Despairing, mutinous, disgusted, shell-shocked, aghast, angry. The adjectives journalists use to describe the mood of Labour members of parliament when it comes to their leader are growing in variety and ferocity. They do not understate the discontent.
Two months into the Corbyn era and the mood in the parliamentary Labour party is growing ever bleaker, at least outside his ideological and personal supporters. PLP meetings alternate between angry dissent and stony silence.
Even among those who genuinely hoped his leadership would succeed, there is a palpable sense of mounting unease. None of them thought that a leader elected on an anti-austerity, anti-Trident ticket would have his first few weeks dominated by national security.
The most surprising slapdown of Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘shoot to kill’ comments came from none other than Dave Prentis – the general secretary of Unison currently up for re-election – saying it could not ‘get any worse’ for his chosen candidate and warned it was time the leadership ‘got its act together’. Comrade Len McCluskey, of Unite the union, joined in, telling the Univeristy of York, ‘now he’s a leader … he can’t necessarily say the first thing that comes into his head.’
McCluskey joins Owen Jones in the stampede of ultra-leftists advising the new leader on Blairite politics without Blairite policies, saying, ‘The only way for Jeremy Corbyn to become prime minister is if he puts forward a credible economic alternative that the British people can sign up to’. Very Liz Kendall.
Anyway, while those around Corbyn blame disloyal MPs for his struggles, the truth is that the leadership’s response to the terror attacks on Paris was the latest of many unforced errors. Labour’s fiscal charter flip-flop was not caused by the discontented, nor was the appointment of controversial aides. Nor was the saga of the privy council. Nor was … well, you get the picture.
Literally the picture. Try as they might to blame the ‘Blairites’, it was those in the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory that made John McDonnell hold up a series of demands that included abolishing MI5 and disarming the police. Just further proof that the real damage comes from within one’s own ranks.
Ken Livingstone seemed to seal the deal at the end of one terrible week for Labour. Looking to shoot down those who were surprised that he had been appointed to oversee Maria Eagle’s defence policy review, the former mayor of London missed his intended target and hit both his own feet, showing that sorry seemed to be the hardest word. His comments genuinely upset many finding out that apparently it is fair game to reply to questions about his competence with personal attacks. Worse still, the comments were about mental ill health, an issue all wings of the party would acknowledge Corbyn has excelled at championing since being elected leader.
MPs also know that Corbyn’s supporters in their local party are numerous. At local meeting after meeting Corbyn backers are turning up and demanding MPs must respect the leader’s mandate. This gave MPs an interest in trying to make things work. This is why most MPs hoped for a couple of years of relative calm, a period of reviews and internal debates during which attempts would be made to find common ground between the anti-austerity politics of Corbyn and the position of most MPs.
It is not hard to see the outlines of such a strategy – play foreign affairs, attack the Tory cuts and David Cameron’s assault on unions and a big focus on those leftish policy positions most MPs would happily support – from rail renationalisation to protecting tax credits. The formation of the shadow cabinet suggested this approach was the choice of the new leadership
Strangely, it has been Corbyn’s dramatic inadequacies that have prevented such a strategy working.
MPs who would like nothing more than to be passively loyal find they cannot do so credibly. Put a loyal frontbencher in front of a microphone, and ask them to defend the latest pronouncements and they squirm. ‘I can’t speak for the leader,’ they say. Or, ‘You’ll have to ask John why he said that’. Even Diane Abbott seems to spend her free time visiting television studios to announce a clarification will shortly be forthcoming.
Corbyn is changing his approach in consequence. Seen from his perspective, the squirming of the loyalists shows his attempt to build bridges has been thrown in his face. If the leader were to continue to merely review and emolliate he would slowly lose his reputation for honest politics without gaining anything in the way of loyalty. This would set him up for being defenestrated later. So he has begun to push harder on policy and on party reform, daring those who do not like it to stop him.
As a result of the rapid decline of Corbyn’s national position and his response to it, MPs are being forced into a choice they do not want to make. Either they back positions they think are untenable, or they attempt to dislodge a leader with strong membership support. Neither option is attractive. Surely there must be an alternative?
This is why there are increasing murmurs about the role of the senior cardinals of the Corbynite papacy. These are experienced, loyalist, mainstream, serious figures like Hilary Benn, Tom Watson and Angela Eagle, who cannot be dismissed as heretics and have a standing independent of the leadership. The same can be said of various union leaders, though most of these are currently focused on internal elections.
These figures might find their own tipping point. An electoral defeat, perhaps, or a policy change too far. If they went, the ability of the leadership to operate would suffer a devastating blow.
But such cardinals do not tend to have reached their position by misjudging the mood of the laity. Nor are they blind to the realities of holding another leadership election should they act precipitately. So they wait, and wait, and wait.
The newer aspirants to leadership are eager for the party’s cardinals to act, willing them to take on the burden of deposing a leader in exchange for the glory of guiding the party back to a more dully normal opposition.
But the cardinals can see that invitation for the poisoned chalice it is. So they wait, and campaign loyally, and hope the party and the leader does well enough at elections that they are not forced to tell the true believers what they do not wish to hear.
Cartoon: Adrian Teal
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