Another dispatch from inside the Westminster village
The parliamentary Labour party has good reason to feel disoriented. Their party has overwhelmingly given them a leader who has the support of about as many Labour members of parliament are there are Ulster Unionist ones.
Even many of our leader’s most vocal parliamentary supporters privately doubt he has what it takes to lead the party. Among the shadow cabinet, there are just three firm Jeremy Corbyn supporters – Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Jon Trickett. Each has stood for the leadership, or considered it seriously this time. If the Campaign Group saw Corbyn as their natural leader, they have done an amazing job of hiding it.
Beyond these few, some in the shadow cabinet are parlaying willingness to embrace the new politics into higher profiles. Many more are busy reinterpreting their leader’s stated positions on issues as crucial as schools, Europe, energy, Trident and Syria.
Corbyn’s weakness at the top helps explain why he has appeared so ambiguous in his first month as leader. Keeping Trident and your CND badge seems untenable. How can the former chair of Stop the War agree with Hilary Benn to set out Labour’s conditions for bombing in Syria, then say nothing as Stop the War savagely attacks Benn?
This push-me-pull-you element to Corbyn’s leadership is most striking in his approach to the dignified, rather than the working, functions of his new job. Joining the privy council, singing an anthem or wearing a poppy will change nothing on austerity, tax credits, or the NHS.
Yet Corbyn has managed to generate weeks of headlines by treating them as complex challenges to his personal moral code. At his first parliamentary Labour party meeting there was audible discontent when he gave a disquisition on the significance of the white poppy. At his second, at his failure to become a Right Honorable.
Then, of course, there has been the sorry tale of Labour’s fiscal plan. We are now a proudly anti-austerity party. Except for the week of party conference, when the shadow chancellor decided we were not, but did not realise the consequences of his position.
This led to the rather bizarre situation of McDonnell and Corbyn being told by senior figures on the right of the party that they were being too fiscally conservative. Cue panicked U-turn, and a week which could have been about tax credit cuts being about Labour chaos.
Corbyn has moved effortlessly from a campaign based on straight-talking and honesty to a leadership of mixed messages.
There are now two Corbyns: the anti-austerity, republican, anti-war radical who won the leadership, and the compromising, prevaricating, follower-leader whose gnomic worldview is relayed by press release and briefings. Only when attacking the Conservatives do the two Corbyns coalesce. Whether on Saudi Arabia or on tax credits, it is only in opposing, not proposing, that he has scored real hits. We will discover soon which is the real Corbyn.
Seumas Milne is now director of strategy and communications for the Labour party
The people advising the leader, and possibly the leader too, have taken leave of their senses.
It’s not about you, it’s about me
Many MPs feel the agenda of many of Corbyn’s backers is less about Jeremy, more about a left realignment of the party. This would be achieved with manifestos decided by conferences and executive meetings, with MPs restrained by fear of reselection. Once such changes are achieved, any leader will have to follow.
Corbyn’s campaign organisers and newer MPs have certainly focused on building their movement, not changing the party line (or, in Richard Burgon’s case, remembering it). Their new group, Momentum, is about voter registration, activist mobilisation and delivering change on the ground. Coincidentally, these activities also create mailing lists and local groups. These might be of use one day.
There is a vocal pro-Corbyn movement to organise – in the party and beyond it. Even MPs who nominated Corbyn for leader like Jo Cox, Rushanara Ali and Frank Field have found open debate can turn unkind. Putting that movement to work is essential for Labour’s left – so important is the task that the Socialist Workers’ party, the Socialist party and the Alliance of Workers’ Liberty have all offered a helping hand. Essential too are the party structures. The removal of Community and Hilary Benn from the National Executive Committee gives the left an unstable majority on the NEC. That majority is not secure. It depends on retaining the support of unions and winning the next NEC elections. While Unite, Unison and GMB back Corbyn today, there are other alliances available.
So any party reform will have to be carefully planned, with wilder talk reined in until the moment is right. The risk is that this itself creates stasis, killing the spirit of the supporters Corbyn needs to change the party.
Here, though, the left has learned lessons from years spent at union committees, rallies and in London’s city hall. Secure the structures. Build the organisation. Think long term.
This is not Tony Blair’s Labour party any more, but nor is this Tony Benn’s left. Perhaps, it may not even be Corbyn’s.
Strength in adversity
This last month has been tough for thousands in our steel industry. One small consolation is that their MPs and its union have been fighting for them Anna Turley, new MP for Redcar, has certainly had a baptism of molten steel. She has shown toughness, talent, and passion, as have her fellow campaigners. They have shown the party at our best, fighting for communities, jobs and investment. It is a great shame that at the moment our steel industry needed a voice, its union was pulled from our NEC.
The PLP, though, has redressed the balance, electing Sheffield’s Angela Smith and Middlesbrough’s Tom Blenkinsop to the influential PLP parliamentary committee. Our MPs, at least, have shown they will fight for steel.
Photo: Adrian Teal
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