The political year of 2016 has a good chance of being remembered for longer and of having a larger impact on British political life than most other years.
The political years of 1997, the 1978-1979 Winter of Discontent and the 1984-1985 Miners’ Strike stand out from the rest as milestone political events. All three instances saw dramatic changes in at least two of the following; the national political terrain, the public mood, and the fortunes of major political parties.
The Miners’ Strike, resulting in a major defeat for the trade union movement as a whole, and the disillusioning Winter of Discontent significantly altered the political arguments of their day, and, in the case of the former, more or less resolved a decades-old debate about what political role and influence trade unions should have.
The year 1997 did something quite different. If 1997 did not change public attitudes towards politics or resolve any major debates, then the General Election held that year manifested all of the changes in politics that had taken place since Black Wednesday and the emergence of New Labour in a single electoral event. The 1997 election stands out because it was the worst electoral result for the Conservatives since the 1906 General Election and consigned the Conservatives to a party record of thirteen consecutive years in opposition.
The political year of 2016 deserves to be remembered in the same spirit as these aforementioned milestones in UK political life, due mainly to the result of the EU Referendum, which, as we all know, saw the UK vote to leave the EU. By any standards, this event must mark out 2016 as a decisive episode in UK political culture and in the UK’s political relationship with the world.
But as the year drew to a close, and as the new one begins, the debate about the identity and direction of the UK during the EU Referendum campaign has relaxed somewhat into the comparatively technical and pedantic discussion over what “Brexit means”, and whether the government would be giving away its initiative if it were to reveal to Parliament what its negotiating strategy is.
As the government and the opposition, as well as the minor political parties, focus their efforts on the future relationship between the UK and the EU, and as the public await the government triggering Article 50, it is easy to forget that, not so very long ago, a debate about identity and direction within the Labour Party was an engrossing narrative of its own.
With some Labour MPs condemning Corbyn’s leadership and calling for him to stand down pitted against his staunchest Parliamentary supporters and Labour activists, and with Shadow Cabinet resignations being announced every hour, in the first week after Brexit it seemed as though the Labour Party was disintegrating on live television in front of the nation.
During the summer, and particularly at the end of June and July, the conflict within Labour was so intense, bitter and public that the issue of Corbyn’s leadership was worthy of mention in the same breath as the Leave vote itself. Indeed, I can recall Corbyn’s struggles with his MPs regularly appearing as a top bulletin on news programmes, ahead of the Conservative contest to chose, effectively, the next Prime Minister, and the reaction of the international markets to Brexit.
The events were frequently described at the time as a civil war, though, looking back, this term hardly seems strong enough to convey what took place in the Labour Party between the Sunday after Brexit and the re-election of Corbyn in September 2016.
In light of the resounding no confidence vote in Corbyn, the widespread condemnation of his handling of the referendum campaign, and the attitude of both sides towards the other, it seems that the Labour Party should consider itself fortunate to still exist in 2017.
It is worth reflecting on what caused Labour to go through such a traumatic summer, both to better understand how we have arrived at the present situation within Labour, and contemplate what the future may hold for the party.
On the morning of Friday 24th June the nation learned that it had collectively voted to leave the EU. By the following Monday, dozens of Labour Shadow Cabinet Ministers had resigned. The following weeks saw a decisive vote of no confidence in Corbyn (by a margin of 80% to 20%) and the launch of a leadership challenge from Owen Smith.
By September, at the annual Labour Party Conference, Corbyn won re-election more convincingly than when he first won the leadership.
When Smith launched his bid to replace Corbyn as Labour leader, Corbyn himself had been leader for less than a year, in which time he had not managed to endear himself to his Parliamentary colleagues. Corbyn’s inability either to behave professionally in dealing with policy disagreements with his MPs (Syria air strikes and Trident come to mind) and his January 2016 reshuffle in which former Shadow Ministers were dismissed for “disloyalty” (something Labour MPs described as hypocritical coming from Corbyn, who has over 500 Parliamentary rebellions to his name) had poisoned relations with Labour MPs.
Labour’s worst performance in council elections while in opposition for 30 years in 2016, as well as slipping to their lowest level of representation in Holyrood after the 2016 Scottish Election, raised concerns in Labour’s Parliamentary ranks that Corbyn was an electoral disadvantage and was not well placed to deliver victory at the next General Election.
