The new leader may compromise on policy, but he will not do so on party reform, writes Conor Pope
The reappointment of Pat McFadden as shadow minister for Europe was seen as the first victory for Labour moderates under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The announcement that McFadden would stay in post came with the commitment that the party would be campaigning to stay in the European Union during the forthcoming referendum. This had not been a given.
Corbyn spent much of the leadership campaign dropping hints that he could give his support to an ‘Out’ vote. He said he had ‘not closed his mind’ to leaving the EU, and did not want to hand David Cameron a ‘blank cheque’, suggesting he wanted to see what the prime minister’s renegotiation of membership yielded before making up his mind.
His scepticism of the EU is longstanding, but has gained greater traction on the left over the past year, following the Greek debt crisis and travails over Syria. He realised that he had much greater scope for reliable support among the anti-TTIPers of this world than those devoted to the EU’s progressive politics and, as he did so often this summer, played his hand deftly.
When Chuka Umunna left the shadow cabinet, a day after Corbyn became leader, he cited the failure to get a pro-EU pledge as the catalyst for his departure. Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn appeared on the radio the next morning to say that Labour would campaign for an ‘In’ vote ‘under all circumstances’. The true position remained unclear until McFadden’s appointment, four days after Umunna’s departure, when Benn’s line appeared to triumph.
And like that it has stayed. There has been little suggestion since that favouring an ‘Out’ vote, or even adopting a neutral position, will be possible for Labour. The latest news suggests that the party’s pro-EU campaign, headed up by Alan Johnson, will even be based out of Labour headquarters.
This position was hard fought-for during that week, and centrist shadow ministers saw it as vindication of the decision to work on a Corbyn frontbench, while others had slunk off to the backbenches. This early success gave Corbyn-sceptic shadow cabinet members hope, and courage; they calculated that they could still play a large role in policy formation, and would be able to argue for positions in the media they knew were not held by the leader. As much as practical, it felt symbolic.
This was just the initial tussle, and it appeared to show that the battle for power in the party was not over. The first months of Corbyn’s leadership have been notable largely for his reluctance to stamp his authority on policy issues. The surprising move to support the fiscal charter was only reversed when it was clear the parliamentary Labour party would happily vote against it, while Corbyn appears to want the issue of Trident pushed into the long grass, making clear the distinction between his own view and the party’s position. In Maria Eagle, he has appointed a shadow secretary of state for defence who supports the renewal of Trident, while he simultaneously accepted a role as vice-president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Even abolishing tuition fees, the creation of which he has apologised for on the behalf of the Labour party, has been quietly shuffled to the bottom of the to‑do list.
If a vote comes to the House of Commons on military intervention in Syria – something Corbyn could not possibly support – a free vote for Labour members of parliament is looking increasingly likely, despite even Ed Miliband whipping against intervening in the conflict. There is now the possibility too, that he will commit to the Nato commitment of two per cent of GDP on defence spending. Considering that Corbyn has not just opposed membership of Nato in the past, but also wants the money currently spent on Trident to be redistributed in areas other than defence, that is a fairly remarkable position to come to.
So how has it come to this? With the overwhelming mandate he enjoys, why has Corbyn been so quick to accommodate others’ policy positions rather than seek to quickly push through his own agenda?
Primarily, it is because he would be unsuccessful. It is no great insight that Corbyn’s support comes from outside the PLP, and not within it. He cannot simply rule by decree, and his own voting record would be brought up by rebelling MPs if he tried to. This would lead to more stories of Labour splits than there are currently, as his policy pronouncements would be perceived as antagonistic, and encourage open insubordination. Corbyn knows the limits of his strength, and realises that pushing too far, too fast could leave him with the appearance of a man encouraging a bloody civil war.
Policy is fleeting; values are eternal, as Yves Saint Laurent never quite said. It could be a mantra for the new leader’s office. Corbyn can rely on the huge majority he won in September to give him a stay of execution in the face of a constant threat of mutiny. Should a mutiny prove successful sooner rather than later (unlikely though that threat seems), Corbyn will have wasted his time if he has spent his short stint pushing through his own niche policy obsessions. A new leader, with greater PLP support, could fairly easily reverse any of those decisions with the help of the shadow cabinet. If that happened, Labour’s left would be back to square one, marginalised and with the weight of another unsuccessful leader hung around their neck.
Which is exactly why it is Labour party culture – and the wider rules and rulebook itself – that the left is seeking to reform first. Not only is it difficult to argue against the triumph of Corbyn’s ability to attract new members, but it can use that enthusiastic support as an opportunity to enact long-term changes to how the party works – the formation of Momentum in October being an early case in point. On the rules he is also making ground. Allowing more motions to Labour party conference seem inconsequential now, but has been coveted by the hard left for some time now for a reason. They have given members of the European parliament full nominating rights for future leadership elections and have, in a genuine first, given them a say in whether the current leader continues. During Labour party conference the leadership moved to replace shadow cabinet representative on the National Executive Committee Hilary Benn with new MP Rebecca Long-Bailey, and provoked ire when their biggest backers ensured the steelworkers’ union representative from Community Union was replaced by the Bakers’ Union just as the plant at Redcar was closing down. Each change seems small, even positive, but little by little the party rules will be altered to ensure the parliamentary party can be reformed in Corbyn’s image and that his successor is more likely to come from the hard left.
This is not to say the left is resigned to losing Corbyn – far from it. Some of the Labour party rules outlining how to challenge an incumbent leader are conspicuously vague, leading to alternative interpretations behind the scenes. Unsurprisingly enough, these divisions tend to fall along the lines of whether you think it should be easier or harder to remove the leader. If the disagreements continue, we could see efforts made to ‘clarify’ the rulebook. This is just one instance in which next summer’s NEC elections begin to look like a crucial chapter in future Labour party history books.
How policy is formed will also become a major task in the Corbyn plan. He has made no secret of his desire to reassert the supremacy of conference, which would remove the roadblocks that the shadow cabinet and PLP have so far managed to throw in his way. If he can mobilise his tens of thousands of supporters in the party to attend constituency meetings and become conference delegates, he would wield great policy power – and that reform, once made, would not be easily reversed. Subsequent leaders could be mouthpieces for conference’s manifesto.
Those close to Corbyn (not least the leader himself) claim that his victory was the triumph of ideas over personality. While that may be a stretch, their project can never truly be described as ‘Corbynite’ because it is about much more than just him. They are not simply planning what they can achieve with him as leader or prime minister, but about what comes after that. It seems ironic that while Labour’s modernisers must still deal with the moniker associated with a long since departed leader, those derided as stuck in the past not only control the present, but are making plans for the next leader too.
Conor Pope is a staff writer at LabourList
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