Should Labour move swiftly to depose Corbyn?

Should Labour move swiftly to depose Corbyn?


If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well 

It were done quickly.

Trading as short as 1/6, let us assume that Jeremy Corbyn wins. Let us also assume that the electoral cause of Labour will be better served by getting rid of him. Elections are won on the centre ground, and Stephen Bush has pretty conclusively shown that non-voters are not, collectively, an alternative viable route to victory. Even if Corbyn does manage to turn out a bunch of new voters, they’ll be disproportionately in safe Labour seats, just as Ed Miliband found to his cost in May.

Most Labour MPs know all of the above. Less than 10% of the PLP actively want him to win: 14 of his nominators are intending to vote for someone else.

So, he’s got to go at some point. The conventional wisdom is seemingly to give him enough rope to hang himself. But why wait? I would suggest that waiting carries more risk than striking as soon as possible.

Delay might let the left take control of the party more generally

Michael Crick has reported on alleged plans for deselections, though these are denied by the Corbyn campaign. However, with a boundary review coming, outright deselections may not even be necessary. The impact of the squeeze from 650 down to 600 will fall most heavily on Labour seats in Wales and the North. In many cases neighbouring MPs may have to go head-to-head with each other.

There are also selections for winnable seats (marginals and retirements) to think about. The Labour right has already been outmanoeuvred on 2010-15 selections as antifrank showed in his analysis of the Labour intake. A Corbyn-led party would make it all but impossible for moderates to win such selections.

Beyond parliamentary selections there’s the Shadow Cabinet (if not elected) and the NEC to worry about. The former in terms of media presentation and policy, and the latter – which is currently finely balanced – re amending the party rulebook.

Delay breeds inertia, and Corbyn might be superficially popular

Labour MPs may never be more angry about Corbyn’s leadership than on Saturday morning. Some will succumb to shadow posts, some will dedicate themselves to constituency work, and some will involve themselves in think tanks or single-issue campaigns.

Others will set Corbyn electoral tests – such as winning London, winning Wales, or depriving the SNP of a majority in Scotland. But if – and it is an if – he fails to meet them, excuses will be made: the wrong candidate; local factors; media bias.

In any case, there’s no guarantee that Corbyn will fail these tests. Governments routinely lose popularity mid-term and this current government is already ceding ground and losing votes in the Commons. Pretty much any bad economic news could be portrayed by the opposition as a failure of austerity. “People’s QE” could look appealing, no matter how economically illiterate it may be.


The most common reason given for not moving against Corbyn straight away is that it would “look awful and undemocratic”.  But one could equally make the same complaint about the leadership election itself. Letting all and sundry sign up for the not-so-princely sum of £3 is, as William Hague put it, grounds for failing an “NVQ Level 1 in How To Run a Party”.

The exact nature of JC’s victory will be important here: if he doesn’t carry the full members then he will be much more vulnerable. It might be helpful for the party if the leadership contest went the distance so that a final head-to-head comparison in the various parts of the college is available: my guess is that the “purge” is more about keeping him under 50% in the first round than any faint hope he might not win. And by adding in declared votes from MPs it will probably be possible to prove that he would have lost under the old system.

A coup could be a Clause IV moment, on steroids

It might look awful. But it could also look decisive. If the PLP can swiftly assert themselves and eject Corbyn they would be making a big, bold statement about the future Labour Party. Blair’s Clause IV reform was essentially cosmetic: this would be a facelift.

Labour’s brand has been horribly tarnished by this leadership election; they are already being seen as heading back to the worst excesses of the 1980s. Every month of Corbyn’s leadership risks damaging the brand further. But, much as the Tories were partly detoxified in Opposition by some of their more hardline supporters heading off to UKIP, Labour could be deloonified by an exodus of Corbynistas to the Greens or other left-wing parties.

Finally, rejecting Corbyn would probably finally break the trade union link. This would be both emotionally and financially difficult for the party. But the finances are already under threat from Tory reforms, and the party needs to move beyond the public sector as a base, both out of electoral necessity and to better reflect the modern world of work.

Can it be done?

So could a coup be organised? It would need both an imminent pretext and a single replacement leader. Labour can’t afford – in either sense – another contest. But any would-be Macbeth would do well to remember Heseltine’s maxim that “he who wields the knife never wears the crown”. However a Michael Howard-style leader could be ideal: someone who doesn’t aspire to be Prime Minister but would be willing to do the party a huge favour and allow them to regroup behind them, change the leadership rules back to something more coherent, and then stand aside for a new leader (possibly even after the Tories have chosen theirs).

There are very few greybeards left in the PLP thanks mostly to the extraordinary attrition of the Blair-Brown era. Alan Johnson has already refused too many times to be credible. Tom Watson has the organisational clout, and will be very close to the action assuming he is elected Deputy, but he probably has too much baggage. However Harriet Harman could be a decent option; she may have presided over a shambles of a leadership contest but that is hardly her fault.

As for a pretext, David Cameron and George Osborne will surely be lining up a succession of litmus tests in the Commons. Syria is probably the topic most likely to divide Corbyn from his party, and the nation more generally.

There is of course risk in toppling any leader, no matter how contentious their mandate. But if the last 7 years have taught Labour anything, it should surely be that there can be more risk in not doing so.

Tissue Price

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