It’s not often nowadays that one can say that the Labour Party truly stands for the country as a whole but I think it’s fair to say that right now that is the case. Unfortunately it is because, like the UK as a whole, the Labour Party is giving the appearance of being a complete shitshower which is completely buggered in every possible way.
Now, after 10+ days of resignations, letters, petitions etc. we have a stalemate. Jeremy Corbyn is refusing to budge and many of his supporters amongst the membership are determined to stand by him. His opponents within the PLP have come too far to back down, yet none of them are willing to actually put themselves forward to stand against him. They cry for “proper leadership” and then wait for someone else to make the next move. No one, least of all “lethally efficient political fixer” Tom Watson seems to have a clue how to get out of this mess, although discussions are apparently ongoing.
Personally, I didn’t vote for Corbyn, in fact I’ve always thought his election would not end well. But I wanted it to work, and I thought it only right to accept the result and give him a chance. In fact I’ve probably spent more time defending him than attacking him over the last nine months. But it’s now got to the point where muddling along is no longer an option, something has to give. And while I’m reluctant to identify with either “side” in this battle, it’s no longer possible to sit on the fence either, and it seems clear to me that in the wider interests of the Labour Party he now has to go.
Partly this is because however much one might admire his principles and agree with the general direction of his policies, I just don’t think he’s up to the job. I think that wanting to do politics differently is a fine aspiration, which the next Labour leader should share, but any party leader still has to actually do politics, be able to cope with the day to day grind as well as the unexpected things which can be thrown up at any time. And to reach out to the wider electorate, including those who are sceptical about, and even hostile to, the Labour Party and convince them that it is a credible party of government. It’s understandable that given Corbyn’s political history these are not qualities which he has needed to develop in the past so he’s had to learn on the job, but I’ve seen little sign that he’s able or even willing to learn. People will argue that he hasn’t had much time, but in politics you don’t get much time, you have to learn quickly.
But whether or not one agrees with the above, the current situation is clearly untenable. An opposition party (or indeed a governing one) simply can’t function if its MPs can’t or won’t work with its leader. And Corbyn standing against whatever challenger might emerge and winning again will only take us back to where we are now.
I fully understand the objections to this, given the overwhelming nature of his victory in last year’s leadership elections and the strong personal support he still has within the membership. At our local branch meeting last night I was in a minority of one calling for Corbyn to go. The other members were overwhelmingly supportive of him and opposed to the actions of the PLP. And these aren’t £3 activists, entryists or Trots, they are ordinary members, who have been in the party much longer than me.
And I do understand where they are coming from. The party’s current problems aren’t caused by Jeremy Corbyn, they go back years, to the days of Tony Blair and New Labour and through the Brown and Miliband years. Members have been feeling increasingly marginalised, treated as campaigning fodder whilst having their views about the party’s policies and general direction ignored. Members and people outside the party alike have found it increasing hard to understand what the party really stands for and felt it was putting supposed electability before principle…and still losing.
So it’s not surprising that when a candidate came along who both seemed to represent the values of the party which it had seemingly lost over the years, real “Left” values, and who promised to give back more control to party members, people both inside the party and on the left in general flocked to support him. What I still find both astonishing and reprehensible is the refusal of so many on the right of the party (and certain commenters in the media) to recognise this blindingly obvious fact and to look at themselves and acknowledge their own part in the party’s dire (as they saw it anyway) situation. Certain elements in the PLP have been behaving like spoilt petulant children since Corbyn’s election, and their outright dismissal of members’ views is disgraceful. If they had shown some humility, accepted the result and let it play out in its own time then just maybe there would be more trust on both sides and a more obvious way out of the current seemingly irresolvable situation.
That’s not to say there isn’t fault on both sides. I don’t think Corbyn has done a good job of reaching out to those within the party who didn’t vote for him and don’t share all of his views, and of trying to unite the party around him. Obviously the behaviour of some people has made it more difficult to do this but he could have done better himself. He has attracted some new members and supporters from the outer reaches of the left who are pretty unpleasant and want to pursue their own hard left agenda rather than the wider objectives of the Labour Party. The tendency of some to dismiss anyone who challenges their views or criticises Corbyn as “red Tories” is juvenile and tedious.
Ultimately the only way out of this mess is for everyone within the party to recognise the seriousness of the situation, that the party’s very existence is at stake and to accept their own part in this. I’m not suggesting everyone is equally culpable but we all have to own the situation. And we have to recognise that wherever we feel the balance of responsibility lies there is no possible outcome where one faction entirely gets its own way and the party stays intact and in a state where it is capable of winning an election.
MPs have to accept that they are representatives of the Labour Party and wouldn’t be elected without being given a platform by the party, and that their and the party’s success depends on the subscriptions and campaigning efforts of its members. They and Corbyn’s opponents on the right need to accept that the political centre of the party has moved and that they aren’t realistically going to get a leader from their wing of the party. They can forget Dan Jarvis or Liz Kendal, let alone the notion of David Miliband as the “king over the water” who will return to save the party. They have spent the last nine months preventing that happening.
Party members have to recognise that as much as party rules give them the ultimate say over who is leader of the party, Labour is not just a private members club. It is a movement, which encompasses ordinary members, MPs and other elected representatives and trade unions, not to mention Labour supporters and voters outside the party. And that for all the talk of sacrificing principles for electability, winning elections does actually matter. Having a leader who people feel properly represents the party’s principles is a good thing, it has energised existing members and attracted many new ones. Corbyn’s critics should recognise this. But a leader also has to unite his party, and be able to appeal to and persuade the wider electorate. To do all of these things is hard enough for any leader. For a Labour leader, especially given the party’s recent electoral failure and current state it is even more so. It’s no insult to Jeremy Corbyn to say he doesn’t possess the necessary qualities for this, few of us would. In my view Corbyn supporting Labour members should realise they still have the upper hand in any leadership election, there must surely be another plausible candidate from the left of the party with wider appeal and without the same baggage who the rest of the party could at least accept if not embrace with open arms.
It’s not as if the future has to be bleak for Labour. After last year’s election there was talk of the party being out of power for a generation. We were told that the Tories had captured the centre ground. Well that was not true – they ran on a right wing manifesto, given the sheen of centreism by Cameron’s laid back reasonable guy image and a placid media. And now the Tories are moving unashamedly to the right, which will hand a big opportunity to Labour, especially if (perish the thought) Andrea Leadsom becomes PM. But to take advantage of this situation Labour has to got out of its current hole, and do it quickly. Jeremy Corbyn should stand down and let someone better suited to the role take the party forward.