It is telling that when Labour Shadow Ministers resigned in June 2016, they almost unanimously did so with the observation that they saw in the Leave vote a failure on Corbyn’s part to persuade Labour voters to listen to the party’s Remain message. Many backbench Labour MPs echoed this sentiment, one felt by MPs across the political spectrum and not only those described disparagingly as “Blairites”. This perceived failure of communication with the electorate, MPs said as one, proved that Corbyn was unable to return the party to government.
This had been an enduring criticism of Corbyn even before he was elected Labour Leader in 2015, and continued throughout his tenure to the extent that by the time of the EU Referendum there was already a crisis of faith within the Labour Party.
Disagreements over a range of policies, management and style were set to one side so the party could present a united front to hopefully win the referendum: but these tensions undoubtedly still existed.
Many Labour MPs had simply not been won over by how Corbyn was managing the party and the policies he was proposing. The Local Council and Scottish Elections had been an indication of how far Corbyn still had to travel to make the public respect and buy into his message, and for moderate Labour MPs the EU Referendum result demonstrated beyond doubt, and in the most costly fashion, that Corbyn was almost certainly not able to lead Labour into government.
It was this final shortcoming, the last in a long list of electoral disappointments, management errors, and unresolved policy disputes which forced Labour moderates to act as they did, to take the step which no MP should wish to take: removing their leader.
As we have already discussed, Corbyn won re-election, the bid of his MPs to replace him having backfired due to Corbyn’s popularity amongst Labour supporters. Though Smith accrued a very respectable number of votes (surely more than enough secure election in any other party’s leadership race) Corbyn’s supporters outnumbered his by nearly two-to-one. As a result of this election, it seems almost certain that Corbyn will lead Labour into the next election, whether it is held in 2017, 2020 or some time in between.
The question, however, is whether Corbyn’s remaining as Labour leader was inevitable. In particular we should question whether Corbyn could have been forced to step aside if Labour MPs had pursued an alternative course of action.
Deciding to try to remove Corbyn through a leadership contest was always a high-risk strategy for Labour MPs. They would already have known that Corbyn was popular amongst party members (the electorate in leadership contests) and that Corbyn was likely to win their support a second time.
The selection of a fellow left-wing MP (Owen Smith) who claimed to differ from Corbyn mainly on matters of competence than on matters of policy, was also a strategic error. If members wanted to vote for a leader with Corbyn’s policies and principles, then they were likely to vote for Corbyn again rather than someone new, particularly someone supported by “Blairite” MPs.
There is a semi-proverbial logic, rarely applied to politics, which roughly translates as: “if you are going to fight, pick a fight you can win”. Labour MPs might have benefitted from that lesson in the aftermath of the EU referendum. Had they heard this advice, they might have thought twice about trying to unseat a leader who was extremely likely to receive the backing of the party membership. And in choosing to fight that “fight”, Labour MPs were effectively conceding that whoever won the leadership contest, rather than the person who could win a general election, had the right to lead the party.
In so doing, Labour MPs were staking everything on a single vote and, by their own logic, were entrusting the party’s electability at the next general election to the Labour Party membership.
Their course of action, having understood it in these terms, seems like a very reckless one, one that perhaps betrays the impatience and hastiness of a group of people who wanted to rid themselves of Corbyn as fast as possible. Had they had the fortitude and presence of mind to reflect on their actions before they carried them out, they might have, first; never tried to replace Corbyn through the pitched battle format of a leadership contest, and, second; might even have succeeded in removing Corbyn.
In the aftermath of the vote of no confidence in Corbyn in July 2016, Labour MPs began to consider possible candidates to oppose him. Instead of choosing an individual to face Corbyn in a one-on-one campaign, Labour MPs might have starved Corbyn out of his position. By this, I mean that Labour MPs should not have launched any full frontal assault on Corbyn, but maintained the position they then occupied, one of criticising Corbyn, disobeying him, expressing their lack of confidence in him, and continuing to apply pressure on him in the Commons and in public to demonstrate their independence from him and his impotence as leader.
Had they operated from the vote of no confidence onwards as though Corbyn was not their leader, Labour MPs would have denied Corbyn that pitched contest which he was so likely to win, and have forced him to fight a highly tactical political/public chess game, which his past performance as leader suggested he was temperamentally ill-suited to win.
Denied authority by his MPs, virtually powerless in the Commons and unable to put forward a coherent policy platform to which his MPs could subscribe, Corbyn might, just might, have been forced to resign on the basis that he physically could not lead a party that would not listen to him and did not recognise him as its leader.
This strategy was, of course, by no means certain to work, being as it is speculatively described months after it could have been applied. Labour MPs might in fact have succumbed to public hostility towards their paralysed party and had a leadership contest anyway.
