I asked Ken Livingstone a question once in a public meeting. I say public – actually it was pretty much invitation-only; it wasn’t really a meeting, either, so much as a dinner. This was back when I was a computing journalist; I went to a dinner that was laid on for exhibitors at a trade show, and the after-dinner speaker was, bizarrely, the MP for Brent East, who had recently declared his intention of running for Mayor of London. He was a good speaker, too; fluent, funny, gave straight answers to questions (somebody with a long memory even asked him about the removal of Andrew McIntosh).
What I asked him, anyway, was what he was still doing in the Labour Party. This was 1998, New Labour very much in the ascendant. You’re a libertarian socialist, I said to Ken (he weighed it up briefly and nodded). But Labour under Blair is opposed to socialism, and it’s becoming pretty clear that it’s opposed to any kind of libertarianism as well. So why stay in a party that’s working against everything you stand for?
His reply was interesting. He said that the number of people who were New Labour was actually very small; there were four hundred Labour MPs in Parliament, and “the vast majority of them haven’t got a clue; they’re going along with Blair and Brown now, but they’d go along with a different leadership just as readily”.
1998 is a long time ago, and the London mayorship has turned out to be more a graveyard of ambition than a stepping stone to power (Sadiq Khan take note). Perhaps more to the point, the rebellion against Jeremy Corbyn seems to have proved Livingstone fairly dramatically wrong – given a very different leader from Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband or Harriet Harman, the vast majority of Labour MPs aren’t ready to go along with him at all. (I’m not touching the question of whether Labour MPs have got a clue or not, except to say that the radical Left is a much better school of economics and politics than the centre-left. That’s not to say there are no bright and well-informed people on the Right of the Labour Party – there are plenty – but the minimum level of cluefulness needed to get by on the Left is a bit higher.)
So what’s going on? Was Livingstone underestimating his colleagues’ political principle as well as (arguably) their political awareness? Has Corbyn united the PLP in opposition to him? By extension, are Corbyn’s political positions just too radical for the Labour Party to stomach? I think the answer to all these questions – or at least the second and third – is No; however much it might look like it, we’re not seeing the parliamentary Labour Party rising en masse against a leader they can’t bring themselves to follow. The anti-Corbyn coalition is opportunistic and temporary; whether it falls apart before or after the coup fails, both of those things are almost certain to happen.
To get a feel for how little there is that unites the anti-Corbyn forces, think about everything they’re not talking about. Although attacking Corbyn’s competence as a leader is very much on the menu, it’s an odd sort of attack that doesn’t focus on anything the leader has actually done. In retrospect the attacks on Corbyn immediately after the EU referendum can be seen as a kind of softening-up barrage of bullshit, establishing the misleading impression that Corbyn had been ‘invisible’ during the referendum and the downright false impression that Labour Leave voters had delivered the result. But if it wasn’t that that Corbyn was being blamed for – and it surely wasn’t – what was it? Very few in all the torrent of resignation letters went into any detail at all; most, if they didn’t focus on the referendum result, simply recorded the writer’s realisation (usually “with a heavy heart”) that Corbyn wasn’t a very good leader. Some even claimed that they were resigning because Corbyn had lost the confidence of many of their Shadow Cabinet colleagues, and left it at that. Sadly, the question of what those MPs would do if many of their Shadow Cabinet colleagues were to jump off a bridge must remain unanswered.
Corbyn isn’t one of nature’s Leaders of Men, and never claimed to be. But leadership isn’t – or at least, in a democratic party, shouldn’t be – a charismatic property possessed by the leader, conferring the power to bind other MPs to his or her will. Leadership is a function; it’s a particular type of relationship between formal equals, which is required by social structures too large to run on face-to-face relations of equality. Certainly it’s a function that can be carried out well or badly; in particular, failures in communication can cause problems in carrying it out, particularly when one side’s expectations are ignored or go unexpressed. But if it is something that can be done well or badly, then it’s something that can – in any given situation – be done better. So, Labour MPs perceive Corbyn to have fallen short of what they expect from their leaders: when and how? Are those perceptions reliable and unbiased? Is there a mismatch between how MPs understand the role of the leader and how Corbyn understands it? If there are shortcomings in Corbyn’s performance as leader, can these be addressed in good faith – either by Corbyn changing the way he works or through more collegial forms of leadership?
