Labour’s Parliamentary pain is not just bad for Labour, but for the country as a whole
Joff Wild on the divides in the main opposition party
Today’s Daily Telegraph ran an intriguing piece about plans being hatched by some Labour MPs if, as expected, Jeremy Corbyn wins the party’s leadership election in September. According to the newspaper’s political correspondent Ben Riley-Smith, rebels are exploring the possibility of setting up a semi-independent party in the Commons that would have its own leader and front bench, and would aim to replace Corbyn’s Labour as the official opposition. There may even be a legal challenge about ownership of the Labour name.
Time will tell if the story has any legs – I have my doubts – but it does speak to a real and profoundly important issue: what happens when the party that holds the second most seats in the Commons – and will almost certainly continue to do so even after catastrophic general election defeat – has no real interest in providing an alternative to the government or in seriously opposing it inside Parliament? For that is the situation we face should Jeremy Corbyn be elected Labour leader once more.
Both Corbyn and John McDonnell have explicitly rejected Parliament as a means through which to secure significant change. In an interview with Vice in April last year, McDonnell – sitting next to Corbyn – stated: “You can’t change the world through the parliamentary system.” He continued: “Getting political representation is important, but change comes through using direct action, campaigning, and trade unions.” Corbyn agreed: “Get involved in campaigns, in a union, with the peace movement, get involved with Occupy & UK Uncut”; before adding as an afterthought: “and also be in a political party.”
For Corbyn and McDonnell, and other members of the hard left, what really makes a difference is demonstration and agitation. Thousands on the street or packed into halls, hundreds of Tweets and reTweets, hundreds of thousands of Facebook likes and myriad groups are a far more potent weapon than a parliamentary majority and the compromises that inevitably come with securing one. Yes, seriously – Martin Robbins in this week’s New Statesman sums it up perfectly.
Their attitude is probably best illustrated by the interactions they have had with a number of shadow ministers – or lack of them. You only have to read accounts from the likes of Lilian Greenwood, Angela Eagle, Sharon Hodgson and Thangam Debbonaire, as well as Angela Smith, Labour’s leader in the House of Lords, to see how seriously Corbyn and McDonnell take Parliament. They just don’t think it matters. (What is it about the hard left and women, by the way?)
Away from Parliament, Corbyn-supporting Momentum has rejected winning elections (except within the Labour party). In a Tweet sent out on 10th July, the organisation’s millionaire founder Jon Lansmann memorably stated: “Democracy gives power to people, “Winning” is the small bit that matters to political elites that want to keep power themselves”. Lansman, of course – like fellow Momentum leader, the ex-Liberal Democrat public schoolboy, James Schneider; Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s Winchester-educated director of strategy and communications; and Corbyn himself – has never needed a Labour government or had to worry about the possible consequences of a Tory one.
The same can be said of many Labour members, 75% of whom are ABC1s (full disclosure: that includes me). As Nick Cohen observed in a powerful piece for the Spectator last year, Corbyn’s middle class Labour supporters actually do pretty well under Tory governments and are not directly affected by policies that may have a negative impact on the poorest and the most vulnerable. Most Labour members and the party’s leaders do not need to worry personally about bedroom taxes, cuts to public services, reduced benefits and increased NHS waiting times. Instead, they can afford to put ideological purity before the dirty work of pursuing power.
Then there are the unions. A bulwark against Militant entryism in the 1980s, all too often these days their most vocal members – the small minority that are involved in union activity and vote in union leadership elections – are on the hard left. As we have seen, the likes of Unite leader Len McCluske cannot afford to upset them if he wants to remain in charge. So despite Corbyn taking anti-union positions on issues such as pharmaceutical R&D, Trident and, just this week, the future of Hinkley Point, McCluskey has no choice but to put the weight of Unite behind the Labour leader. If he were to do otherwise, he would very quickly be out of a job.
Thus, the Parliamentary Labour party is faced with a leadership that does not regard Parliament as a route to real power, an all-pervasive activist organisation that explicitly rejects “winning”, a membership that has no reason to believe in the importance of compromising treasured political principles to gain victory and the leader of the country’s most powerful union having to placate a small, hard-left part of his membership to remain in a job. None of them have a Labour government as a priority. No wonder some Labour MPs may be looking for new ways to hold the government to account.
But this is not only an issue for Labour MPs and the minority of Labour members that seem to share their views about the primacy of Parliament. It is also a problem for the country as a whole. For without a serious Parliamentary opposition, who is there to hold the government to account?
In the absence of a functioning shadow front bench led by someone whose overwhelming desire and priority is to replace the Prime Minister, the government essentially has free rein to do as it wishes. And that lack of scrutiny has the very real potential to lead to sloppy decision making, bad policy and harmful outcomes for the country as a whole. If governments do not believe they can lose elections, they get careless and make mistakes. Can we really be confident that we will get the best Brexit possible, for example, if the only people Theresa May need worry about as she negotiates the deal are right-wing Tory malcontents and Nick Clegg?
A Corbyn victory over Owen Smith will not resolve the impasse between the PLP and the leadership, nor is it likely to change the way that Corbyn views Parliament or does business there. That’s not just disastrous for the Labour party, it’s bad for our entire system of government. At some stage soon, the Speaker will surely be compelled to have quiet words behind the scenes about the effect Labour’s turmoil is having on the functioning of Parliament. Corbyn and McDonnell are likely to ignore these, just as they have ignored the PLP. What happens then is anyone’s guess; but, for the good of the country, something is going to have to give.