Sunday 10 January 2016

Debunking the Labour Party Coup Fantasy

One doesn't normally associate political commentary with the British Fantasy Society's short story competition, but former presser for HArold Wilson, Joe Haines, has produced a favourite for the 2016 title. In his heavily trailed piece for the New Statesman, Joe articulates an argument knocking about the fringes of Jeremy Corbyn's opponents in the party: that the PLP should call a leadership election and install a more acceptable figure in his place. Unfortunately for Joe, the kinds of manoeuvring he has in mind wouldn't past muster in Westeros, let alone Westminster.

While there were some lines to warm bitter hearts among the PLP's ranks ("Corbyn has no vision for the future of Britain. He offers no beacon to light the way. Politically, he has the candlepower of a glow-worm"), the article is wishful thinking wrapped in illusion. After establishing how awful Jeremy is, Joe indulges the first of his constructs. Jeremy didn't win a majority among the full members, though romped home easily in the registered supporters and affiliates section. So there. Yes, that's right, but to hang significance on missing an absolute majority by half a percentage point is silly, especially as that tiny deficit has been more than made up in the months since. Since the announcement of the results, party membership has swelled again by some 50,000 or so people. And with a handful of centre and right people giving up, Jeremy's support is stronger than ever. Any strategy grasping on a statistic that meant nothing then, and has no utility at all now is something of a non-starter. However, that said, Joe then plays what he thinks is his trump card:
But let’s deal with reality: Corbyn’s total vote was just over 251,000; in other words, approximately one in every 183 people on the electoral register (46 million) voted for him, or 0.5 per cent. In relation to the next general election, that is the only statistic that matters and it should be compared to the nearly 9.35 million who voted Labour last May. The strength of the party lies in the nine million-odd, not the 251,000, and that figure will be dissipated at our peril.

It is the Parliamentary Labour Party that represents the Labour vote in Britain, not the 423,000 people, including the ragbag of “registered supporters”, who voted in the leadership contest. And it is up to the PLP to do something about it. Theirs is the true legitimacy. The parliamentary party is the most powerful force in the labour movement, far stronger than the total union membership, a significant part of which doesn’t vote for us anyway.

... Remember, the PLP cannot be dictated to within the party by any outside body. If the MPs decide they want to elect their own leader of the PLP they can do so. Jeremy Corbyn would be entitled to stand, though he might think it wiser not to do so, recalling that he would not have got on to the ballot in September ... He will argue strongly that the PLP is splitting the party, but if the majority of Labour MPs who voted against him in the leadership stood together, it would be he and his loyalists who would be the splitters. His 251,000 would not stand a chance against the representatives of the 9.35 million.
Joe falls for the that old Westminster phantasm: constitutional cretinism. We've been here before fairly recently thanks to Mike Gapes, who made the running with a similar argument. Firstly, Joe is not comparing like with like. The nine million plus Labour voters are, in the main, an amorphous mass who happened to have voted Labour back in May. They are numbers on a spreadsheet, not a movement actively engaged in the making and remaking of politics. In substantive terms, they mean nothing outside of an election. They're a comfort blanket for some (not all) of Jeremy's opponents who think in the real world of politics that the members are a necessary inconvenience. Secondly, the PLP as an institution in opposition hardly has the latent power of the trade union movement. As Labour MPs will tell you, being in opposition is crap because there are few chances to check the government and see measures they support pass onto the statue books. Meanwhile, next week junior doctors are going to lead a partial shut down of the NHS. Can Labour MPs do that? Last week, Arriva train drivers wiped out the railways in Wales when they took action. Can Labour MPs do that? At some point, a dispute is inevitable between Transport for London and the Underground workers which will see the network judder to a halt. Can Labour MPs do that? We live in a political system where the average council leader has more power than an individual backbench MP. The PLP's power in opposition is a constitutional contrivance, and an article of faith for those who - for whatever reason - are blind to the substantive exercise of power by those who do not sit on the green benches. And there's also the small matter of the unions supporting the party. While they can carry on without Labour, it's hard to see how the party could do without the unions. In the unlikely event of Jeremy getting deposed, the unions are unlikely to let matters lie - despite occasional spats over Trident between the leader and Unite, and what have you.

Lastly, returning to those pesky members, while the electorate in the constituency are sovereign in the formal sense, in the real world, for many Labour MPs, sovereignty lies in the constituency party. In whole swathes of the country - and this applies for plenty of Tories as well - the election is the easy part. The selection is the real hurdle. The safer the seat, the more empowered the local party is. Joe is aware of this issue, but dismisses it. However, deselection is a very real threat to a great many Labour MPs thanks to the government's boundary review. You'll have situations where sitting MP faces sitting MP, and complicating matters will be locals locked out of contention by the party machinery past seizing their chances. It's mandatory reselection in anything but name.

This doesn't rule out a PLP coup against Jeremy, but political realities - you know, what the right have historically exhorted party members to face up to - makes one so incredibly unlikely that it only works as a thought experiment. And then you have to draw on fairy tales flattering the PLP's strength, big up the significance of passive voters who pay scant attention to politics between elections, and by ignoring the elementary features of the labour movement. With due respect to Joe, his broadside was all piss and wind. Writing as a Jeremy-sceptic, the only sensible course it to let the Corbyn project play itself out. That is what the party wants.


David Timoney said...

"All piss and wind" could stand for pretty much all the output of the Labour right since last May. It shows the depths of the neoliberal malaise that they are reduced to roping in an old bruiser like Haines with his antique invective.

Phil said...

He's not trying to make something of the fact that Corbyn didn't win a *first-round* victory among full members? Thin stuff if so. As I said at the time

if the vote had been restricted to full members of the party Corbyn would still have won, probably on the second round. (He only needed 1,010 transfers, and Liz Kendall had over 13,000 first-round votes.) Strictly speaking, £3 voters didn’t affect the result; we weren’t much more than spectators. Which is why I’ve joined the party.

The last bit isn't strictly relevant, except that I bet lots of other people have had the same thought and done the same thing.

tonyh said...

Haines isn't just calling for a coup against Corbyn, he's also calling for a profoundly reactionary coup that establishes the Labour PLP as the single power centre within the Labour Party and the wider movement. Okay, I'm a Corbyn sympathizer and a bit biased = but this idea of an entirely sovereign PLP seems a really good proposal for destroying party, movement and all.

BTW Laura 'Scoop' Kuenssberg has just tweeted with the 'breaking news' of another resignation from the Shadow Cabinet. Nothing quite helps someone's credibility like carrying on (and on and on) once you've been rumbled.

BCFG said...

I have pretty much taken it for granted that the PLP want Corbyn to fail, want him to go (ditto the unfree media) and are simply waiting for the right moment to pounce. I am not sure coup is the right word or treachery but whatever it is I wouldn't call it a fantasy.

What is required is a series of committees where PLP members have to appear before members and answer questions relating to party loyalty, party policies etc. Call it a Stalinist show trial if you must or something akin to HUAC but the Labour party needs it. I like Corbyn's ideas and I like his progressive beliefs but I think his nice guy, let everyone have their opinion shtick will ultimately be his undoing.

If politics were about broad churches you wouldn't need political parties. I guess another legacy of Blairism is that every party is now a broad church to the point where you can hardly tell them apart but broad has narrowed to be almost nothing, other than some variant of right wing Thatcherite economics! Hopefully if Corbyn is successful, and given the direction of the economy I don't see why by 2020 he can't be, we will enter an era of clear divides between the parties.