street and inside a building. Such was the crescendo of attacks on Livingstone that he was suspended from the party the same day on a charge of “bringing the party into disrepute.” No similar charge was brought against John Mann for the prolonged public abuse he inflicted on Livingstone in front of the television cameras.
The suspension of Livingstone encouraged the further intensification of undermining activity among the anti-Corbyn camp and a concerted effort by the pro-Zionists, ex-Blair people of various hues, and the seaweed MPs who ebb and flow with the predominant current, was invested in another propaganda push. The issue of anti-Semitism in the party was to be used to construct another line of attack on Corbyn’s avowed unelectability. His failure to get to grips with the problem was depicted as a lack of leadership. On 1 May the Shadow Education Secretary, Lucy Powell told Channel 4 News: “There clearly is an issue with anti-Semitism in the Labour Party otherwise we wouldn’t have spent the best part of the last six or seven days talking about it.” So her only evidence of there being a significant problem with anti-Semitism in the party was the fact that there had been a media-generated furore about it over the previous week – a furore that had been fed by those opposed to Corbyn inside and outside the party. Lacking any substantial evidence of this she was compelled to admit that the anti-Semitic element was “probably a small element within the Labour Party and probably a small element in the wider society as well.” Yet, the fact that the media, in collaboration with pro-Zionist MPs, had defined the existence of this small element as a significant problem for Labour did not lead to her questioning that definition. Instead, she was prepared to suspend her own experience of what was happening in the party, in order to defer to the reality generated through media over-reporting and exaggeration.
Lucy Powell provides another example of how the predominant default position of the younger generation of Labour MPs is to defer to the media for the construction of their reality – something that is inevitable in the absence of a coherent political outlook through which it could be filtered. As the local elections approached the narrative of Jeremy Corbyn’s inability or, as was being claimed in some quarters, unwillingness, to tackle the anti-Semitism in the party became the major tangible example of his lack of leadership and this lack of leadership was appended to his perceived unelectability. Tom Watson, Labour’s Deputy Leader, was reported in The Telegraph (2 May) as voicing concern “that the anti-Semitism row could damage the party’s prospects in the local elections.” The Telegraph also reported that Sadiq Khan, the party’s candidate for Mayor of London, “has also raised concerns that he might lose because of the row.”
Although there seems to have been a plan to mount a coup attempt in the aftermath of the local government elections, this was shelved as the plotters lost their nerve in the face of a YouGov poll which showed that any challenge to Corbyn’s leadership was bound to fail (see: “Jeremy Corbyn’s Critics Forced to Put Possible Coup on Hold,” The Guardian, 3 May 2016). The unelectability argument was not reinforced sufficiently by the results of the local government elections on the 5 May, when Labour, predicted to lose more than 100 seats, more or less held its own. Nor was it reinforced by the election of Sadiq Khan for London Mayor. This undoubtedly weakened the cause of the coup-planners but it did not cause a rethink. According to The Telegraph the event that had now become the trigger-point for the coup was the Brexit referendum:
“There is growing pressure on the Labour leader ahead of the local elections on Thursday, in which his party is forecast to lose more than 100 seats. Senior figures are now so concerned about the row that they are openly discussing the possibility of an attempted coup following the EU referendum.” (“Labour has secretly suspended 50 members for anti-Semitic and racist comments.” The Telegraph, 2 May 2016).
So, having been convinced by the YouGuv poll to abandon any attempted coup in the aftermath of the local government elections they planned to wait until the next test of Corbyn’s leadership with the electorate – the EU referendum. It needs to be remembered that all of this was planned in early May and that the media were aware of it to the point that they were actually reporting it! Yet when it came, it was reported as some kind of spontaneous action.
The favourable (under the circumstances) results of the local government elections did not inhibit the coup planners but they needed to keep up the pressure and the war of attrition continued unabated. Almost immediately after his election as Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan went on the offensive against Corbyn. In an article in the Observer on 8 May he said, in a thinly veiled criticism of Corby’s leadership, that Labour would never win a general election without reaching out to Tory voters and businesses and that the party would “never be trusted to govern unless we reach out and engage with all voters. Labour has to be a big tent that appeals to everyone – not just its own activists.” There was nothing in Kahn’s position that was new (he had been one of the MPs who nominated him to maintain the show of a leadership election in 2015 leadership contest but famously said at the time that he would not be voting for him because he didn’t believe that Labour could win a general election under him (see: “Sadiq Khan Didn’t Turn his Back on Corbyn – He Never Really Supported Him,” Business Insider, 22 August 2016).
