Putting Labour Together Again
by Bryan Gould
Mon 1st Aug 2016
The challenge manufactured by the Parliamentary Labour Party to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership seems destined to prove an exercise in futility and impotence. Nothing more clearly demonstrates, in both its motivation and impracticality, the gulf that has been allowed – and in some cases encouraged – to develop between Labour MPs and the party in the country.
But when it reaches its inevitable conclusion, what then? When the warring parties return to their encampments to lick their respective wounds, does the Labour party limp on, broken-backed and riven by division and ill-feeling, until a general election puts the whole enterprise out of its misery? And what, in the meantime, about all those who have looked to the Labour Party to protect their interests and to bring about change in a system that has so thoroughly betrayed them?
One thing is certain. There is no future in returning to the status quo ante. One or other, or preferably both, of the combatants has to undergo an “agonising re-appraisal” in the interests of learning lessons and learning to work together.
On the face of it, that duty does not lie immediately on the victor. Corbyn and his supporters may feel that, having seen off a challenge that was born of a misplaced incredulity that the PLP could be defied by the party’s membership, any rapprochement is the responsibility of those who so thoroughly misread the situation.
But that would be a mistake. Those who claim and are entrusted with the leadership of the party must shoulder the responsibilities of leadership, among the principal of which is the mounting of a unified and effective effort to win the next election.
The newly confirmed leader, however, is entitled to expect a significant shift in the attitude of his parliamentary colleagues. The dead end that has been reached is the outcome of a policy of confrontation that can no longer be sustained. The Corbyn leadership is there for the foreseeable future. The task now, surely, is no longer to undermine it – hitherto the preferred strategy of many – but to strengthen it and to use those strengths to win an election.
The first duty of those who mounted the challenge is to understand what has happened. Jeremy Corbyn became, and will have been endorsed as, leader because he dared to break free from a stultifying orthodoxy which had imprisoned Labour, without their even knowing it, in an intellectual framework that precluded any real departure from neo-liberal politics and neo-classical economics. His central assertion, which can be regarded as not only important in its own right but as a surrogate for a much wider rejection of orthodoxy, is that we do not need to accept austerity as a suppose answer to our economic problems.
There is no reason why those who criticise him so bitterly should not have shown similar courage. It is their timidity, and – in many cases – their keenness to assure voters that they would be just as tough as the Tories, that has left them so far out of touch with Labour voters and with a leader they do not support. Talk of splits, breakaways and court cases (whose limitations and impropriety in such matters has already been demonstrated) is simply to compound the deeply damaging mistakes they have already made.
There is some evidence that the penny is beginning to drop. Even the chosen candidate of the parliamentary rebels has shown that he understands the appeal and the relevance of what Corbyn has been saying. Owen Smith has embraced alternatives to austerity and policies for growth, full employment and a more competitive productive sector – and while there might be some raised eyebrows at the genuineness of this somewhat belated conversion, the road to Damascus is the right road to take. If Smith can take that stance, why can’t his supporters?
If Corbyn’s critics can be brought to understand his appeal to party members but nevertheless lament what they see as his personal deficiencies, then the remedy is surely to help him make good those deficiencies by offering him the support that he needs. The right response from the PLP to the likely result of the leadership election, in other words, is not one of sullen resentment and the withholding of support, but of using the party’s total and combined talents to offer a real alternative to a perpetual Tory government.
A Corbyn leadership supported by the strongest possible Shadow Cabinet would be a very different proposition from one undermined by those ready to brief continuously against him. His supposed unelectability looms large in the minds of his critics rather than in any hard evidence; the recent emergence of a substantial Tory poll lead is no more than the classic response to the emergence of a new Prime Minister, helped along by constant reports of Labour dissension.
A parliamentary party ready to unite behind its leader (and what other constructive response is there?) would in turn invite and deserve a considered response from Corbyn. He has had time to understand the difference between the freedom enjoyed by the long-time defender of often minority causes and the responsibility accepted by the builder of a team ready to form a government. He will now have the chance to show that he is ready to complete that transition.