How long will it take to restore internal discipline in the post-Corbyn era?
“Damn your principles; stick to your party!” With such lofty dismissiveness did Disraeli once berate a colleague thinking of rebelling. It is not just hard but impossible to think of Jeremy Corbyn using like words, yet they are the currency of every successful parliamentary leader, if not always put so bluntly.
Not just the leader either. For all the myths of party whips terrorising and bribing MPs into voting for their party line, the reality is rather more mundane: whips’ offices exist not only because leaders need them but because MPs do so too. (Which isn’t to say that the more extreme stories of whips’ tactics are not true; just that they aren’t common).
Parties exist for a purpose and that purpose is only delivered if the sense of collective endeavour is sufficient to generate high levels of collective discipline and self-discipline. Put another way, sufficient for MPs to accept that their principles are best served by following the whip even when they disagree with it because they know that on a matter they’ve championed and have won party backing on, other MPs in the party will return the favour.
Self-discipline to the whip is of course is something that Corbyn is singularly poorly placed to demand. Somewhat contradictorily, as well as well-disciplined party units, parliament also needs a few mavericks willing to say ‘no’ when everyone else says ‘yes’. They’re usually wrong but occasionally they’re not and on such occasions they can spark change. At the least, their presence should ensure that the consensus has its arguments properly thought out. Corbyn was – and to a large extent still is – one such.
However, they also need to know their place, and their place is on the backbenches. They have given themselves, and have been given, latitude to breach the whip but having done so, such a record will forever prevent them from demanding loyalty from others simply on the basis of party unity. Iain Duncan Smith found this out as Conservative leader and Corbyn’s history (famously, when elected, he had voted against the Labour whip more times than David Cameron) means he’d be even less credible doing so.
That record of dissent may explain his extraordinary tolerance for rebellion against him. Before these last two years, it would have been a major media story for a whip to resign on a point of principle and unthinkable that one could vote against his or her own party and keep their job: an action that undermines every concept of what parliamentary parties are and how they work. Yet on the Article 50 bill – one of the most important pieces of legislation this parliament – not just one but two whips seem ready to do just that.
That it’s not a major media story is a measure of how normal Labour’s dysfunction has become as a parliamentary party. For some, including Corbyn, this is a feature not a bug. The Whips’ Office is in essence an elitist entity, cutting off the MPs from the membership, whether by imposition or voluntary surrender. It is what gives MPs their special status. We know, from his rejection of the overwhelming vote of no confidence against him, that he doesn’t view the MPs as having any particularly special status and so there’s a degree of philosophical consistency in him not being too rigorous about discipline in return (though this may be making a virtue of a necessity). All the same, it mitigates against his party speaking to the public with a unified and confident voice.
So much for the present but the Corbyn era will end. It might end after the next election; more probably it will be before it. The question, which falls into two parts, is what can be salvaged from the wreckage.
The first part is the more simple question of physical politics. How many MPs, MSPs, AMs, councillors and so on will he have and to what extent will lost ground be recoverable? On that score, Labour shouldn’t fare too badly, though there is a small but real risk that it might.
For all the talk of a quadruple-pincer – with the Lib Dems, SNP, UKIP and Tories all simultaneously attacking different parts of Labour’s electoral coalition – the fact is that the Lib Dems remain distrusted by many on the left, UKIP is even less organised as an effective party than Corbyn’s Labour, the SNP are close to maxed out in Scotland and there is a similar limit to how many Con-Lab swing voters can be peeled off. With no immediate existential threat – no party capable of replacing Labour in England and Wales – Labour ought to survive, and if it survives then at some point it will prosper. So far, it’s held its Westminster defences comfortably and did better than expected in the May elections. Scotland remains a disaster-zone but otherwise, it’s broadly held what it has, so far.
But there’s a more insidious nature to second part, which is what damage is the Corbyn era doing to Labour’s internal culture? Once the Conservatives got into the habit of rowing over Europe and deposing leaders it took fifteen years, two landslide defeats and six leadership elections before it managed to restore self-discipline. When even whips think that they can rebel and carry on, what hope is there for members, councillors and MPs? How hard will it be for a future leader, whether the next or a subsequent one, to re-establish a sensible level of self-control? (One not insubstantial risk is an overreaction into control-freakery).
That’s the longer term risk and, on balance, the greater one. As the Tories showed from the late-80s though to 2003, bad habits are hard to eradicate and have a price: the Tories lost well over half their seats in that time. While no party is currently able to replace Labour as one of the Big Two – as the SNP and Tories have in Scotland – they can’t rely on that being the case indefinitely. The country needs a reserve government and at the moment there isn’t one. If Labour can’t or won’t provide it, sooner or later, someone else will.