SOMETHING remarkable is happening in British politics. In September the Labour Party elected Jeremy Corbyn, one of its most far-left and rebellious MPs, to its leadership after a campaign in which tens of thousands joined the party as members or registered supporters to vote for him. After an already-rocky start to his tenure, in the past weeks the party has descended into a rolling crisis. Here is my account of what is happening, why and what might come next.
– – –
It says something about the lurid drama of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour that, with a parliamentary vote due on British air strikes against Islamic State in Syria just a day away, today’s newspaper headlines concentrate more on the latest chapter in Labour’s meltdown. Why? The vote was always going to be relatively tight and the government is determined to avoid a repeat of 2013, when it proposed action against Bashar al-Assad only to suffer a humiliating defeat in the Commons. With a small majority, and with some of his own MPs opposed, David Cameron has spent the past months waiting for it to become clear that he would have the support of the perhaps 30 or more opposition MPs needed to make up the numbers comfortably. After the attacks in Paris it was immediately deduced in Downing Street that the mood was shifting—in the country as well as in Westminster—and that preparations for a possible vote should go ahead, pending some support from the Labour benches. So as cabinet ministers have been making their case in Parliament and in the television studios, all eyes have been on events in Labour.
And what events. The period between the Paris attacks and today has been the party’s most painful, self-destructive fortnight in decades, perhaps ever. Had excitable television scriptwriters suggested that any of this was plausible a few months ago, they would have been laughed out of the room. Consider what has happened:
November 16th: In the wake of attacks on November 13th, Mr Corbyn declares himself sceptical about the use of shoot-to-kill; he is later savaged by MPs at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP)
November 17th: Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, says he supports shoot-to-kill and that he cannot speak for his party leader; Mr Corbyn later reverses his position on the matter; Labour MPs attack him for his links to Stop the War, a protest group that blamed the Paris attacks on the West
November 18th: Mr Corbyn appoints Ken Livingstone, the left-wing former mayor of London, to a major defence role; following criticisms from Labour MPs Mr Livingstone advises one with mental health problems to get psychiatric help, then spends most of the rest of the day ignoring Mr Corbyn’s request that he apologise
November 19th: John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, denies having endorsed a statement calling for MI5 to be abolished and the police to be disarmed; it later transpires that he did support it
November 20th: Labour MPs demand a free vote on air strikes
November 21st: Mr Corbyn declares he is opposed to air strikes; Ed Miliband, Labour’s former leader, is reported to have told an MP: “I bet you didn’t think things would actually get worse”
November 22nd: A YouGov poll reveals that two-thirds of Labour members think Mr Corbyn is doing well while the general public overwhelmingly disapproves of him
November 23rd: Mr Corbyn is criticised by shadow ministers after giving a rambling and vague response to the government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review
November 24th: 14 Labour MPs defy Mr Corbyn and vote in support of renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent
November 25th: Responding to the autumn statement, Mr McDonnell brandishes Mao’s little red book; tabloids and Tories hoot as Labour MPs cringe
November 26th: In a shadow cabinet meeting most of Mr Corbyn’s front bench tell him they support military action in Syria; then without so much as telling Mr Benn, Mr Corbyn writes to MPs informing them he opposes it; in a televised discussion Mr Livingstone blames Tony Blair for the terrorist attacks in London in 2005 and claims the perpetrators “gave their lives” for their cause
November 27th: Labour MPs are bombarded with messages from members of Momentum urging them to oppose military action
November 28th: Mr Livingstone calls British troops “discredited”; several MPs say Mr Corbyn should step down; The Times reports that some have consulted lawyers about means of forcing him out
November 29th: Mr Corbyn tells Andrew Marr he is not going anywhere and claims that the Labour leader, not its front bench, decides the party’s position on matters like Syria; shadow cabinet ministers including Tom Watson, the deputy leader, and Mr Benn inform him they intend to support air strikes; Mr Corbyn publishes a methodologically dubious internal poll of Labour members suggesting that 75% are opposed and turns to the National Executive Committee for support
November 30th: After a shadow cabinet meeting in which he is reportedly yelled at by his own front benchers, Mr Corbyn relents and offers a free vote against an anti-strikes party policy; furious shadow ministers, wary of retaliatory deselection bids, force him to drop this formal policy; at a PLP meeting MPs attack Mr Corbyn and Mr Livingstone
New opposition leaders usually enjoy a honeymoon, but Labour is already polling below its terrible result at the general election in May. And the next days may be no prettier; tomorrow Mr Corbyn will open the parliamentary debate on air strikes in opposition and Mr Benn will close it in favour. Then on Thursday the people of Oldham West and Royton go to the polls in a by-election that could see Labour’s huge majority slashed by the UK Independence Party, which is storming ahead among nationalist, working-class voters horrified by Mr Corbyn’s pacifism and unorthodox views on national security. Defeat there (though still unlikely) could bring his opponents out into the open with calls for him to resign.
What is going on? I see it as evidence of two deep cleavages in British and Western politics. The first is the gulf between instrumental and expressive politics. The former involves winning elections in order to wield power and change things. The latter involves seeking fulfilment and personal satisfaction by interacting with symbols, attending events, declaring positions—in short, signalling things about oneself. With the decline of mass classes and monolithic ideologies it has become increasingly hard to combine the two sorts of politics. So the two are drifting apart. Government is becoming more technocratic, political activism more colourful and the gap between the two wider. Arguably this affects Labour more than most. The party has an unusually idealistic culture compared with its European counterparts (with its roots in Christian socialism and Bloomsbury utopianism, traces of both of which live on in Mr Corbyn) but was also founded with the specific intention of winning elections (for which read the relative pragmatism of most of his MPs). The Labour leader’s defining trait, however, is that he has no interest in general elections, opinion polls or indeed the views of any Briton outside a crowd of supportive activists and campaigners so small as to be electorally insignificant.
