The chamber of the House of Commons erupted at mid-day on Wednesday with the arrival of the new Prime Minister to her first PMQs. The Tory Party, torn apart by the EU referendum, was now seemingly united behind its leader. By contrast, the chamber fell silent on the arrival of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. His own backbenches, ignored after a no confidence vote, threatened with de-selection for disloyalty, constantly attacked as red Tories and Blairites for daring to criticise the leader, were understandably quiet. And yet, Diane Abbott took to the airwaves immediately afterwards to express surprise that the PLP isn’t dancing around like cheerleaders with Corbyn tattoos and unveiling massive statues to him around the World. Abbott, Corbyn, McDonnell, and members are unable to understand that the Labour leader cannot command any Parliamentary support, and that in itself is a massive problem.
Let’s quash the myth immediately that the Parliamentary Labour Party is in any way acting undemocratically in opposing the Labour Leader. It isn’t. When Jeremy Corbyn was a backbench MP and sought to dethrone both Kinnock and Blair, he was well within his right to do so. In 1988 when supporting Tony Benn’s campaign to oust Kinnock, Corbyn said:
“By having an election, we will force a debate about the direction of the party in which it will be more difficult for Kinnock to make everything an issue of loyalty to him.”
– Quite. One when or two Labour MPs rebel against the leadership, it’s easier to put down. But think of this recent rebellion as an entire Party of 1988 Jeremy Corbyn’s. The leadership simply cannot secure confidence in that environment.
Four years later, Corbyn was supporting a challenge against the next Labour leader he had no interest in supporting. In 1992, Corbyn insisted that John Smith had shown “no real opposition“. 10 years later in 2002, he did the same when asking for a challenger to Blair to come forward. In 2003, he demanded an annual leadership election. At no point did the hard-left accuse him of undemocratic disloyalty. Now that he has hold of the strings of power, their demand is loyalty or leave. Jeremy Corbyn was not undemocratic then, and the PLP are not undemocratic now.
Let’s also quash the myth that Labour MPs are not representative of Labour Party at large. Those Labour MPs were selected, cleared, and elected by constituents for the 2015 general election. They represent the Party as it was voted on by constituents. That is the epitome of Parliamentary democracy. Members were not trying to deselect those MPs when they were winning constituencies for Labour. New members may not represent the view of the 2015 Labour Parliamentary Party. They can change that in 2020 if they want. But right now, Labour is not a hard-left Parliamentary Party, it wasn’t elected as the main opposition party on a hard-left platform, and MPs should not be betraying the message they were voted on, to suit new members.
To be clear, the PLP’s first commitment is to maintain a Labour Party in Parliament as ready for government at any moment as the only way to legislate in favour of Labour principles. This means appealing to a broader coalition of voters, than simply the hard-left. This means being able to produce a full shadow cabinet with a reserve pool of talent as well. This means a leader that the PLP is willing to fully support. Everything the PLP has done has been democratic and with the aim in mind that in order to change the country, it needs to win an election. It has used a perfectly acceptable Parliamentary procedure to issue a vote of no confidence in its leader. Shadow Cabinet members tried to work for Corbyn, and it didn’t workout. For that, his supporters have abused and attacked them. The PLP then sparked a leadership challenge and asked for clarity on the rules. It will now run a leadership challenge on the basis of those rules. That’s it. That isn’t undemocratic.
On election of the leader, I would agree that the Parliamentary Party should listen to its members. The members vote for the candidate put forward by the PLP. Indeed, at that point the members haven’t challenged the idea that the PLP decides who can stand for leader. Their lack of challenge implies acceptance. They accept that the PLP has to have a form of power over the process of electing their leader in Parliament. I’d presume they accept this premise, because the Labour Party is a Parliamentary Party within a Parliamentary democracy. So clear is this, that The Labour Party’s own rulebook, Clause 1.2 says:
“Its purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.”
– It would seem clear to me, that if the Parliamentary Party that must be maintained and ready for an election cannot work with the leader nor has any confidence in the ability of the leader to win that election, it would relay this message back to the membership in the form of a vote of no confidence, and the membership then have a duty to return a leader that the people in Parliament – not the hard-left Parliamentarians they hope make up the majority of MPs – the ones elected on a far more moderate platform in 2015, can work with. At that point, it becomes the responsibility of the membership, to support the Parliamentary Party with a candidate they can rally behind. Continuously sending the same leader that the PLP decidedly cannot work with, implies that the membership care very little for actual political power – where societal and economic change happens – and only care for flexing hard-left muscles with the illusion of power.
At this point, it is the Labour membership that must return a Parliamentary leader the Parliamentary Party can support and unite behind. If the membership does the opposite, the membership is entirely to blame for handing the 2020 general election to the Conservative Party.