The diminishing options of the average Labour MP

The diminishing options of the average Labour MP

Resident Evil Zombies

Picture: Scene from Resident Evil, this might be how the typical Labour MP is now feeling because of Corbynmania.

The typical Labour MP started off unenthused with Jeremy Corbyn as their new leader in September.  He commanded little respect among his parliamentary colleagues and he only crept onto the ballot paper for the leadership election with loaned votes.  It is fair to say that nothing that has happened since has improved the view of the average Labour MP of their new leader.

The leadership have taken control of the NEC and are pushing for rule changes to cement the left’s control over the party in the long term, seeking to marginalise MPs and the shadow cabinet as much as possible by making the membership’s wishes paramount.  Jeremy Corbyn is seeking to damp down resistance in the shadow cabinet by going over their heads.  By declaring that he would never use nuclear weapons he short-circuited the debate that he himself had opened up on the future of Trident.  To make doubly sure, he has given the multilateralist shadow defence secretary a unilateralist minder.  Deselections have been disavowed but with a boundary review and a proposed seat reduction, the leadership may well be able to sit back and let nature take its course.

Perhaps most worrying of all to the average Labour MP, Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t seem to be very good at the basics of being leader of the opposition.  The public notice, for example, when a politician doesn’t sing the national anthem.  Above all, they notice if a politician regards the question of lethal force as a hypothetical question three days after a major terrorist outrage.  The public have formed a firm view of him and it’s awful.  According to the latest YouGov poll, 52% of the public think that he’s doing badly (two months ago the figure was an already-awful 39%).  31% of the public, including 11% of Labour supporters, think that he’s doing very badly – up from 22% two months ago.  He’s electorally toxic.

MPs’ disquiet has broken the surface.  The Parliamentary party is live-tweeting its increasingly-bloody weekly meetings with its leader.  Labour MPs overtly sabotaged their own leader’s speech on the floor of the House of Commons on 17 November.  Surely it can’t go on like this?

It can and it almost certainly will.  The non-Corbynite MPs lack anything approaching a coherent alternative analysis, they lack a strategy and above all they lack support where it counts.  Until they address these three defects, they are destined to fume impotently.

Labour MPs are currently talking to each other, trying to work out their next moves.  The anti-Corbyn movement does not want for support in the parliamentary Labour party.  That is not where their problem lies.  Labour MPs seem to have forgotten their own party dynamics.  Thanks to the changes in the leadership election rules brought in under Ed Miliband, MPs play only a relatively minor part in the selection process.  Any MP who gets 15% of the parliamentary party to nominate him or her gets to put their case to the membership.

We have heard a lot about the Labour party rule book and whether Jeremy Corbyn would need nominations if he were challenged for the leadership.  More heat than light has been generated on the subject but few have stopped to ask the two important questions.  First, why has this question not come up before?  Secondly, in practice could the current leader really be excluded from the ballot paper by MPs, whatever the legal niceties? Every previous Labour leader has had a substantial support base in the parliamentary party.  The point has arisen now only because the MPs are so alienated from the party membership.

As yet there is not much evidence that Jeremy Corbyn has lost his support base there.  I looked at his ratings in the YouGov polls above.  In those polls he has exactly the same percentage approving of his performance today as he had when he was first elected.   The deterioration in his polling is entirely down to undecideds making up their mind unfavourably about him.  Those who liked him still like him.  If he is ousted without the 59% of Labour members and supporters who voted him in as their first preference in September getting their chance to say their piece, there will be hell to pay.

In reality, any attempt to fix the ballot paper would lead to even greater party upheaval.  It probably isn’t attainable anyway, given that the support of only 35 MPs is required to get on the ballot paper even if the leader doesn’t have the automatic right to stand again.  The Thirty Years War started when two noblemen were defenestrated but survived to fight again after landing in a dungheap.  Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have their soft landing lined up in case of emergency.  Labour cannot afford a thirty years war.

To oust Jeremy Corbyn, Labour rightwingers need to win over his powerbase: the party membership.  Astonishingly, no senior rightwing Labour figure has so far even attempted to address the membership rather than the parliamentary party.  It’s as though they are playing at 18th century politics in an era of mass democracy.

Whatever his numerous faults, Jeremy Corbyn put a prospectus to the membership and reaped the reward.  We know what the Labour right is against but we have no idea what it is for.  Until it comes up with its own convincing manifesto, the parliamentary party will plot noisily but impotently.

Alastair Meeks

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