Brexit and the Coup Attempt
The right wing press proved to be uncannily accurate in reporting the intentions of the leaders of the anti-Corbyn group of MPs. On 2 May The Telegraph had predicted that there would an attempted coup in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum and the same day The Sun ran a story headlined, “Jeremy Corbyn ‘to face leadership challenge from veteran Labour MP Margaret Hodge.” The Telegraph the next day ran the more accurate headline: “Revealed: plot to oust Jeremy Corbyn by using veteran Labour MP Margaret Hodge to spark leadership contest.” According to The Sun:
“Senior Labour MPs believe they have persuaded party grandee Dame Margaret Hodge to stand against Jeremy Corbyn to spark a leadership contest. The plotters are also close to signing up 50 Labour MPs to publicly back her potential challenge this summer. A fifth of the Parliamentary Labour Party must support her to make it formal and start a full blown contest. Under the plan, Mrs. Hodge would then drop out and, having soaked up a furious backlash from Corbynistas, allow other challengers to come forward without blood on their hands. The former minister, 71, is seen by moderates as a highly credible figure who could inflict serious damage on Mr. Corbyn.
Any Labour MP who tries to oust him is likely to face a bitter deselection battle. But Dame Margaret will be 75 at the 2020 General Election and may be ready to stand down. She is respected party-wide and Jewish – which allows her to make a stand on Labour’s anti-semitism crisis.
One MP who is part of the plotting told The Sun: ‘Margaret is our perfect candidate – she has a lot of gravitas but is also expendable. She is weighing it all up now but we think she sees it as her duty and will do it.’
Mrs. Hodge has known Mr. Corbyn since the 1970s as Left-wingers on North London’s Islington Council. Former Home Secretary Alan Johnson has also been approached to be a stalking horse but refused because ‘he prefers an easier life’, another Labour MP plotter claimed.
Senior figures within the party plan a media blitz to attack Mr. Corbyn, 66, after Thursday’s local elections, when Labour is expected to suffer humiliating losses of 150 councillors. They will hold back from launching a coup until after June 23 so as not to hurt the pro-EU referendum effort.” (The Sun, 2 May 2016).
This shows quite clearly that the effort to oust Corbyn had nothing to do with the Brexit vote and had been planned nearly two months earlier. Yet it has been justified by all involved as something that has resulted from what they claim was Corbyn’s inept “Remain” campaign. Everything, it seems has to feed into this issue of leadership, even the cynical way that Margaret Hodge was seen as a useful instrument in the anti-Semitism line of attack.
Then, as predicted by The Sun and The Telegraph nearly two months earlier, in the aftermath of the vote for Brexit Dame Margaret Hodge, duly walked onto the media stage on 24 June to announce that she had reluctantly submitted a motion of no confidence in the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn to the chief of the parliamentary Labour party, John Cryer. The same day she appeared on television explaining that she had struggled long and hard with her conscience before making the decision to submit the motion of no confidence. We were treated to the quite astonishing sight of the media reporting all of this as if it had been fresh news and a decision that Hodge had only arrived at in the aftermath of the Brexit vote whereas everyone knew full well that she had been part of the planning of it for nearly two months.
Intimidation and abuse
One of the early exponents of the intimidation and abuse claims against Corbyn’s supporters was from Telegraph columnist, Dan Hodges (son of the actress and ex-Labour MP, Glenda Jackson). Hodges is an avowed Blairite propagandist and anti-Corbyn zealot who retains links with elements in the Parliamentary party that share his views. On 28 November 2015, a couple of months after Corbyn’s election as leader Hodges was invited to a debate on the BBC’s Daily Politics programme and used the occasion to claim that MPs who supported the upcoming government proposal to expand the use of the RAF in air strikes in Syria had been subject to systematic intimidation by Corbyn supporters. His justification for making such claims was that MPs of his acquaintance had received letters threatening deselection in the event of them voting with the government on this issue. Hodges continued his campaign in the aftermath of the parliamentary vote on Syria but with a vehemence that just fell short of accusing Corbyn of orchestrating the intimidation.
“Harassment and intimidation of those who have the temerity not to throw in their lot with the Corbyn revolution have been part of Labour’s discourse since the leadership election. Jeremy Corbyn has been aware of this, and has done nothing. And the reason he has done nothing is because the harassment and intimidation are being conducted by his supporters on his behalf. . .
When Jeremy Corbyn issues another of his regular statements calling for ‘respectful debate’ I don’t believe him. I think he actually welcomes the intimidation. And I believe he welcomes it because it helps pile pressure on his political opponents at a time when he is struggling – and failing – to assert his authority.
But there is a simple way Jeremy Corbyn could prove me wrong. There is an easy way for him to show he is serious about stopping the intimidation. He could stop talking. He could stop issuing statements. And he could do something.” (Corbyn Should Stop Talking and Start Acting on Intimidation, Total Politics, 4 December 2015.)
The three things that Corbyn could do according to Hodges was for him to bar Labour members from joining Momentum the same way that that they banned membership of Militant; he should do the same for membership of the Stop the War Coalition; and he should remove Ken Livingston from his position on Labour’s defence review.
