Nine months ago today I confidently predicted that Jeremy Corbyn would resign.
I made this prediction because it seemed like the only realistic option. I noted that he would be leading without the confidence of his Parliamentary colleagues, that he wouldn’t be able to fully staff a front-bench, and that his leadership would become bogged down in local internal Labour politics at the branch level.
I said the Government would be able to dismiss anything he said in the House of Commons and that he would become a national joke.
In Corbyn, people will see a small, stubborn man unwilling to accept the reality of his situation; a ‘leader’ without followers, organising rallies about how great he is while his party withers. People might like Corbyn. They might even blame the PLP for a week or two. But after a while, all the public will remember is that the Labour Leader is the person who failed but didn’t take responsibility and didn’t resign.
PMQs will become a weekly torture. Mock the Week will make the Corbyn zombie leadership a constant joke. He’ll enter British cultural slang. ‘Corbyn’ will forever mean a leader without followers, a delusional refusal to accept reality, destroying one of the UK’s great political parties in a tragic murder-suicide. It will enter the political lexicon alongside Lansbury, Eden and Duncan Smith as examples of failed leadership.
And all of the above will carry on for FOUR YEARS. Four years of a Shadow Cabinet of 40. Four years of deselections, reselections, protests and rallies and threats. Four years of the Tories being able to laugh in the faces of the Official Opposition in Parliament and of the country laughing and despairing of Jeremy Corbyn in newspaper columns, TV comedy and even down the pub. Four years in which to kill off the Labour Party.
If Jeremy Corbyn stays on — whether he wins another leadership election or whether he avoids a challenge — this is the picture.
Reading back, I was correct in every respect except one. Jeremy Corbyn did not resign. He stayed. He is staying. And Labour is dying with him.
The conventional wisdom for a long time was that Labour had a hard vote-share floor of about 26% — people who’d vote Labour if it was led by Idi Amin or a tub of lard. Barring a party split, Labour would be wounded but limp on.
That wisdom is shifting. Labour is regularly polling 25% or lower in some polls now, while the Conservative Party picks up UKIP voters giving them a comfortable 15%+ lead.
And there’s every reason to think these polls are flattering Labour. Historically, polls have tended to overstate Labour’s vote-share. A YouGov poll today shows that more people voted for Labour in 2015 think Theresa May is a more suitable PM than Jeremy Corbyn than vice versa. More than half of current Labour supporters won’t say they prefer Corbyn to May, with many unsure.
When it comes to polling day, some of these people won’t be able to bring themselves to vote for Corbyn’s Labour party. 20% is no longer a ridiculous vote-share for Labour. Meanwhile, the Tories are closing on 45%.
The Invisible Opposition
Labour has disappeared from the public discourse altogether. After Corbyn’s expected second leadership victory, Labour MPs decided to stop publicly opposing him, but his naturally-terrible political instincts, his abysmal office staff (led by Seumas Milne and Karie Murphy) and his poor delivery have left the party leaderless and invisible.
Today was a prime example. Theresa May sent the formal letter starting the process of the UK leaving the European Union. Clearly, no other political news today will get any coverage. It’s wall-to-wall Brexit. But Corbyn chose to use all six of his questions at PMQs to ask about funding cuts, guaranteeing that nobody would notice them at all. His later response to May’s Brexit statement was shouty and ranty about stopping Britain being a tax haven or something, but there was no forensic questioning, no intellectual depth, no clever gotchas, just a lot of angry waffle.
This is especially frustrating because the Government is like a diamond: hard, shiny and impressive-looking, but deeply fragile and with an artificially-inflated value. It has a small working majority with rebels from both the moderate Cameroonie tendency and the Eurosceptic ultras. It is internally split between the True Believers (Davis, Fox) and the pragmatists (Hammond). Its agenda, ‘Mayism’ I suppose, is basically Brownism/Milibandism repackaged in a nativist blue box.
Already, the Government has been forced into retreats on big issues like National Insurance increases for the self-employed because it can’t guarantee a majority in the Commons for them.
A hard-hitting opposition could shatter this Government into pieces. But there is no such opposition. There’s no opposition at all.
Corbynism is eating itself
In the meantime, Corbynism is eating itself. Hard Left MPs like Clive Lewis are considered traitors for not sharing Corbyn’s position on Brexit. Owen Jones is branded a crypto-Blairite for pointing out Labour’s awful polling position and suggesting alternatives. Momentum has split into two warring camps each claiming to be the authentic organisation. Staff keep resigning from the The Leader’s office amid reports of bullying. And everyone is talking about the McDonnell Amendment.
