You know you’ve got too much news when, for most of a week, the catastrophic disintegration of a major political party struggles to make the front page. Spare a particular thought for Angela Eagle, whose leadership launch had the misfortune of clashing with Andrea Leadsom withdrawing from the Tory contest – meaning that as she set out her vision for the party, all of the top journalists were running for the exits. At the Q&A at the end, she was left talking to a half-empty room.
As someone who admires effective politicians, you can’t help but be impressed by the Tories – a shock leadership contest completely resolved in sixteen days. By contrast, the Labour party will be publicly banging its head against a wall from now until late September. Throw the Trident vote into the middle of that, and political journalism will start to resemble investigating a rail wreck and counting the body parts.
Ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected, we’ve been watching to see whether his leadership could be made to work in the general terms of Westminster – new electoral ground broken; government forced to climb down; etc. In those terms, Corbyn has failed. We are now into a very different contest: not a courtship of the public, but a messy and spiteful divorce, complete with thrown bricks and death threats.
It’s so intractable because at the its heart there is a clash of two completely watertight mandates.
- As leader of the opposition, Corbyn is expected to be the person most able to form a government if the ruling party gives way. His mandate is established by his ability to carry something approaching a parliamentary majority, and to mobilise the biggest team to hold the government to account. Corbyn can’t do this.
- But as leader of the Labour Party, Corbyn has a direct mandate from the membership. His job is to stand up for what Labour members believe. In terms of the party constitution, authority radiates from this position, and not from his abilities in Parliament. Corbyn’s mandate here is still strong.
This is a muddle, created by the mistaken opinion that more democracy is always a good thing. In practice, split authorities are usually a deadlock waiting to happen (just look at Congress in the US). And when people insist on completely ignoring all but one source of authority, the results rarely look democratic.
For most of us, the hint’s in the name. It’s ‘leader of the opposition’, not ‘opponent in chief’. But Corbyn’s claim is entirely in terms of the latter.
It’s not impossible to reconcile these two requirements. You could argue that the leader of the Labour arty needs to be able to do both, or has to go. Alternatively, you could imagine a Labour party where Corbyn has a title of ‘leader’, and someone else is the public face. In the event of a win, that person becomes PM with Corbyn hovering behind their shoulder as the party’s spiritual leader. But the first has been tried, and the second would require a heavy reworking of the party constitution, which isn’t going to happen half-way through a leadership contest.
And it also doesn’t address something deep in Labour’s soul. For a decent part of Labour’s membership, victory is a dirty word. In their mental thesaurus, you’d find it next to ‘compromise’. The head of Momentum prompted astonishment early in the week with the tweet below.
This conflict is anything but new. It was best shown in the 1920s and 30s in another battle for the soul of the Labour party. Ramsay MacDonald was Britain’s first Labour PM. The reason very few people have heard of him is that he is pretty much damnatio memoriae within the party because of his reaction to the economic crisis following the Wall Street Crash.
His own party wouldn’t back him and his Chancellor on an austerity programme. In 1931, unable to get any business done at a time of national crisis, he tried to form a National Government with the Tories. His followers reacted by expelling him and his friends from the party; there was a snap election where Labour lost 235 seats and the man left in charge was a sainted, otherworldly pacifist called George Lansbury.
Post-Iraq, the Labour party is dominated by the Lansbury wing. The New Statesman recently pointed out that three quarters of the Labour party membership are ABC1s – affluent people – and most are living in the south east and London. It’s an ideological commitment far more than it is an upsurge of the working masses.
I’m wary of calling this leadership election. It’s wrong to assume that former Corbyn voters will stick with him, after his catalogue of disasters. The electorate in this contest is sufficiently weird that you can predict little. However:
- There are 180,000 new Labour members since May 2015 – almost half the party – and I’m willing to bet they break more for Corbyn than against.
- The unions are still backing Corbyn, and will bring their own votes to bear.
- The moderates haven’t found anyone compelling as an alternative.
- Labour’s capacity to vote for electoral suicide is already proven.
So I think Corbyn’s chances are pretty good. Which, for those of us who would like at least the threat of Labour winning a general election, is very bad news.
Normally, I’m very clear that political parties in the UK never split. It’s just too costly and has little chance of success. But this is different. It’s too fundamental a question about what Labour is there for. After the loss of Scotland, there’s a sense that nothing is safe and that no Labour MP can guarantee their own job. Right now, 36% of Labour voters think Jeremy Corbyn would make the best PM, and 40% say Theresa May. Before the last election, Ed Miliband was getting 73%, and that was judged disastrous.
Against such a backdrop, the costs of cooperation may be greater than those of disloyalty. Unless Corbyn loses, this story isn’t going to be over.