2016 10 Editorial

Corbyn’s re-election: There will be trouble ahead

Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as Labour leader with an increased majority would in normal times lay the leadership issue to rest. But we don’t live in normal times. Even though Corbyn won a majority of votes in all three categories—full members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters—there are those within the parliamentary party who refuse to accept the result. They have publicly hinted, in spite of Corbyn’s call for unity, that they will continue to make life difficult for the leader. It’s clear therefore that the overriding message of the result is that there is a wide disconnect between ordinary members and supporters and the parliamentary party. Unless this disconnection is unravelled the future for Labour looks exceedingly grim.

A start on this could be made by asking the question, “Why did Corbyn win?” A plausible answer to this was given shortly after his first victory twelve months ago. Writing in the London Evening Standard of 15 September 2015, City Columnist Anthony Hilton said: “People did not vote for new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at the weekend because they suddenly turned socialist. They voted again because they are fed up with austerity and the way bankers and big business bosses give the impression that the entire economic system exists for their benefit.”

At the time this was, and indeed still is, an accurate description of those Corbyn supporters who make up Momentum. Owen Smith described it as “a party within the party.” But Momentum is not another Militant. It is not a dogmatic, rigid faction within Labour.  It is not even affiliated to Labour. It is a movement made up of people of all ages who hold diverse opinions on a range of issues but who are united in their desire to change the political and economic landscape to improve the lives of the great majority. They want a different kind of politics and see in Jeremy Corbyn a politician who will deliver their desire.

The election campaign itself did little to stir the bones. The differences between Corbyn and Smith on economic and industrial policy were non-existent, with Smith dotting every i and crossing every t of Corbyn’s programme. And yet Smith repeatedly said that Corbyn was unfit to be leader and that he would not serve in his shadow cabinet should he win. Corbyn has now offered an olive branch to Smith and others who resigned from the shadow cabinet, inviting them to help him unite the party and fight the Tories. A few have indicated they will accept the offer, but most are undecided or have refused the offer.

Corbyn will choose his new shadow cabinet within a few weeks, but there is a call from most of his parliamentary colleagues for the present system to be ditched. They are demanding that the parliamentary party elects the shadow cabinet from a list of willing candidates. This is the system that existed until it was scrapped by Ed Miliband in 2011. Where was the roar of disapproval at the time from those now calling for its return? Did they not see that handing sole power to party members and supporters could result in the election of a more left leader?

A recent vote in the parliamentary party resulted in 169 to 34 in favour of the parliamentary party electing the shadow cabinet. But Corbyn wants the members to have a greater role, which presumably includes elections to the shadow cabinet. Discussions on this are ongoing on this but a compromise of sorts may be necessary if the party is to end the squabbling that is doing so much damage to Labour. Corbyn is said to be in favour of compromise but are his parliamentary opponents? If Corbyn is prepared to compromise he should expect something positive in return from MPs. If this is not forthcoming and given the power to elect the shadow cabinet, Labour MPs in their present mood would probably exclude all Corbyn supporters from the Front Bench. They would thus frustrate the will of more than 300,000 members and supporters who continue to trust Corbyn.

Rumours continue of the threat of deselection by Corbyn supporters, as if deselection, or reselection as it is more accurately known, had just been invented by a group of vindictive members. Constituency parties have had the right to select and reselect for generations. All Labour MPs know this. What is not on the agenda is mandatory reselection. But boundary changes before 2020 will in any case mean reselection for many Labour MPs, including Corbyn himself.  The House of Commons is to be reduced from 650 to 600 members. Labour has described the boundary changes as “gerrymandering”, with Labour losing more seats than the Tories on an outdated electoral register. Contrast this with the unelected 810 members of the House of Lords.

Corbyn’s opponents cite an apparent escalation in the online abuse of Labour members as further evidence of his unfitness to lead. He is deemed to be responsible for this, even though he has consistently condemned all forms of abuse. But apparently this is not enough; he is urged to act upon it, as if he ought to be judge and jury of all behaviour by members and non-members alike. Yvette Cooper and Ruth Smeeth are the latest to draw attention to this, with the latter claiming 25,000 incidents of abuse, much of it racial. In an interview she gave in the London Evening Standard it was reported that two people are being investigated by counter-terrorism police. Their political affiliation was not stated.  At conference Corbyn again condemned the abuse of and threats to MPs stressing that it will not be tolerated in the party. Some of the abuse and threats may be criminal and those affected will no doubt co-operate with the police to apprehend those responsible.

Labour’s National Executive Committee, not the party leader, is the body responsible for the conduct of party members. On 20 September, the day that Ruth Smeeth’s interview appeared in the London Evening Standard, the NEC unanimously agreed to a new statement on social media behaviour that will be included in the terms and conditions of membership. Among other pledges, party members will have to promise “to act within the spirit and rules of the Labour party in my conduct both on and offline, with members and non-members.” The statement condemns all forms of abuse and says it “will take action against those who commit it” Ruth Smeeth described the statement as “a great step forward” and said “MPs have been subject to a tsunami of abuse. It is unfortunate that we have got to this place but, given the changing nature of social media, I welcome the proposal.”

The divisions between Corbyn and his parliamentary colleagues have captured the media headlines, but  control of the NEC is crucial for those who want to guide the direction of the party. Recent elections to the 33 strong body resulted in Corbyn supporters winning all 6 constituency labour party seats. However, at the moment the political balance on the NEC is unclear. Corbyn supporters may have a very thin majority. But the appointed addition of one member each from Scotland and Wales, agreed at party conference and known to be Corbyn opponents, could swing the balance the other way. If Corbyn has lost his majority on the NEC it could have serious implications for future policy development and the political direction of the party.

In spite of media cynicism and sniping by Corbyn opponents, Labour had a good conference. Corbyn’s and McDonnell’s speeches were enthusiastically received, with both laying out a blueprint for a future Labour government. The positive policy proposals outlined will be discussed further in detail in the NEC and at National Labour’s Policy Forum, with significant input from party members.

Inevitably, however, there has to be a party pooper or, more accurately, a party wrecker. According to a Guardian report of 27 September, Peter Mandelson, speaking at a Royal Television Society conference in London, called for an early general election “so we can deal with the awful situation in the Labour party earlier than 2020.” Here we have a senior Labour politician, a former minister in the Blair government, praying for a Tory victory earlier than 2020 in order to remove Jeremy Corbyn as party leader. There can be no other interpretation of his words. An ordinary member, publicly stating that they want Labour to be defeated at the next general election, would be thrown out of the party. Over to the NEC.

And more prophets of doom abound in Labour. One such prophet who failed to lead the party to victory in two general elections is 74 year old Neil (Lord) Kinnock. He has stated that he will not live to see another Labour government. But prophets occasionally get things wrong. Nostradamus failed to forecast the time of his own death. And Neil (Lord) Kinnock is not in that class of prophets.