The McDonnell Amendment is a rule-change proposal that would let an MP run for Labour Leader with the support of only 5% of Labour MPs’ nominations. The Hard Left needs this rule if they want another Hard Left candidate to replace Corbyn when he does, eventually, step down. Even many of Corbyn’s public backers say he’s only hanging about until he can ensure his successor is from the Hard Left. He’ll go once the McDonnell amendment passes and Rebecca Long-Bailey or whoever can be crowned.
The McDonnell Amendment needs to get though Labour Conference. This is overall unlikely to happen. Between reps from the moderate Unions and Momentum’s relative weakness at the CLP level, the Hard Left don’t have the numbers.
So forget the McDonnell Amendment. And no McDonnell amendment seems likely to mean Corbyn stays — trapped by Milne and McDonnell and the handful of nutcases who cannot and will not give up control of the Labour Party after 100 years of Labour leaders that they consider dangerously right-wing.
And so Labour sinks, slowly and quietly. It lost a by-election to the incumbent Government, something that just shouldn’t happen to the main opposition. People laugh at the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn ever being Prime Minister. Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is a joke.
Opposition Matters Now
Opposition should matter now because, unusually in politics, irrevocable decisions are being made. The Government is going into Brexit negotiations seeking to leave not just the EU but also the European Economic Area and the European Customs Union. Many supporters of leaving the EU argued at the time against leaving the EEA, and almost nobody even mentioned the Customs Union.
New treaties will need to be negotiated, with the EU and other countries. Huge amounts of EU law will need to be either replicated in statute or changed wholesale.
The only serious pressure on Theresa May comes from the Tory Right and the Brexit-mad papers. If the UK had had a functioning opposition for the last year, it’s possible that she would have felt pressured (or able) to take a more moderate path.
What’s to be done?
Nine months ago, Labour MPs voted en masse that they had no confidence in Corbyn’s leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Most of the Shadow Cabinet resigned. Jeremy Corbyn did not resign.
The MPs forced a new leadership election and united behind a single candidate from the Soft Left. I argued that this challenge was a mistake, but I understand why the PLP felt they had to offer an alternative. However, all the challenge did was renew Corbyn’s mandate, scare off more moderate members from the party, energise the Corbynite wing and bolster the ‘traitor’ narrative.
The MPs decided to keep quiet, stop criticising Corbyn and even serve in his Shadow Cabinet again. But this didn’t stop the ever-shriller cries of betrayal from Corbynites who insist that Labour is being sabotaged by #chickencoup #blairite #redtory #traitors.
Then, a few weeks ago, following Jeremy Corbyn’s tacit support of a second Scottish independence referendum, some MPs broke ranks and began criticising the leader again. But not very many and not very loudly.
Thinking too small
Labour MPs are thinking too small. They had a moment of bravery nine months ago, a moment where they understood the existential threat to the party. But then they got distracted by an unwinnable leadership challenge and decided that silence and acquiescence were a strategy. They aren’t.
So something must be done. Waiting until Jeremy Corbyn resigns after a 2020 election defeat is not good enough.
First, there’s no guarantee he will resign. Without the McDonnell Amendment, he may feel that he should stay on even then to keep Labour in the hands of the Hard Left.
Secondly, the party will be drubbed in that 2020 election and lots of the current MPs will lose their seats.
Finally and most urgently, the UK needs Opposition and it needs it now, not after the next election. There is no time to wait and no time to lose.
If Labour MPs are brave, unified and creative there are things they can do. They can elect their own leader of the PLP and seek to have him or her designated the Leader of the Opposition. Oh, and elect a Shadow Cabinet for good measure. Will the Labour party NEC really expel, say, 150 of its own MPs if they did this?
Or they could go on strike, picket Corbyn’s office, withdraw all cooperation. Force him to cross a picket line to get into his suite in Norman Shaw.
Or follow the example of Cato and finish every speech in the house with ‘and may I just add that Jeremy Corbyn should resign for the good of the Party and the county”.
And there’s always the nuclear option: resign the whip, form a new Parliamentary faction or full-blown political party and just start opposing.
The damage may be done
Yes, many of these options will result in MPs being de-selected by angry Momentum-controlled CLPs. Some of them will damage the Labour Party.
Tough. The party may already be lost. If Corbyn was taken ill tomorrow and a moderate became leader because no Hard Left candidate got on the ballot, the Revolutionary Guard of Momentum would wreak a long and painful revenge: de-selections, constant smears and a betrayal narrative that could poison the party forever.
The old Labour Party is dead. Whatever happens next, even the best-case scenario will be nasty and messy. Accept that, and maybe the risks become worth taking.