British Prime Minister Tony Blair once remarked that is was better “to lose and do the right thing than to win and do the wrong thing”. With three General Election victories to his name, Blair was not used to losing. This quotation, however, demonstrates Blair’s recognition of a leader’s duty of self-restraint when granted a very large mandate and of the moral responsibilities a leader still has to carry out in defeat.
That dilemma was expressed no better than by Blair himself in his final remarks to Parliament before resigning as Prime Minister, when he confessed that throughout his tenure, even when he enjoyed massive Labour majorities, he had “always feared” the Commons.
It would be no exaggeration to claim that the object of Blair’s fear and respect, respected him in return.
When Blair sat down, Conservative Leader and then-Leader of the Opposition David Cameron, urged Conservatives to join in a standing ovation for the man who had defeated them in three successive elections and seen off four Tory leaders in his thirteen years as Labour Leader, ten of which he served as Prime Minister.
It seems, nearly ten years later, that the current Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, does not concur with Blair’s remark that it is “better to lose and do the right thing”.
In normal political circumstances a vote of no confidence in a party leader would bring about their resignation.
Following the 2015 General Election in Scotland, Scottish Labour Leader Jim Murphy resigned despite surviving a vote of no confidence, stating that he had not won by a large enough margin to merit his continuing in office. Ian Duncan Smith lost a vote of no confidence among Conservative MPs in 2003 and promptly resigned as Conservative Party Leader. And in 1979, the Callaghan Labour government lost a vote of no confidence by a single vote. Parliament was dissolved and an election called.
Yet present Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, having, in July 2016, suffered a vote of no confidence among Labour MPs by a margin of 172-40, remained in his position.
By any standards this must be considered a definitive rejection by Labour MPs of the man whom became Leader less than a year before.
The scale of this defeat should be understood on levels other than the numerical one.
So many Labour MPs had lost faith in Corbyn that he was unable to fill all Shadow Cabinet positions. And even now, in 2017, to all intents and purposes Labour cannot have its policy positions enforced in the Commons, for MPs hold Corbyn’s authority in such low esteem. In short, Corbyn’s decision to stay in position despite the no confidence vote has emasculated Labour in a Parliamentary sense, rendering it incapable of either scrutinising the Conservative government or contributing to the post-Brexit discussion about the relationship the UK will have with the EU.
Ironically, the Labour leaders’ scuttling of the Labour Parliamentary establishment (such as it is) is the ultimate act of defiance by a serial Parliamentary rebel whose previous career is distinguished not by cabinet position, celebrated speeches, or even a chairmanship of one of the Commons’ various committees, but by an outstanding level of disobedience. Corbyn’s 500+ Parliamentary rebellions are old news, but Corbyn’s revolt-through-leadership has been more successful in undermining Labour Parliamentary “Blairites” than all his previous rebellions put together.
And it is the apparently calm fashion in which Corbyn carried out and continues to carry out the disfiguration of his party that is at the heart of our explanation for why Corbyn and the majority of Labour MPs remain at odds.
The party which forms a government following a General Election is that which has the confidence of a majority of MPs in the Commons, a definition of governance to which Labour has always subscribed, and which it is difficult to imagine the UK being without given the Parliamentary, arithmetical nature of UK democracy.
Corbyn emerged from the vote of no confidence emotionally and mentally unscathed because the necessity of governing through Parliamentary majority is a concept lost on a man who has never obeyed central party authority himself. Corbyn’s entire career has been spent on the backbenches at a safe distance from responsibility to anyone other than the activists and like-minded socialist MPs. Never one to concern himself with the embarrassment done to a government or party due to backbench rebellion, Corbyn has led the Labour Party while holding Parliamentary consensus and the weight of numbers in the same contempt in which he has held it for the previous thirty years.
Intellectually detached from the reality of government through Parliamentary majority, Corbyn has pursued an ill-advised management style towards his MPs. Indeed, at times it has seemed as though Corbyn and his allies were members of opposing political parties to the rest of Labour MPs.
In 2015, Corbyn tried to bully Labour MPs into voting against air strikes in Syria; in January he sacked Shadow Ministers for “disloyalty”; more recently, during the turbulent period after the no confidence vote, Corbyn urged MPs to “get behind the party- now!”, while others fear Corbyn will try to silence criticism of his leadership by de-selecting them as Parliamentary candidates.
The impression made is that Corbyn is undecided as to which tone to adopt when speaking to MPs, sometimes adopting conciliatory language, playing the unifier, while on the other hand treating his own party colleagues as though they were a malleable substance which after one word of reassurance from him would soften, and could then be moulded into whatever shape he wished.
His continuation in office following the no confidence vote, moreover, shows that the opinion of Labour MPs does not particularly matter to Corbyn. The support of the party’s members trumps any number of resignations from the Shadow Cabinet. To Corbyn, having a majority of MPs’ support is a supplementary mandate to the membership, something which, if gained, is encouraging, but which if not gained is dispensable.
Corbyn’s reliance on Labour’s vast membership to retain office has provoked a violent clash of mandates. Corbyn’s renewed mandate comes from the 60%+ of Labour members who voted for him, people who during the 2015 General Election, a matter of months before these events, were fielding candidates against Labour, and who have protested against Labour governments in the past.
Labour MPs’ mandate, on the other hand, comes from what they would hope to describe as a public mandate for the 2015 manifesto, on which they stood and won their seats, and for which approximately 9 million people voted.
These 9 million votes, Labour MPs could argue, gives them the right in Parliament to hold the government to account and advance the policies in the 2015 manifesto, a manifesto on which Corbyn also stood.
Despite the hopes of some MPs, the 2016 Labour leadership contest has not resolved the clash of mandates. The trenches are now dug so deep that neither side will tolerate the indignity of contemplating compromise with the victor.
The creation of a new party is a possible outcome of this clash of mandates, for the two competing mandates are irreconcilable, even within the broad church of Labour. A moderate party aspiring to form the next government simply cannot do so when it is led by someone who does not respect the Parliamentary traditions of the Labour Party and who appears blind to the reality that government needs to pass legislation by persuading MPs to vote for them. Based on the evidence Corbyn has given us, he is not capable of doing this.
Tony Blair has in the past described Labour’s situation under Corbyn as a “tragedy”. Far be it for us to romanticise Labour’s and Corbyn’s plight, we can admit that arguably the worst personal misfortune to befall anyone in Labour’s post-Brexit crisis has befallen Jeremy Corbyn himself, who, carried away by his “mandate” and membership popularity, will never understand the extent of the damage he is doing to the Labour Party, the leadership of which he contested in September 2015 with the best intentions.