The second cleavage is that between social liberalism and statist socialism. Here, too, Labour has traditionally been a coalition. For every Denis Healey there was a Tony Benn (Hilary’s much more lefty father); for every Hugh Gaitskell a Nye Bevan. Here, too, the two sides have become harder to reconcile. Globalisation, an increasingly individualistic, consumerist culture and the decline of heavy industry have expanded the rift between the prescriptions of the party’s moderates and those of its hard-liners. All claim their interpretation of its eternal principles is the truest. But few would deny that they have more in common with members of other political families than with each other.
The age-old challenge of leading Labour—combining instrumentalist and expressive politics; moderate liberalism with state socialism—was always great. It is no coincidence that the Conservatives have governed Britain for most of the past century. Today, however, the gaps are greater than ever before and there is little prospect of any figure with the charisma and persuasiveness needed to bridge them ascending to the leadership any time soon.
In any logical political system, the answer would be for the Labour Party to split. It is increasingly two parties: a moderate, instrumental one and a hard-left, expressive one. They could exist much more happily, perhaps even more harmoniously, were they organisationally separate. Yet they are forced together like a couple that wants to separate but cannot afford two flats. Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system rewards big, sprawling parties that can stack up the votes of different sorts of voters in lots of constituencies. Put it to Labour moderates that they would be better off striking out on their own and they immediately reply with three letters: SDP. The Social Democratic Party, a break-off in 1981, when Labour last went through a major bout of hard-left onanism, initially soared in the opinion polls but fell short in the 1983 and (in alliance with the Liberal Party) 1987 elections. That the SDP’s example is so quickly dismissed—when in fact in 1983 it came within a nose of a breakthrough that would have sidelined Labour, perhaps forever—illustrates the absolute and psychological power of a majoritarian electoral system.
Short of Britain switching to proportional representation, what will happen? Mr Corbyn wants to lead his party into the 2020 election (“I’m not going anywhere”, he told Mr Marr on November 29th). That is believable: of course he wants to win that vote and become prime minister. And indeed it is technically possible that Labour’s leader could form a government that would set about whacking up taxes, pulling Britain out of NATO, cancelling orders for new nuclear weapons and nationalising utilities. Yet even Mr Corbyn and his inner circle must know, as his MPs certainly do, that nothing about Britain’s electorate suggests that it would ever endorse such a programme. It is likely that he intends to cling on to the leadership for as long as possible—the longer he does, the more he can reset his party’s attitudes on big policy issues and the more Momentum (the pro-Corbyn group hassling Labour MPs to oppose intervention in Syria) can sideline or actually deselect moderate MPs. The review of constituency boundaries due before the next election will hand great power to those groups of left-wing activists capable of dominating selection procedures for the new seats.
On the moderate wing of the party (or the “right” as it is known in Corbynite circles), it is utterly uncontroversial that the new leader should go as soon as possible. But when and how? Some reckon that the longer Mr Corbyn stays, the more lasting damage will be done to Labour’s public image (imagine the chaos of the past two weeks, repeated fortnightly for the next year and beyond). Others counter that the membership remains overtly supportive of him and that he needs to fail on his own terms, leaving it to his replacement to reverse the mistakes of his leadership. Then another question arises: should Mr Corbyn’s rivals seek to placate the Corbynite membership, or should they seek to draw in new members more likely to support a more liberal prospectus?
For my money, the best hope Labour has of remaining a credible political force is for MPs to force a new leadership election by next year’s September conference. Preferably they should do so sooner, after the May local and regional elections, installing Hilary Benn (who has won much respect in recent weeks) as a caretaker and voice of unity. That would cauterise the crisis and give Labour’s moderates time and space to recruit thousands of middle-ground members and to rally around one or two charismatic candidates with a large appeal beyond the party’s left-wing base ahead of a proper leadership election in 2017. The new leader would then spend the following three years striving to erase the negative impression left by the Corbyn years, using the movement that propelled him or her to the leadership as a bulwark against the former leader’s supporters and a channel to the ordinary voters who will decide the 2020 election.
At the risk of being deeply unscientific, here are four possible futures for Labour arranged in ascending order of pessimism:
- Mr Corbyn is rapidly ousted; Mr Benn replaces him as a caretaker; the membership churns in moderates’ favour; Mr Benn is replaced by a younger, more dynamic and more centrist leader. Labour chance of winning the 2020 election: 40-50%
- Mr Corbyn is rapidly ousted and replaced as permanent leader by one of Mr Watson, Mr Benn or Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary; the new leader compromises with the (largely Corbynite) membership and leads the party into the election. Labour chance of winning the 2020 election: 25-30%
- Mr Corbyn survives and entrenches his and Momentum’s control of the party, then hands over to a left-wing but more competent replacement; some moderate MPs are deselected at the boundary review and Labour goes into election on a leftish ticket. Labour chance of winning the 2020 election: 5-10%
- As (3), but Mr Corbyn stays and contests the election. Labour chance of winning the 2020 election: 1-5%
The most likely of these outcomes are (2) and (3)—which essentially means that the next election is the Conservatives’ to lose. This is just about possible. The upcoming referendum on EU membership (combined with complacency borne of Labour’s mess) could drop the party into a downwards spiral of recriminations. Yet as things stand the central projection has to be that the Tories will run Britain until at least 2025.