The PLP is made up of grownups, and I would have thought the discussion would have progressed by now, from ‘how unhappy we are’ to ‘what’s gone wrong’ and on to ‘how it can be put right’. Instead it seems to have regressed, to settle on ‘who we can blame’. But this, coming back to my starting point, isn’t all that surprising. What’s gone wrong in Corbyn’s relationship with the parliamentary party is a failure of leadership – and we elected more than one leader last September. I voted for Tom Watson in the hope that he’d be Corbyn’s ally, go-between and troubleshooter; as such he’s been useless at best, and frequently worse than useless. Since the EU referendum he’s oscillated between outright opposition to Corbyn and half-hearted attempts to present himself as an ‘honest broker’. In either capacity, he’s not available as a target for criticism – the criticism is for Corbyn alone. But this necessarily means that no shortcomings that Watson could have redressed can form part of the indictment, which in turn means that substance and detail must be kept to the minimum.
What’s equally striking is that nobody’s talking about policy: nobody’s saying the party should either maintain the policy directions laid down by Corbyn and McDonnell or abandon them – although logically it really has to be one or the other. The reason for this omission isn’t far to seek; Lisa Nandy, Angela Eagle and Gisela Stuart might agree about many things, but I’m damned if I can think what they are. The coup leaders – and Eagle, their current figurehead – can’t tack Left without sounding a bit Corbynite and antagonising the Right, and they can’t go Right without evoking John Mann and losing the soft Left; their only tactical solution is to go nowhere at all, relying on vague platitudes about unity and hope. What their longer-term solution is, we don’t know – except that it has to begin with ditching Jeremy Corbyn, so presumably will entail a fairly substantial move to the Right. Only not the Right Right – after all, Angela Eagle’s not one of those right-wingers, like Peter Mandelson or Tony Blair or somebody. Although she has got Mandelson working with her – and Blair has endorsed her too – but that just shows how broad her appeal is. It’s a message of unity! And hope!
If policy isn’t being discussed, there’s certainly no discussion of whether a move to the Right in policy terms is necessary or appropriate. And this is odd, particularly for anyone who remembers all those years when Corbyn was a serial rebel against Labour government policy. (According to Theyworkforyou, Corbyn rebelled in just under 19% of all votes he attended under New Labour; this is on the high side among Labour MPs – the equivalent figure for Angela Eagle is 0.6% – but still seems lower than one might have expected.) We know that Corbyn’s views are completely at odds with what was the consensus in the Labour Party, post-Blair, and (what’s slightly different) with the positions now being put forward by the neo-Blairite Progress wing of the party: we know, in other words, that Corbyn is opposed to austerity, opposed to aggressive war, opposed to further privatisation of the public sector and in favour of public provision of services, the railways included. We also know that austerity has been a self-inflicted social and economic disaster for Britain, that the Iraq war was far worse than that, that a majority has consistently voted for renationalising the railways and that there is no appetite for further privatisation; in short, we know that most of the ideas Corbyn is opposed to are bad, unpopular or both.
As for Corbyn’s extreme-Left position on the spectrum, to a surprisingly large extent this is an artefact of the way the entire spectrum has moved. Anyone born in Britain over 40 years ago – which is to say, about half of the native population – can remember living in a country where the railways, bus services, gas, electricity, water and the coal and steel industries were publicly owned; these things aren’t inconceivable by any means. The SDP manifesto in 1983 – that fabled moderate alternative to the unelectable Labour Party – proposed to complete the privatisation of British Telecommunications (as it then was) but carry out no further privatisations after that: publicly-owned utilities aren’t even on Corbyn’s map, but they were Shirley Williams’s policy a generation ago. For all of these reasons, Corbyn’s and McDonnell’s policies have made more headway, and gained more credibility, than their opponents might like to admit. (Their opponents in the party, that is. Theresa May is happy to borrow them.) Anyone trying to develop an alternative, definitively non-Corbynite policy platform might have a few quick wins, reversing positions which are genuinely unpopular – so “renew Trident” and “don’t say anything nice about Hamas” – but how they would fill in the blanks after that is anyone’s guess.
