Tristram Hunt, former Labour MP and Shadow Minister, advised the media upon his resignation as an MP in January 2016 that he did not intend to “rock the boat”.
He appeared to be doing his party leader (Jeremy Corbyn) a parting favour, moving to dispel any media speculation that his resignation was calculated to destabilise Corbyn’s leadership.
Despite Hunt’s best efforts, however, the media was inclined to regard in a predominantly negative light the departure of a highly regarded Labour MP, and a critic of Corbyn’s leadership throughout 2016. It has been suggested that Hunt’s resignation betrays a growing frustration and alienation of the moderate and right-leaning elements of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Hunt’s resignation, some argue, should serve as an indication of what the future holds for Labour, the assumption being many more centrist Labour MPs who disagree with Corbyn major policy issues would do as Hunt has done and find other careers, but of whom some might even join or form alternative parties.
We must remember, however, that Hunt is by no means the first Labour MP to disagree with Corbyn to part company with Corbyn – and by this I do not refer to Jamie Reed, another Labour MP who has forced the party to fight a by-election early in 2017.
I refer instead to the slew of Labour MPs who have distanced themselves from Corbyn’s leadership over the course of a few months- but whose unmistakable retreat from the political centre-stage has gone relatively unnoticed by the media.
That Tristram Hunt’s resignation triggered the kind of media speculation of instability within Labour that it did demonstrates the level of respect Hunt commanded as a politician. Ken Livingstone, indeed, remarked shortly afterwards that had Labour’s recent history been different Hunt might in a few years time have been in line to become Prime Minister of a Labour government.
But many other Labour MPs, who have had distinguished careers, and might have continued to have distinguished careers had history been different, had effectively withdrawn from the frontline of Labour politics long before Hunt.
In October 2016 Yvette Cooper, former Work and Pensions Secretary and Shadow Home Secretary, was elected Chair of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, defeating fellow Labour MPs and former Shadow Ministers Chuka Umunna and Caroline Flint. Again in October 2016, Hilary Benn, former Secretary of State for International Development and Shadow Foreign Secretary, was elected Chair of the Exiting the European Union Select Committee.
Furthermore, Andy Burnham, former Health Secretary and Shadow Health Secretary, despite supporting Corbyn over the summer of 2016, is set to contest the Mayoralty of Greater Manchester in 2017. And Sadiq Khan, former Shadow Justice Secretary, has since become London Mayor.
Over a period of perhaps eight months, there has been a pattern of publicly recognisable, experienced and highly regarded Labour MPs moving away from the Shadow Cabinet and into other avenues of Parliamentary work (or a completely new career altogether in Hunt’s case).
The question of why this pattern has emerged needs to be asked.
And the answer is not that these Labour figures are content to withdraw from the field and allow Labour’s policies to be decided by Corbyn and the Labour left alone.
The careers and actions of these MPs range from serving long spells as Ministers under Blair and Brown, to running for the leadership against Corbyn in 2015 (in Cooper and Burnham’s cases), to trying to remove Corbyn as leader in 2016.
We should not believe that MPs who contributed so much to the party’s period in office and considered themselves candidates to become the party’s leader have simply given up.
In uncovering the reason for their avoidance of Shadow Cabinet prominence, we must ask the question of whether these MPs would have sought Chairmanships of Committees or Mayoralties if the Labour Party was in a favourable position in the opinion polls.
If we take the example of Andy Burnham: he had supported Corbyn and served in his Shadow Cabinet from the moment he became Labour Leader and throughout the summer of 2016- a time when many of Burnham’s closest colleagues and friends passed a no confidence motion in and mounted a leadership challenge against Corbyn. Still in his position after Corbyn’s re-election, Burnham would almost certain be part of a Labour government should Corbyn go on to win a General Election between now and 2020.
It should, therefore, be very much in Burnham’s interests to stay in the Shadow Cabinet.
Similarly, Hunt and Umunna had speculative campaigns to become Labour Leader in 2015, though neither progressed far in the contest. Two men who held ambitions to be Labour Leader, and therefore distantly hoped one day to become Prime Minister, must possess considerable faith in their abilities and judgement, making both ideal for Shadow Cabinet positions, which they had formerly fulfilled under Ed Miliband.
Would Hunt have left Parliament, and Umunna have refused to rejoin the Shadow Cabinet and sought a Chairmanship of a Select Committee if Labour had been ahead of the Conservatives in the polls, rather than behind?
