‘Unity’ was one of the watchwords at Labour conference but it may be further away than ever. I attended both the Momentum conference (optimistically entitled The World Transformed) and the Progress and Labour First rallies, and found not a drop of love lost. The biscuit was probably taken by the gales of laughter that greeted Dawn Foster’s apparent delight at ‘distraught Blairites’, immediately followed by her unapologetic admission that she’d abstained at the general election because she couldn’t bring herself to vote for Chuka Umunna. That said, many of the furious MPs pushed her close, especially Tristram Hunt ridiculing James Schneider and Andy Burnham. Watch the video, it’s pretty amusing, especially if you’ve stopped caring.
Conference closed with our leader’s rousing call to unify behind himself, though he declined to offer a single concession towards his critics. At this point there still remained the hope of an elected shadow cabinet that would command the respect and loyalty of the entire party, but this was duly extinguished by the unceremonious sacking of Rosie Winterton and the appointment of Corbyn loyalists to the senior positions.
Now I’m sure the leadership thinks it’s entitled to some support from our MP’s, let alone to them not repeatedly telling 62% of the Party where to go. After all Jeremy Corbyn has won two leadership elections comprehensively, members didn’t return him just to do what rebels wanted anyway. Many Corbynites see doubts over Jeremy’s competence as largely manufactured by internal hostility since even before he became leader. Where there are critiques of his ideology, they reasonably ask what the inspiring moderate alternative is. Too often an answer has not been forthcoming.
This last point is crucial, because Theresa May has parked herself on top of every populist position she can find. Straddling economic statism and anti-immigrant nationalism, it is difficult to see how either of Labour’s wings could dislodge the government at the moment. True, internecine warfare could destroy the government in the same way it is currently destroying Labour, or they could bungle any of the looming Brexit-shaped obstacles; but “put us in charge of the Party and let’s hope the Tories screw up” is hardly a persuasive argument.
But what can the moderates do instead? They sincerely believe that Jeremy Corbyn cannot or will not do what is required to win an election. Or even make this at all possible. I’ll not go through the reasons for this here, although for those wondering, Owen Jones touched on quite a few in his widely read blog post (it apparently infuriated Corbyn’s team, one staffer I spoke to described the previously steadfast leftwing cheerleader as “a snake”). Worse still, though few are prepared to publicly admit it, many deem Jeremy Corbyn’s views so egregious, and on foreign affairs dangerous, that they wouldn’t want him to win an election anyway.
So where do we go from here? I’ve been burned too many times recently to make a confident prediction, but by my reckoning three types of outcome are possible.
1. Revenge of the moderates
If the moderates can’t honestly support Corbyn, perhaps they can do so dishonestly? Or perhaps they can say nothing at all? When the Corbyn project fails it will have been on “his own terms”, and they could then put forward an alternative vision. So runs the “Sibthorpe Doctrine”.
Lots of smart moderates seem convinced by this strategy, but I think it has very little chance of success. Sure, MPs could stop making public announcements of discontent, but what are they going to say when directly asked “do you think Jeremy Corbyn is the right man to lead the Party?”, as several shadow cabinet members already have been. Dodging this question would make clear what they really think, but even if they lie there will always be journos or opponents to point out the obvious. And bear in mind, that’s hardly the only question where the line would need to be painstakingly toed. Just last week Jeremy Corbyn was condemned for attending a Stand Up To Racism rally. I’m no expert on the structure of Stand Up To Racism, but many deem it a front for the rape-facilitating SWP. Is this really something we expect them to sweep under the rug?
Let’s suppose you could convince a principled and articulate politician to try this. There are over 180 MPs who tried to oust Corbyn in the Vote of No Confidence, what chance have you of convincing all of them? The narrative that principled Jeremy was stabbed in the back by treacherous MPs would require little more than a handful of vocal critics. In fact, I suspect the PLP could even be blamed for any election loss based on past statements alone.