Presumably because Corbyn was not receptive to his advice Hodges resigned from the Labour Party later in December (he had previously resigned during the Miliband leadership and returned). Then, free from what he must have felt were the restraints of membership his pen plumbed new depths. The reason this journalist is significant is because of his contacts within the Labour Party and because he has consciously established for himself the role of Blairite propagandist in the post-Blair age and his writings do carry weight among those who are intent on the destruction of Jeremy Corbyn. Also, he is prepared to hack a path through the truth where no respectable Blairite or anti-Corbyn MP would lead but are prepared to follow.
The Labour MP, Jo Cox, was murdered on 16 June 2016 by a deranged individual who reported as shouting the words “Britain First” or something to that effect during the assault. His insanity manifested itself in an extreme right-wing hodge-podge of beliefs. Five weeks after her murder Dan Hodges wrote an article for the Daily Mail entitled “Reckon he’s a nice bloke? Well let me show you the dark, menacing reality behind ‘The Great Corbyn Myth’”. The article begins:
“The last time I talked to Jo Cox she was scared. It was 12 days after she had expressed her regret at nominating Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership. Her office had been inundated with phone calls. Many of them were aggressive, some were openly abusive.
She told me she wasn’t overly concerned for herself, but that she was worried about the effect on her staff. ‘It’s been virtually non-stop,’ she said. She was a Labour MP, and she and her team were being confronted by Labour members conducting a campaign of hate on behalf of the leader of the Labour Party.
On Thursday, Jeremy Corbyn formally launched his re-election bid. ‘I hold out the hand of friendship,’ he said. Then he announced all Labour MPs would be facing mandatory reselection.
Just in case they didn’t get the message, he added: ‘It’s the job, it’s the duty, it’s the responsibility of every Labour MP to get behind the party.’ Two hours later, it was announced that police had advised Angela Eagle to cancel all her public surgeries on safety grounds.” (Daily Mail, 24 July 2016).
The purpose of this piece was to somehow connect the murder of a Labour MP by a patently disturbed individual of right-wing beliefs with a narrative constructed along lines that sought to implicate Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters in her murder. In the case of Angela Eagle, the person arrested for the death threat she received turned out not to have been a constituent but someone who was living in Renfrewshire in Scotland. It also emerged that Angela Eagle always closed her surgeries during August and her decision to close her constituency surgery meant her closing it a week earlier than usual. This is not to say that there was no threatening or abusive behaviour from Corbyn supporters. That would require his supporters being an army of saints. Given their numbers there was bound to be examples of bad behaviour but such behaviour did not serve Corbyn’s interests, but did serve that of his opponents. Whenever there was any hint of such behaviour the media was very quickly enlisted in propagating it by Corbyn’s opponents as proof that the constituency of Corbyn’s support was rife with such people.
And so it went on. On 27 June 172 members of the Parliamentary Labour Party voted in favour of the motion of no confidence tabled by Margaret Hodge the previous week. In the couple of days leading up to this vote the vast majority of his shadow cabinet resigned in the midst of a well-organised media circus. However, Corbyn refused to be intimidated and referred to the mandate given to him by the general membership just nine months earlier. If the anti-Corbyn majority among the Parliamentary Labour Party had counted on his resignation they were mistaken and quickly realised that they would have to find a replacement that was acceptable to the general membership in a new leadership election. Since then the party has been in a state of perpetual warfare with the anti-Corbyn PLP prepared to throw all kinds of accusations against Corbyn, the latest as this piece is being written is the claim by an ex-member of his shadow cabinet that he is racist, or at least has behaved in a racist manner.
The difficulty of defining intimidation
Alongside this drip-feeding of negative stories about Corbyn to a compliant media there has been an increase in accusations of intimidation and abuse against Corbyn supporters. While such behaviour undoubtedly exists it is nowhere near the levels being complained of and media reporting of such incidents fail to provide any context where such behaviour, inexcusable as it is, might have taken place. Intimidation can take many forms and is often in the eye of the beholder. It may vary from aggressive body language to raised voices to abusive language in emails or letters, or it may be something that is described as intimidation because the recipient prefers to define it so. There have been instances where an MP has refused to engage with a member of the local party and that person, in their frustration at not being provided with an explanation of the behaviour of their local MP pays a personal visit to the MP’s surgery. Undoubtedly angry words are sometimes used in that situation and undoubtedly some MPs are all to eager to define this as intimidation. Occurrences of this nature are almost made inevitable because the NEC has decided in its wisdom to suspend all constituency meetings until after the leadership election leaving constituency Labour Party members no choice but to visit the local MP’s constituency surgery with all the potential for any MP so inclined to accuse the visitor of intimidation. There have been many such accusations flying around but few actual police charges made.