David Herdson: Labour moderates should consider a second leadership challenge

Written by David Singleton on 3 March 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

With water under the bridge and a figurehead like Hilary Benn, a second leadership challenge could succeed where the first one failed.

Hillary Benn

Moderate Labour MPs must insist on no surrender. The cause of the moderates is too important to vacillate now.  That cause – the re-creation of a Labour Party capable of effectively opposing the Conservatives and, later, of forming a government – is one that should not just be of interest to them but to the country as a whole.

The excessive dominance of any one party easily leads to bad government: to lazy, complacent and arrogant thinking and, consequently, to doing stupid things.  It’s not a coincidence that the Poll Tax’s genesis came at a time when Labour was in eclipse. Nor is it a coincidence that Tony Blair was able to join George Bush’s Iraq adventure when the Tories’ confidence and leadership was at its lowest ebb.

It’s therefore in the country’s interests that Labour recovers (or that if Labour won’t or can’t recover, that someone else step into their place, though that prospect looks even more remote).  Fortunately, Theresa May is not overly ideological nor given to rashness, lessening the risks.  Still, an effective opposition would lessen them still further.

Which is why the manoeuvring for the post-Corbyn leadership election matters so much.  Labour rarely does open disloyalty quickly but the anguish clearly evident in the comments of Dave Prentis or Owen Jones at the state of Corbyn’s party give a good enough pointer that the Labour leader’s one-time supporters know that there has to be a change.  As Corbyn himself is clearly incapable of making that change, it follows that they’re calling for a change of leader.  The questions, as always, as how, and who.

Those two questions are intertwined. The Collins Report, which formed the basis for the rule changes to Labour’s leadership elections stated:

To ensure that all candidates who are put to the ballot command a substantial body of support in the PLP, the threshold for nominations to secure a position on the shortlist should be raised from 12.5 per cent to 15 per cent of House of Commons members of the PLP.

That was a perfectly sound principle. Indeed, Corbyn has given an excellent demonstration of the paralysis that results from a leader who does not command the support and respect of his MPs.

However, in what turned out to be a disastrously misguided gesture, some MPs nominated Corbyn despite preferring someone else in order to ‘widen the debate’ and, presumably, increase the mandate of the eventual victor on the grounds that the party had been given a wide range of options and picked who they did.  In doing so, they failed to respect Collins’ rationale.

To do that once was tragic. To do it twice – the second time in the light of 2015 – would be farcical.  The problem is that a refusal to guarantee the nomination of a candidate of the left makes it much less likely that Corbyn will stand down voluntarily.

Even so, they need to recognise that while at one time the left might have been happy simply to have their message heard in the leadership election, the very realistic objective of the left now will be far higher: victory.

And the MPs should be in no doubt that after 2015 and 2016, a new candidate from the Left – whether John McDonnell, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Clive Lewis or whoever – would be likely to win.  He or she could easily galvanise the same coalition that Corbyn did, and those activists would be more than happy to put Labour’s failures these last two years down to Corbyn the man, despite his apologists now.

That could easily be because Corbyn himself might endorse that view in his resignation.  He’s never been one to climb the greasy pole for its own sake, to put it mildly, and if he thought that taking one for the team would be for the team’s best, he might well do it.

Accepting the failures of his leadership as his alone against a tide of media hostility and so on, and not of his message and policies – not a wholly implausible argument for those inclined to believe – would give the left’s next candidate a much clearer run, a sympathetic hearing and a wave of righteous indignation to ride.

Which is why it would be so foolish to allow that candidate onto the ballot in the first place, however tempting it might be to do a deal involving more loaned nominations.  It is not cheating to use the rules as they were designed, for the reason they were so designed.

On that basis, the McDonnell amendment needs to be rejected too.  Reducing the threshold from 15% to 5% is a completely transparent attempt to try to hang on to power over the heads of MPs, as well as to put a foot in the door of all future contests.

As an aside, the left is missing a trick with their proposed change.  As it stands, it’s clearly a defensive move resulting from their weakness in parliament.  A more aggressive proposal – and one in line with the philosophy of a ‘members’ movement’ in which the MPs have no special role – would be to keep the 15% threshold but change the nominating entities from MPs and MEPs to Constituency Labour Parties.

However, that’s by the by.  The key question remains Corbyn’s future.  If he won’t go by himself, or only if he could set intolerable conditions, and if it’s necessary that he does go, then it follows that he must be forced out in a second challenge.

Wouldn’t that go the same way as the first?  It’s possible but three things say no.

Firstly, Corbyn didn’t actually do that well in 2016.  His share of the vote did increase, from 59.5% to 61.8%, but that’s partly because the first, four-way, contest didn’t have the votes redistributed.  Had they been, Corbyn would probably have won a greater share first time.  Partly it’s because the opposition he beat in 2016 was weaker than the year before: he should have increased his share.  And partly, it’s because the balance of the membership should have shifted to him.  Yet in all probability he went backwards on a like-for-like basis.

Secondly, another year’s water has passed under the bridge and another one again may pass before the challenge; time enough for a lot more evidence to be brought to those who wanted him to be given a chance to conclude that he’s had it.

And finally – but least assuredly – the challenge when it comes ought to come from someone who the public will see as a heavyweight; a potential prime minister.  Neither Angela Eagle nor Owen Smith was that but Labour does have some among its ranks: Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper or Keir Starmer, for example. Sadiq Khan too perhaps, though he’s side-lined in London now.

That person will also need to set out a compelling vision as to what they stand for, as well as what they stand against.  They will need to define what social democracy looks like in a post-Brexit, post-austerity world.

They’ll need to do so because the leadership won’t be handed on plate: it will have to be won (and, to have a broad legitimacy within Labour requires that it be won).  Does any heavyweight have what it takes to lead their party and, potentially, their country?  One thing is for sure: no-one will come flocking to their standard unless they are first prepared to raise it.

 

 

@DavidHerdson

 

 

Picture by: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Archive/PA Images.

 

 

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