If this is depressing for moderates the corollary may feel more encouraging, especially to those disinclined to bite their tongue. Their only path to total victory is total war. They must go all out to demonstrate their alternative, both to Corbynism and to the Tories. Determined rebels could consider the appointment of semi-official spokespeople, a “shadow, shadow cabinet”; and the creation of a centre-left equivalent to Momentum, with the aim of signing up moderate Labour voters as party members. These specifics aren’t essential of course, ultimately all that would matter is supplying new enough members to win a leadership contest.
To be frank I don’t expect MPs to pursue this strategy, it feels like a gigantic gamble, but there aren’t any actually good options for moderates any more. This may be the only chance they have of retaking the Party. Of course, there is always the nuclear option of a formal split, but at the moment the PLP have no appetite for this. Memories of 1980s are too prominent and the attachment to the Labour Party brand is too strong, especially as the first electoral aim of a new party would likely be to destroy the old one. Things are nowhere near bad enough at the moment to make this worthwhile. Let’s hope they never will be.
2. Drift and decreasing relevance
If things look bleak for the right, they’re hardly better for the left. They control the leadership and overwhelmingly outnumber moderates among the membership, but they cannot form an effective opposition without the wholehearted support of MPs. As explained above, this is probably impossible to arrange while Jeremy Corbyn is leader. Even the threat of deselection is likely to be ineffective. This is partly because many MPs expect to lose their seats anyway, partly because they don’t see the point of even being in politics for a Corbynite Labour Party, and partly because deselecting MPs risks them standing as independents and Labour losing the seat. Worse, deselect too many and you end up splitting not just the vote in one constituency, but the whole Party.
Supposing the leadership can somehow get the PLP’s support, it’s difficult to imagine anyone will believe them. If this isn’t immediately obvious imagine what you’d think if this had happened in the Conservative Party.
Of course, none of this matters if, as polls have previously suggested, the left genuinely don’t care about winning general elections. But I don’t really believe this. I think it’s a reaction to having internal rivals repeatedly claim that their deeply held beliefs must be sacrificed on the altar of winning. Nevertheless, the situation we are now in makes it very hard to see any circumstance where a Corbyn-led Labour Party has more than un gato in hell’s chance. Instead the disunited party would likely limp to a painful electoral defeat, Corbyn would remain leader, the internal stand-off would resume, and the party would continue to haemorrhage support.
3. A second third way
And yet… At conference the most significant speech was made by the then Shadow Defence Secretary, Clive Lewis. While he expressed his personal scepticism with the Trident deterrent system, he made clear that he had no intention of trying to change the Party’s official policy.
Lewis is a former TA officer and Afghanistan veteran, so it would be very difficult to call him weak on national security. He is young, black, and while not yet a polished media performer, has clearly demonstrated potential. Most crucially of all, Lewis is a loyal Corbynite. Although his conference speech prompted a few to denounce him, his overriding image is that of a principled socialist.
So what exactly am I suggesting might happen, and why? Currently, the moderates’ big problem is that they cannot win a leadership challenge against Jeremy Corbyn. On the other hand, the left can’t make their leadership work properly without support from MPs, and they have little chance of getting sufficient nominations for a replacement candidate when Corbyn does eventually step down. But suppose there was a candidate of the left, perhaps endorsed by Jeremy himself, who could resolve both of the PLP’s biggest issues with Jeremy’s leadership (competence and foreign/defence policy). A pact between the two sides could see him or her installed as leader.
Lewis is far from an ideal, even satisfactory, choice for many on the right of the Party. In a few years’ time, however, they may find themselves absolutely desperate. Moreover, if I’ve read the situation correctly, his conference speech was a deliberate attempt to distance himself from one of the two deal-breakers in the minds of the PLP. This demonstrates both strategic judgement and leadership ambition.
Of course, Lewis is not the only loyalist who might become acceptable to moderates, just the one who’s shown most so far. It’s very possible that Angela Rayner et al will excel in the coming few years. The Corbynites of the 2015 intake have everything to play for.