The fact is that Labour is not poised to win the next General Election, but on current projections could lose more seats.
Corbyn’s policy announcements, as well as being rendered obsolete and embarrassing by his hour-later retractions, are also unsettling for those who have been in government and run government departments. His refusal to assure Labour voters he is serious about reducing immigration threatens to make the party, already considered weakened by months of conflict, less relevant even to those it has traditionally relied on.
These factors together have convinced experienced Labour figures that the party is not going to win a General Election under Jeremy Corbyn, and as such will remain in opposition for another Parliamentary term at least. They see no profit, no advantage, and no purpose to serving in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, as the cause of making him electable is a lost one.
This recognition of the likelihood of defeat under Corbyn was not something these proud Labour MPs arrived at lightly- but it is one they have reached resolutely, and have accepted.
They cannot admit this to the media, but their admission of defeat is inherent in their behaviour: avoiding any role which brings them closer to Corbyn’s leadership; seeking alternative Parliamentary roles to those in the Shadow Cabinet; leaving Parliament altogether.
It is indeed unfortunate that the talents of so many ambitious Labour MPs are being wasted in this way.
A great many careers which might otherwise have flourished and achieved significant things in government are endangered by the next General Election, where all of them could possibly lose their seats.
Labour’s integrity as a so-called “broad church”, which purports to be able to accommodate politicians of a wide variety of opinions within the same political party, is undermined by the experience of these Labour MPs.
Their leadership, while month after month claiming to offer the hand of friendship and accommodation, has not shown that he has learned from the mistakes of his first period as leader (September 2015- June 2016) and improved his performance. Indeed, the policies announced by Corbyn since his re-election in September 2016 are no more plausible, coherent or attractive to centrist Labour MPs than those which caused him so much discomfort during the aforementioned period (issues such as Trident and Syria air strikes come to mind).
The broad church is supposed to be able to reconcile these differences under the Labour banner. But this has not happened under Corbyn’s tenure. That broad church has, on the contrary, had its confines narrowed, its former multitude of accepted political outlooks boiled down to one inflexible ideology, that of the socialist hard-left.
The result of this takeover of Labour’s broad church has been that centrist Labour MPs are being squeezed out of the party’s frontline.
In 1981 the hard-left agenda of then-Labour Leader Michael Foot and others forced Labour centrists out of the broad church altogether, forming the Social Democratic Party. Two years later, the SDP and Labour competed for the centre and centre-left vote at the 1983 General Election, in which, though they trounced the SDP in terms of constituencies won, Labour suffered a massive overall defeat to the Conservatives, losing 60 seats.
Last summer there was speculation that the Labour Party could split again.
Those voices were proven wrong, for the party has maintained its structural unity. But given that the current direction of centrist Labour MPs at the moment is in the opposite direction from the leadership, there is nothing to say that something similar could happen a second time.
Repetition of such a split, of centrists leaving or being ejected out of their own party, could eventually lead to a scenario where Labour and former-Labour splitters become electoral competitors, with the result that both of them lose to the Conservatives.
Before his election as Labour Leader in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn had a reputation as a Parliamentary rebel. Having voted against his own party more than 500 times, chairing the Stop the (Iraq) War Coalition, and having never even been appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to any Labour Minister, Corbyn, it would be fair to say, thoroughly deserved this description.
Under Corbyn’s leadership Labour’s broad church has become a great deal narrower, both in its ideological outlook and electoral appeal. And, ironically, MPs who in the past might have considered themselves dutiful, well-intentioned and respectable members, and representative of the majority, of that broad church, now find themselves pressed into a position of having, inwardly at least, to resist the very leadership which, once, represented the radical outsider element of that same broad church.
The disillusionment with Corbyn may be so deep that Labour’s broad church could be destined to suffer the kind of schism which did such enormous electoral damage to the party in the 1980’s.
Corbyn’s task between now and the next General Election is to make sure this doesn’t happen: his task is to make the broad church a genuinely ideologically welcoming and appealing entity both to the public- but also to Labour MPs.
But if Labour MPs continue to seek alternative ways to serve the party than serving the leader directly, there will be no moderating voice at the very highest echelons of the new party. If those who predicted Hunt would be the first of many such high profile, centrist resignations from Parliament are correct, Corbyn may already have lost too much time.