Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Who runs the Party; the members or the PLP?

This morning on the Today Programme:

Diane Abbott, shadow international development secretary and a key Jeremy Corbyn ally, has told the Today programme that allowing a free vote on Syria to the labour party “hands victory to Cameron over these air strikes”.

“We’re a party of government and a party of government has to have a position on matters of peace and war,” she told presenter Sarah Montague.

Ms Abbott said that leader Jeremy Corbyn did not want to see either sackings or resignations.

“However, the party and increasingly the public would be disappointed if we didn’t oppose these air strikes to the limits of our ability,” she said.
BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, 30 November 2015 (morning) : Labour free vote on Syria ‘hands victory to Cameron’

So what happened?

Jeremy Corbyn says he will grant Labour MPs a free vote on UK air strikes in Syria – with a Commons debate expected on Wednesday.

Mr Corbyn’s spokesman said the shadow cabinet had “accepted his recommendation” of a free vote.

He has also requested a two-day debate in the House of Commons beforehand.

BBC chief political correspondent Vicki Young said Mr Corbyn wanted Labour to oppose air strikes, but was forced to back down by his shadow cabinet.

The leader was given a “thorough kicking” in the meeting, she was told.
BBC News Website, 30 November 2015 (afternoon) : Labour MPs to get free vote on Syria (my highlighting)

Corbyn’s big claim during his leadership campaign was that he was different, he was “authentic”.

In trying to stay true to this, he has stumbled and he has been trapped by interviewers. He has also been naive.

He needs to decide who are his masters and not to kowtow to those who aren’t. He “didn’t want to see resignations” and doesn’t have the appetite for “sackings”, so he looks as if he ducked the issue and in doing so “hands victory to Cameron”.

Assuming that the reported soundings of the membership over the weekend are true and that the members who elected him (overwhelmingly) oppose these air strikes, it looks as if he has really let them down. Of course he may make a convincing Commons speech against the Conservative proposals and sway all those who want to strike against I$I$ (or anyone else in Syria), but I doubt it. He is not yet a convincing front-bench performer, his speeches are a bit rambling trying to cover too much ground and failing to cover any. A bit like watering down a small can of paint and then trying to paint a huge wall. Or bloggers who try to pack too much into their sentences!}

He is of course “between a rock and a hard place”. He could have stood by his mandate, acknowledged that his dissident MPs claim the mandate of the electorate and will rebel, but have demanded shadow cabinet responsibility. The Labour Party has a long standing disconnect between its members and its parliamentary party and it needs to face up to it.

Two alternative courses for Corbyn?

  1. Gave in to the parliamentary party (like today) and look ineffective and unelectable.
    • The voters never vote for a party that is split and ineffective.
    • If Corbyn then throws in the towel (accepting that an undivided Blairite parliamentary party is better than a split but Socialist party in the country), the 60% of the party that voted for him wanting change are unlikely to actively support his successor.
    • The membership may stay at home anyway if they feel they have voted for Corbyn but ended up being asked to support an essentially Blairite manifesto.
  2. Stand up to the parliamentary party accepting shadow cabinet resignations and sacking shadow cabinet rebels whilst developing with the membership a radical manifesto for the next general election.
    • If the shadow cabinet does not shape up or get shaped up quickly the parliamentary party will look ineffective, but
    • if it does shape up (Corbyn shape) the programme would look more credible (electability is another matter).
    • The membership needs to select candidates that it can support for the next election. If there are many boundary changes this may be easier than expected – particularly if Blairite MPs after four years of rearguard action feel they have had enough.

The next election looks as if it will be disappointing for Labour but not a LibDem style meltdown – Labour has too many safe seats. Two factors might change this:

  • UKIP attack Labour’s heartlands with a disruptive campaign and capture a number of safe seats. (As the Scots Nats did in 2015.) It is even possible that some of Corbyn’s supporters if disillusioned enough could be attracted by UKIP’s message of easy fixes.
  • The Conservatives throw it away – due to Gideon over-playing his hand, a series of old fashioned scandals or warfare over the succession.

This is not very appetising for Labour, but some would argue that it was inevitable.

The Blairite revolution may have secured the parliamentary party bolstered by a lack of appetite for dislodging sitting MPs, but its hold on the party in the country was always more tenuous.

It is hard to secure the loyalty of members who do not hold office if the party is not delivering. Many feel that the party has failed to deliver, either through being out of office, or being in office but not sufficiently in command to make the changes that many members in the constituencies want.

Meanwhile it looks as if we will be “bombing Syria” -let’s hope that means bombing I$I$.

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