The history of the Labour Party offers many lessons and instructive vignettes. But I think one resource which has been overlooked – and one in which the party’s history is rich, perhaps lamentably rich – is the stock of bright ideas that don’t work. Many bright ideas have been tried out over the years – particularly in the field of leadership – and quite a few of them have been dismal failures. The least we can do is learn from them.
Bad Idea 1: How about selecting a leader who openly repudiates the party’s beliefs and values and who appears glib and untrustworthy, but who offers to lead the party with such force, suavity and charisma that we’re certain to win elections?
See 1994. To be fair, this did seem like a good idea to a lot of people at the time; many people overlooked the problems with this particular bright idea for a decade or more. But it’s fair to say that it turned out to have a limited shelf-life, and that Labour Party members – and Labour voters – aren’t eager to give it another try.
Bad Idea 2: How about selecting a leader who has firmly-held convictions and is incapable of dissembling them, but believes that suavity and polish are required, and squares the circle by speaking in carefully-prepared soundbites which have been worded in such a way that they can be delivered with sincerity?
See 2010. Alas, poor Ed. Again, it’s hard to see this approach getting much traction again any time soon.
Bad Idea 3: How about banding together with the Tories – no, wait, hear me out – banding together with the Tories, because the alternative to the Tories is even worse?
See 2014, and inquire after the whereabouts of the 41 Scottish Labour MPs elected in 2010. The Better Together campaign showed convincingly that, where a third party is campaigning on the argument that Labour and the Tories are both the same, the very last thing Labour should do is share platforms with the Tories. Distancing Labour from the Tories is elementary political hygiene.
Bad Idea 4: How about creating a whole new official opposition, by getting together some popular well-liked MPs and breaking with the Labour leadership? We could get some big donors onside, get lots of exposure in the media – people would go for that in a big way, we’d be the third party in no time and then…
…and then you’d keep the Tories in power for the best part of a generation, letting them shift political discourse far to the Right of what even you wanted*, before eventually slinking back into Labour with your tail between your legs and trying to act like it was what you meant to do all along. See, see and see again 1981. For heaven’s sake don’t do that to us again.
*The 1983 SDP manifesto proposed a halt to privatisation – which at the time meant keeping gas, electricity, coal and steel in the public sector.
Bad Idea 5: How about we just do it – how about we stop messing around and just take over? We owe it to the voters. The members will see it was the right thing to do…
Breaking with my initial setup, this isn’t something that’s been tried and failed – but it is a colossally bad idea. This isn’t a Facebook group or a fan club we’re talking about here – it’s the Labour Party, a membership organisation with a constitution and rules, including rules on how that constitution and those rules can be changed. It’s got trade union affiliates, on whom it depends for much of its financing; it’s also got hundreds of thousands of individual members, on whom it depends for subscriptions, donations and (crucially) unpaid labour. (Why do you suppose Labour’s majority has gone up at both the by-elections held since Corbyn became leader?) Treat us like passive spectators and docile cannon-fodder – treat us like mugs, in other words – and we will not be pleased. You may be able to give Corbyn the pearl-handled revolver treatment – you may even be able to handwave the rules and install Keir Starmer or Chuka Umunna before Christmas – but if you do, let me tell you, we will walk. We’ll walk in our tens of thousands – and the unions whose leaders have pledged support for Corbyn will be walking with us. I wouldn’t even rule out a legal challenge – we would be talking about a coup in a democratic political organisation, after all.
What’s never stated openly in the talk about coups is the reason why a coup is necessary. Corbyn can’t simply be persuaded to put himself up for re-election, because if he did he would win. It’s a coup against the Labour party membership, in other words. This really ought to tell you something.
So what can Labour MPs do, if they’ve become collectively convinced that their leader isn’t up to the job? I’m not going to tell them to shut up and get behind their elected leader, if only because that clearly wouldn’t work. Instead, I’ll close with a couple of potential good ideas.
Good Idea 1: Accountability
So Corbyn isn’t delivering what you’d consider to be leadership. Perhaps he thinks he is; perhaps (and I think more probably) he knows he isn’t delivering but doesn’t think it matters; perhaps he never intended to be a leader, seeing himself more as part of a team of like-minded campaigners. Whatever the problem is, you can fix it through mechanisms of accountability. You agree among yourselves what you want from a leader, or a leadership team; you put your demands forward; and, when your leader says he isn’t the guy to deliver what you’re asking for, you ask him how he’s going to get it done and who he’s going to get it done by. Basically you break the job of leadership up into bits that can be done by other members of the leadership team – then ask your leader who he’s going to get to do what, and how he’s going to make sure they do it. You can get what you want, if you’re willing to go through the hard grind of identifying what it is you want and making sure structures get set up to deliver it. This would also be a lot more democratic and participatory than pinning your hopes on a Great Man (or Woman), and would represent a return to the collegiate style of politics that was lost in the wreck of Old Labour.
Good Idea 2: Diplomacy
Say you’ve tried Good Idea 1 (not that anybody has, as far as I can tell) and it hasn’t worked; say you’re convinced that all else has in fact failed, and the guy in the top job has to go. How do you get round the ‘party democracy’ problem? Well, first you stop referring to party democracy as a problem in the way of your grand plans – if anything it’s the other way round. Then, you get Corbyn to agree not to stand again, and to nominate a successor who is acceptable to the party membership – and then you get him to resign. Simple, eh? What this means, of course, is that you can’t depose the guy until you’ve (a) got a successor lined up who is acceptable to the membership and (b) made contact with Corbyn’s allies and persuaded them to persuade him to go along with your plan. In short, it means we’re talking about a negotiated succession, with an awful lot of groundwork put in beforehand, and not a coup; and it means that all the investment and preparation you’ve put into your plan to do a Yeltsin has been wasted at best, positively counter-productive at worst. But it also means that the appalling cost of the coup route – which at best is bound to weaken the party and at worst could destroy it altogether – can be avoided; that’s got to be worth something.
Whether these words of advice will reach anyone in a position to act on them I don’t know; I suspect they’re about as likely to reach Tom Watson (for example) as if I’d put them in a bottle and thrown it in the Manchester Ship Canal. But I can see a major disaster threatening my party, and I wanted to say something.