Another dispatch from inside the Westminster village
As we are in a new world, perhaps we should rename this column. The insider is now firmly outside, cold and shivering.
Sometimes courtiers discover larger forces at work. So it is today. There has been a peasants’ revolt against New Labour’s nobility. Fair play to them.
Last month Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party by a landslide. Before the result, sequestered from the public, Andy Burnham was emotional, Yvette Cooper stoic, Liz Kendall cheerful. Corbyn worked quietly on his speech.
In the hall, the Corbynites tried not to look triumphant. The rest seemed impatient to get to their mourning parties. The Corbyn sideshow had drawn bigger crowds than the circus all summer. Now they had earned the right to own the big tent. They were the masters now. So what will they do, now they are on the inside?
The left, broadly defined, now controls the unions, the leadership and the National Executive Committee. As a result, if they stay united, they can more or less deliver their political and structural agenda, given enough time. Party conference, with the encouragement of the NEC and the leader, will be asked to decide the details. Given the unions alone have 50 per cent of all conference votes, the left is very likely to win. If members of parliament resist after that, they will be disloyal to democracy and the leader.
This explains why members of parliament sat quietly at the first meeting of the parliamentary Labour party. The atmosphere felt like the royal court waiting to meet Wat Tyler. They did not welcome the leader. They asked him probing questions, but there was little anger. They wanted simply to know his terms for peace. Corbyn tried his best. The terms sounded reasonable. There would be no talk of deselections (there cannot be anyway, as there will be a boundary review). There would be open debate (easy, if you know you will win). Nothing the leader himself believed would become policy.
Corbyn might have been heading a peasants’ revolt, but he wanted to take the bourgeoisie with him. At least until conference has voted. So why does he seem so vulnerable?
Far-left groups often make the mistake of assuming no difference between the centre-left and the Tories. Do not, in turn, make the same mistake about it. It contains many different currents of thought and belief. Len McCluskey is not John McDonnell. Paul Kenny is no Mark Serwotka. Owen Jones is not Seumas Milne. Many have real doubts about the leadership.
The operators in the Labour party, left and right, know how strong support for Corbyn is in the party, and that resisting it would destroy them. They also know that time and boredom are powerful weapons.
This makes the role of Tom Watson interesting. He, and several like him, were the parliamentary pikemen of the previous regimes, not the pomaded courtiers. They have stressed their support for and willingness to work with, the new leadership, if certain terms are met. The guards have gone over to the new regime.
For Corbyn and his team, controlling the party machine and political momentum are essential. Giving up a large chunk of the first and slowing the second will cause tensions internally. Did they really elect him to put Burnham in charge of immigration?
So those who are working to cool the Corbyn revolt may be playing very cleverly. They have invited the rebel leadership into the Tower, laid on beer and wine. Tom Watson is like the beefeater who asks the rebelling peasants in with hearty warmth, knowing fighting is useless. But warmth gives the chance to deal with them in private, one way or the other.
Do not assume that the Corbynites are dupes, though. Corbyn’s people need the space to change the party in their image. A deal could be in their interest. Already they are hiring advisers, from Ken Livingstone’s team and from trade unions. They have got a reasonably thought-out policy agenda to push through, which should earn them support in the party.
Their weakest point is the unpopularity of the very ideas and people that won them the election. If the British people are unlikely to love Corbyn or the Labour party, it does not matter whether the rebels and the guards compromise or fight to the death. To everyone else, they will look like they are on the same side. Whatever happens inside, the end result will be just a question of degree.
I have to say that, though, as this insider is now far outside. It is a lot more fun, but, if the choice was available, the smart move would probably have been to stay in.
The staff of life
Having such a choice is a luxury. The people who have few good choices, through no fault of their own, are the staff of the Labour party.
Over the last decade, given what they have had to work with in terms of funding and strategy, Labour’s staff, from the regional organisers to the leader’s office, have been outstanding. Conferences, press, regional campaigns, digital have all delivered far more than any politician could ever reasonably expect. The election campaign, organisationally, was a revelation.
Simply for working for the party, for some they became the enemy within. Distrusted, even briefed against. Their rewards? Departure after a short contract, and little comfort in a job well done. Many are leaving. More fear they will have to. They deserve praise instead. So, Labour party staff – whatever your politics, whatever your position, from this outsider a final word – Cheers, well done, and of course, thanks for all you did!
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.