Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Guerrilla opposition 

For generations to come they will ask: where were you in the week British politics lost its mind? Whatever your answer, pity one poor aide to a recently departed member of Labour’s frontbench who spent at least some of that week in hiding, having darted into a nearby toilet so that an oncoming corridor-roaming Corbynista did not spot the Labour leadership nomination papers they had been dispatched to deliver.

While the act of opposition has eluded the leadership, there have been those ready to fill the void, who might yet help rebuild a party from the rubble. Particularly deserving of praise for averting a premature split are the whips’ office, and the heroic efforts of chief Rosie Winterton, despite being snubbed in their efforts to hold crisis talks with the leader’s office.

None of those who remained as whips are true Corbynistas but in choosing to steady the ship they prevented the very real prospect of the Scottish National party playing parliamentary games and seizing the role of the official opposition.

Also impressing not just Labour colleagues but those across the House has been the effectiveness of the guerrilla opposition being conducted by Labour backbenchers. The ‘shadow shadow cabinet’ has existed since September, partly having found voice through the parliamentary Labour party backbench committees. These otherwise obscure bodies, which exist for each shadow team, have caused tensions with the real shadow cabinet over the last few months over direction and competence. (It was one backbench committee chair who picked up the work when a shadow cabinet member lost funding for a significant piece of policy work).

But it was this mechanism, seized by moderates last year, which meant John Woodcock could offer to fill in at defence questions, and circulate briefing notes to colleagues, in the absence of the newly appointed shadow defence secretary – who was stuck at Glastonbury.

Mr Milne’s very public meetings

Perhaps the real winners in Labour’s recent troubles are those selling coffee at the Despatch Box in Portcullis House. Your insider has seen many famous, and infamous, Westminster villagers holding court in parliament’s most public building, but none quite so much as Seumas Milne in recent weeks. Perhaps it is the fair trade, organic coffee – and the very agreeable selection of baked goods – which keeps him coming back. But is there another game afoot?

When Milne first arrived in Westminster he was something of a curiosity: his regular pacing up and down the Portcullis House atrium even had a threatening edge to it. The same tactic was deployed by Milne at the Guardian but it seems the effect has now been lost on political hacks and members of parliament in the more urgent atmosphere of parliament, where he recently more than met his match. Jess Phillips, who accosted him quite publicly in the coffee queue, gave voice to the frustration many in the PLP and beyond feel at Milne. There were plenty of colleagues congratulating her afterwards.

There is some delicious irony that Milne is now spoken of among MPs in the same terms in which one of his predecessors, Peter Mandelson, was once described in the London Review of Books: ‘a bit of a cartoon villain with an engaging line in pantomime menace’. The author of that line? One Seumas Milne. Perhaps, as is strongly hinted at, he regrets losing the quiet life offered by his Guardian column.

It was curious, too, that reports suggesting Clive Lewis, a loyal Corbynista, was on his way to Corbyn’s office to deliver the fatal blow to his leadership were emerging in the same afternoon he was spotted enjoying a coffee with Milne.

Milne is now embarked upon a DIY opposition, covering many briefs with few footsoldiers to lighten the load, all while taking a hammer and nails to the inside of the leader’s office to prevent any outside influence penetrating its walls. Meanwhile, in the world beyond, a popular movement rose up to struggle for the liberation of Jeremy Corbyn from his confines, dubbed by some the campaign to ‘release the Islington one’ in the form of a petition.

And what of Labour’s beating heart, Andy Burnham? It has been said that Burnham is a flip-flopper but your insider finds no evidence of that in the way he well and truly stuck to his guns as those around him found their principles: after all, it was his raised tones which were heard to be directed at members of staff who suggested it might be time to call it a day.

Elitism redux

Like all good revolutionary movements, there is more than an air of elitism about the Corbynistas. Labour’s leadership stand-off has brought to the fore the priorities of the reheated Bennism that occupies the leader’s office: members over the electorate, party over country, principles over power.

It manifests itself largely in the bilge and hatred which lands in the post bags and inboxes of ‘traitorous’ MPs. But your insider notes that in Corbyn’s hour of need, the number of emails urging the PLP to ‘save Labour’ were outweighing those urging Corbyn to stand firm – a welcome consequence of Momentum’s propensity for petitions rather than getting anything done.

Labour has a difficult choice to make about the relationship between its component parts. The old electoral colleges may have been dissolved for the purposes of leadership contests but their identities, behaviour and cultures have not.

The long march of history reveals that Labour rule changes generally include unintended hidden traps with disastrous consequences for the future: including the dawning realisation among MPs that John Smith felt that a no confidence vote did not need to mean automatic deposition, as the leader would be too ashamed to stay on anyway.

It is sobering to witness the Tory leadership contest: tearing themselves apart in the process of picking an unelected prime minister, sure, but getting away with it. Your insider is preparing for a long summer.


Cartoon: Adrian Teal

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