But the strategy of starving Corbyn out of power was much more likely to work in favour of their long term aims than choosing to fight Corbyn for the votes of people who had elected him leader in the first place.
After the leadership election, Labour MPs face another strategic choice.
During the first part of Corbyn’s leadership, and during the second election contest, there was talk of possible de-selection of Labour MPs who were considered disloyal to Corbyn. With a boundary review scheduled for 2017, every MP will have to be re-selected anyway, but in Labour’s case there is a possibility that those MPs who campaigned for Smith in summer 2016 might be removed and replaced by candidates more sympathetic to Corbyn’s politics.
Those Labour MPs who fear this possibility (and it is a very real possibility, despite assurances from Corbyn, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and others that it will not happen) will shortly have to decide how they will approach this threat and how best to secure their Labour candidacy for the next election.
One way to do this would be to embrace Corbyn’s politics, actively support his leadership and give every outward sign that they are on board Corbyn’s policy train. This would eliminate the need for them to be de-selected, though any sudden close association with Corbyn could be suspected as foul play by Labour members who still do not trust MPs.
A possible alternative would be to hold the line, fight the de-selection process from within the Labour Party, and try to keep the moderate Labour voice shouting throughout the review and re-selection process, in the hope that their defence of their position will succeed in seeing off the Corbyn-supporting membership.
The problem with the second, more confrontational approach is that given what we know about the consequences of Labour MPs adopting an aggressive strategic outlook in their confrontations with Corbyn, it is unlikely that they would win a pitched contest with Corbyn’s supporters over re-selection, if they chose to make it a pitched contest.
Labour MPs need to more carefully consider their options if they are to remain a vocal force in Labour politics.
They need to use the opportunity given to them by the boundary review to remind Corbyn why they are valuable to him and the Labour Party as a whole. Rather than once again let their differences with Corbyn be seen as a threat to Corbyn, they must strive to show him that he requires them to communicate with sectors of the electorate he cannot reach, and that party diversity is much more attractive to the electorate than what the MPs may interpret as homogenous leftist disciples of Corbyn standing in every seat.
Corbyn’s tenure as leader offers little evidence that he cares what the majority of his MP think or have to say about the important issues of the day; and still less does he respond positively to criticism that he needs help or advice in reaching out to the wider public.
So Labour MPs will have an uphill struggle to persuade Corbyn that it is worth his while protecting them from de-selection. But it will certainly be worth Labour MPs’ while to make the case to their leader, both to avoid the kind of direct confrontation which they could not hope to win, and to increase their chances that Corbyn will accommodate their arguments in the future.
More importantly, adopting this strategic outlook will give Labour MPs a better chance of achieving their overarching goal, the ambition on which their whole disagreement with Corbyn is based: winning elections.
To fight Corbyn on re-selection would carry a high likelihood of moderate Labour voices being eradicated from Labour’s Parliamentary ranks, as the membership responds to the Blairite provocation by de-selecting them. Moderate Labour MPs know that if this were to happen their party would effectively be taken over by those on the left, whose policies they consider electorally toxic. Labour, the logic goes, would be out of power at least for the next Parliament.
Strategically speaking, demonstrating their usefulness to Corbyn might mean the moderates remain in Parliament in fairly large numbers. They would remain a feature of Labour politics; they would have an influence over policy; they would have a public presence. And they would have a much better chance of seizing control of party policy, ideology and leadership from those on the left.
Most importantly, surviving in Parliament gives Labour moderates every chance to put their party on the path towards electability.
The year 2016 will most likely be remembered in British history by the vote to leave the EU. In fifty years time, this event will still be remembered; the difficulties within the Labour Party, however, may or may not sink into public obscurity.
Not so for Labour MPs and Labour members.
While 2016’s Brexit might carry many positive connotations down the decades, 2016 will probably be remembered in Labour’s collective consciousness as a diabolical episode in the party’s history. Electorally, Labour was further from power at the end of 2016 than it was in May 2015, and in the eyes of moderates, 2016 will be remembered as the year that the ability to direct the direction of the party slipped, due to their own strategic errors, from their hands.
What strategy they choose to adopt for the re-selection process in 2017, however, has the potential to change their party’s fortunes. Assuming they learn the lessons of 2016, and assuming they are skilled enough to survive in Parliament in large numbers, and assuming the correct strategic choices are made from now on, the year 2017 could well prove to be remembered as the year Labour moderates began, as the Brexit campaign so convincingly urged millions of British voters, to “take back control” of the Labour Party.