By Southam Observer(Joff Wild) who has rejoined the party after a long absence
The sudden end of the Tory leadership contest and Theresa May’s imminent appointment as the country’s new Prime Minister has made the Labour leadership contest – now confirmed following Angela Eagle’s collection of over 50 nominations from MPs and MEPs – even more important than it was previously. Given the slim Tory majority and the potential Brexit deal blocking ability that recalcitrant right wing Tory MPs currently have, May will be giving very serious consideration as to whether to call an early general election. Labour must be ready for that.
It has become commonplace over recent times to state that the Labour party is facing an existential crisis. But the plain fact is that it is. Tempting though it is to see the forthcoming leadership battle between Jeremy Corbyn and Angela Eagle as a clash of personalities, policies and styles what it actually represents is something a lot more profound. Essentially, the NEC and then, presumably, the party’s members are going to be asked what kind of organisation Labour will be in the future.
Article One of Clause One of the Labour party’s constitution states:
“This organisation shall be known as ‘The Labour Party’ (hereinafter referred to as ‘the party’). Its purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.”
Up to now, the role of the Parliamentary party has always taken precedence over the role of the party “in the country”. That is, Labour has organised itself as an entity whose overriding aim is to secure power through Parliament in order to govern. It is through being in government and the enactment of legislation, so the thinking has gone, that Labour has the best chance of shaping a society that reflects what are grandly called “Labour values”.
In order to be a functioning Parliamentary party, the Labour leader needs to command the support of a majority of the party’s MPs. If he/she does not do so while in government, that leader cannot be the Prime Minister; if he/she cannot do so in opposition that leader will not be able to assemble a shadow front bench. That is the situation that Labour finds itself in now after 172 of the party’s current roster of 230 MPs stated in categorical terms that they have no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn.
For a party whose primary goal is to secure power through Parliament the next step is absolutely clear: Corbyn would stand down, Tom Watson would take over as temporary leader and others would seek the nominations needed to participate in a leadership election. The members would then decide who they want to do the job. This is the concept of the Labour party that Angela Eagle represents, and which at least 171 more of the party’s MPs also believe in
As we know, though, Corbyn has not resigned. This is because for Corbyn, Labour is a party “in the country”. That is, it is a party whose primary aim is to reflect the beliefs of its membership and to campaign for these. According to this view, the role of MPs is not to act as representatives of their constituents – the premise that underpins the notion of parliamentary democracy – but to act according to the instructions of Labour party members. Whether Labour is in power or not is by the by: what matter is that the voice of the membership takes precedence.
As Corbyn-backer Jon Lansman, the millionaire founder of Momentum, stated in a Tweet on Sunday: “Democracy gives power to people, “Winning” is the small bit that matters to political elites who want to keep power themselves.
If you put Trident and perhaps foreign affairs to one side, in terms of policy there is very little to distinguish Corbyn from Eagle. Domestically, at least, both are very much on Labour’s left. With the best will in the world, neither is inspiring, compelling or able to reach very far beyond Labour’s core vote. Whichever of them is in charge at the next general election, a Labour defeat is just about guaranteed. But for me, that is not the point.
Instead, what I see as now being in play is the unbridgeable gap that exists between their views of what Labour should be: a Parliamentary party or an extra-Parliamentary one. That’s why the choice will be an easy one when I get my ballot paper. Labour will only ever have the opportunity to help shape this country’s future by focusing on winning general elections. It has the best chance of influence by being strong in Parliament as a credible opposition or by being in government. Labour in Parliament comes first. That’s why my vote will go to Angela Eagle.
Sadly, though, I suspect that I will be on the losing side. Labour members will choose the extra-Parliamentary route and the party will become a movement rather than one that aspires to govern. What happens then will have to be the subject of a different piece penned sometime in the future.
Joff Wild @SpaJW
Joff Wild lives in Leamington Spa and has been posting on Political Betting as Southam Observer since 2008. He has recently rejoined the Labour party after a long absence.