So: 170+ MPs who haven’t agreed on any specific policies, or on any specific criticisms of their leader, have united behind a single, non-negotiable demand: the leader is wrong and must go. Or rather, the leader is wrong and should never have been elected. Nothing says more about Corbyn’s opponents than their openly-expressed regrets that Corbyn was allowed to get on the ballot or that the election result was allowed to stand. Let’s be clear about this: Corbyn won because a “one member one vote” system was used; he won on the first ballot because this election included an ‘open primary’ element (the £3 voters). OMOV (as we’ve seen) is a longstanding demand of the Labour Right; many of Corbyn’s current opponents positively welcomed its introduction in the leadership voting system. As for the open primary element, look at the third letter on this page:
We welcome Ed Miliband’s bold speech setting out reforms to ensure that Labour politics is more open and that machine politics is consigned to history. … We support Ed Miliband’s view that Labour must “reach out to others outside our party” in order “to genuinely build a movement again”, and agree that primaries may help this process
Signatories include James Bloodworth, Anne Clwyd, David Goodhart, John Mann, Hopi Sen and Gisela Stuart. It’s not even that they can’t say they weren’t warned; they knew what was proposed and they were all in favour. Perhaps a more prescient comment is this from Miliband’s advisor Arnie Graf:
“Not everyone was willing to open up the party … I spoke to one person who said, ‘But if we allow in a lot of people and give them the vote, who knows what they’ll do?’ I thought, ‘Well, if you want to stitch up everything, maybe that’s why you’re losing so badly …'”
What they’ll do, it turns out, is vote for a quiet, unassuming man with no ‘front’, no charisma to speak of, limited public speaking skills and no governmental or even Shadow Cabinet experience, for no other reason than that he’s standing for what he believes in and they like his policies. And then they’ll join the party, in really staggeringly large numbers. And then, when you have a by-election, they’ll get out and knock on doors and get the party an increased majority.
But what it also means is that the centre of gravity in the party has shifted: rather than have the parliamentary party pick its candidate and let the people ratify it – or even pick a shortlist and let the people choose among them – in this case the people have actually chosen. And this, ultimately, is why Corbyn’s leadership seems to have proved Ken Livingstone wrong. Livingstone himself is an operator and always has been; when he was asked that question about Andrew McIntosh, he looked thoughtful for a moment and said, “Sometimes in politics you need to be able to see what’s got to be done.” Corbyn isn’t; he’s a campaigner and an activist, but he’s never operated a political machine or shown much interest in doing so. He’s got a power base now, but almost none of it is within the parliamentary party – and he hasn’t known how to impose himself on the parliamentary party, or (again) shown much interest in doing so.
This is why Livingstone was wrong about Corbyn – and why he would have been right, if things had worked out differently and he’d been the Campaign Group candidate on the ballot last year. Livingstone as leader would have known how to put a bit of stick about – in the immortal words of Francis Urquhart – and would have made sure it happened. And then, you can bet, the docile majority of Labour MPs would have followed. MPs are like political journalists – they like the smell of power, and if they don’t get it they get bored and drift away. I suspect this is also why the coup attempt took hold so quickly, despite being so hopeless in so many ways. The minority who are organising it seem to know what they’re doing, they’ve got money behind them and they’ve got media and PR connections to spare: smells like power.
What happens next? I can’t see a happy ending in the short term. The Labour Party has, basically, tripled in size over the last year; it’s also got a leader who stands for a number of policies which make a coherent alternative to the played-out script of New Labour, and which in themselves have wide popularity. All of this has to be a good thing. But it’s the kind of good thing that poses a direct threat to the power and prestige of the parliamentary party. Corbyn’s dream of transforming the party into an activist social movement isn’t going to happen overnight; it’ll need people on the ground, which means that a new generation of local activists is going to need time to emerge and find their feet. When they do, though, sooner or later they’re going to want to stand for election, or at least to hold their local MPs accountable. That’s a battle which MPs can’t win in the long term, or not without abandoning party democracy. If Corbyn succeeds, the party will be transformed. Those who want to stop this happening have clearly decided to start the fight early, in the hope of nipping the process in the bud. What happens to the party if they win, I don’t think anybody knows – as we’ve seen, there’s nothing that unites these rebels other than the hope of defending their own position. Set beside a candidate who has definite ideas and stands up for them, it’s not an appealing prospect – which is why they’re currently attempting to avoid a contested election involving Corbyn. Which is why it’s a coup; which is why the coup must fail.
I’m no leader
I just can’t see myself following you
and that’s not in a heavy way ‘you’ …
not you personally but
– doseone, “Questions over coffee”