Another dispatch from inside the Westminster village
Which is deserting Labour faster, voters or leadership authority? It is a surprisingly tough question. On the one hand, it barely registers as a shock that Labour can poll third with working-class voters, or lose Copeland after holding the seat for 82 continuous years. On the other hand, a shadow minister did sign off their weekly team meeting recently with ‘Well, I suppose I might see you next week or I might not’, before voting against a three-line whip.
They kept their job. That vote, on triggering article 50, was a defining moment for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in the way that being hit below the waterline is a defining moment for a battleship. The reshuffle on deck which followed was Corbyn’s fifth, and perhaps will be seen, when the history books are written, as the most damaging to him because of how it split his core supporters.
It is hard to tell who did well out of it. Whips who voted against their own whip kept their jobs but presumably lost some authority. In an ever diminishing inner circle, Rebecca Long-Bailey gained the coveted title of the fastest-rising Corbynista star since the last one. Clive Lewis and Dawn Butler quit, beginning what might be best termed an ‘uncoupling’ period with the Corbyn project. Jon Trickett, election supremo no more, was pushed out with perhaps more than lingering doubt about his commitment to the revolutionary cause.
Not even those who stayed where they were emerged unscathed. Angela Rayner found herself on the wrong end of some selectively briefed focus group polling looking at potential leaders in the post-Corbyn era. Might the leak – which described John McDonnell’s protégé Long-Bailey as the more credible choice of future leader – have been a response to Trickett’s sacking?
But the frenzy of speculation around Lewis resigning was well wide of the mark in terms of leadership challenges. He will have shored up his support in his heavily ‘Remain’ constituency, but there is a general air of scepticism about him in the corridors of Westminster, with his indecisive and inconsistent behaviour doing him no favours. The tone was set when Tom Watson produced a performance on Marr which would not look out of place on House of Cards, wryly commenting that he respected Lewis for wanting to ‘spend the next five years campaigning for his constituents’.
Lewis will be yet another ‘could be leader’ in a very crowded pack. But the often unloved collective he now has to build support in, the parliamentary Labour party, has had a good act two in the Corbyn drama. Opting to stay out of trouble below deck, they have left the depleted captain’s crew with no one to blame but themselves for the ship running aground.
All eyes might have been on some more high-profile byelections recently, but it is worth asking: with election coordinators shuffled and reshuffled, does Labour have a plan for the local and mayoral elections in May?
The elections are at a crucial time for Labour in local government. Budget cuts and the unpopularity of Labour nationally are the two main criticisms levelled at Labour council leaders, whose recent gathering at the Local Government Association saw many stay away from the address by John McDonnell.
Your insider hears that instead of preparing to win council seats, the usual pattern of expectation management is well underway. Shadow ministers were recently treated to a big polling presentation, showing an apocalyptic worst-case scenario for Labour. It was, of course, designed to be leaked – the same tactic employed last year, which allowed Corbyn to say ‘we hung on’ after going backwards in the local elections. Expect more of the same this year.
Down with pragmatism
More acrimonious hard-left splits and paranoia in the leader’s office. The embattled bunker has been divided since day one, but is now more publicly visible. Simon Fletcher’s departure from his role as director of campaigns follows that of Neale Coleman, head of policy, a year ago. Both Fletcher and Coleman were vital links to the party’s backbenchers and local government leaders. Both were associated with Ken Livingstone and his secretive supporter group Socialist Action, but were at least the only people around Corbyn to have experience of running anything.
That Seumas Milne is the constant source of irritation will not surprise many readers. The announcement that he has now left the Guardian permanently was the final proof he had won the battle for supremacy within the plush office suites reserved in parliament for the leader of the opposition.
Last summer’s leadership challenge emboldened Milne, who urged Corbyn to hang on and not resign. Weary Labour staffers are being reminded of university lectures on how hardliners within regimes can dramatically alter the course of events. With Milne and Karie Murphy now running the show, the hardliners in Corbyn’s camp are decisively in control.
With the pragmatists departing, what is left of the leader’s team will be encouraged that they are right to not repair relations with the backbenches. Such confidence usually only comes before a fall.
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