So the NEC has decided to reinterpret the rules and as the incumbent Jeremy Corbyn will no longer need to secure the support of even 20% of Labour MPs to be on the ballot for Leadership of the Labour Party.
But this doesn’t alter the fact that if he is to achieve anything as Leader he does actually need their support. Before now, nobody had even bothered to ask the question – it was just assumed that a Leader required the confidence of their MPs even if they didn’t have their first preferences. Margaret Thatcher resigned when she received the support of 204 of 362 MPs. Tony Blair named the date of his departure when six junior ministers resigned. Charles Kennedy resigned when 23 of his 62 MPs called on him to go.
Iain Duncan Smith received the support of over 60% of party members but the support of just 54 MPs in the final leadership ballot, but when he lost a confidence vote among MPs by 75-90 votes, he knew his position was untenable and he resigned.
For Jeremy Corbyn, losing a majority of his hand-picked team was not enough and neither was the decision of the PLP to hold a confidence vote by secret ballot. When the result came in, it was a clear display of unity: by 172 votes to 40, the PLP stated that they do not have confidence in his leadership. Instead of resigning, he hung on in the desperate hope that the NEC would reinterpret the rules and give him an automatic right to contest the leadership.
Why do people persist in the view that the Leader does not need the support of their fellow MPs? Until 1981, the Leader was elected by the Parliamentary Labour Party. Under the electoral college system which operated for 34 years, the Leader led both the party in the country and in Parliament. But crucially the candidates have usually closed ranks after the election and worked together. When Neil Kinnock beat Roy Hattersley in 1983, they worked together to lead the Labour Party. So did Tony Blair, John Prescott and Margaret Beckett. Bryan Gould and David Miliband left politics after their defeats, but other defeated candidates have worked with the victor – perhaps they did not agree with every twist and turn but they agreed with the broad direction and they were willing to be part of the team. It has therefore always been clear that the Leader enjoyed the broad support of the vast majority of the PLP.
Many members of the PLP did the same after Corbyn was elected Leader: they accepted front bench roles with a sense of foreboding perhaps but nevertheless they put their reputations on the line. They were rewarded by being ignored: Corbyn doesn’t have the stamina to make decisions on the detail but he has also demonstrated that he is not even willing to hear the views round the room and then draw it together as a consensus. This is fairly basic low level leadership skills – but then again he has never actually been a manager, let alone a senior manager. He has staffed his team with revolutionaries who do not respect parliamentary processes let alone the parliamentarians: he and they think he is leading a movement to a revolutionary moment rather than seeking electoral success. Seamus Milne was allowed to brief the media over Christmas that Corbyn was going to sack half the shadow cabinet; when Corbyn got back to the office he didn’t – but he did sack a few sacrificial lambs who had the temerity to say publicly that sacking people for doing what they thought was right on a free vote would be a bad idea (i.e. straight talking, honest politics and, as it happens, agreeing with Corbyn but not Corbyn’s cronies).
Corbyn believes that he can continue as Leader despite having negligible support in the Parliamentary Labour Party. He seems to think we have a presidential leadership system, without the prospect of a presidential election to go with it. American Presidents do not lead their party in the sense we know it; they choose the platform and congressmen and senators owe them a debt for the coat-tails effect that helped them get elected. But the accountability of those congressmen and senators is to their own electorate. There isn’t going to be a presidential election – but if there was, it is very likely that Corbyn would secure far fewer votes than the 9 million votes for Labour at the last General Election. The enthusiasm for Corbyn comes from a small segment of the population. Many of these people don’t even vote Labour: the argument for an alliance of Labour, the SNP, Lib Dems, Greens, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein is fascinating but would repel quite a few voters; an opinion poll suggest that May would win a straight contest with Corbyn by 62% to 18%.
And believe it or not, the media hasn’t really got started on Corbyn. Remember what the Daily Mail said about Ralph Miliband, a man who fought for Britain? Imagine what they will say about a man who has consistently condemned our troops while supporting our enemies and abusing our allies. Corbyn may continue to be supported by many of Labour’s members but the wider public are unlikely to join them. In any event, if he led us into a General Election, what would he offer the country if he is not willing to work outside his small coterie of supporters to agree a coherent platform?
Under a succession of leaders, Corbyn has been free to express his opposition to those leaders, regardless of the fact that he was in a small minority. He continued his opposition to the leadership even when that leadership was supported by the PLP, by Labour Party Conference, by the grassroots membership of the party and specifically the members of his own Constituency Labour Party in Islington North, a majority of whom voted for Tony Blair and for the New Clause IV drawn up by Tony Blair and John Prescott. The suggestion that Labour MPs should be put under pressure “by the grassroots” to support Corbyn’s revolution is worrying and wrong. Labour MPs are right to think that their loyalty belongs to the voters who put them in Parliament, not the much smaller number of people who have supported Corbyn. They need to ensure that they speak for the people, not the self-appointed vanguard of the people. They need to remember the parliamentary tradition that they work for those who didn’t vote for them as well as those who did and need to reach out to broaden Labour’s appeal, not follow Corbyn down an ideological cul-de-sac. Frankly it says it all that after advancing these arguments, Diane Abbott has chosen to ignore the fact that her own CLP has voted no confidence in Corbyn. Even she doesn’t really believe in resolutionary democracy, she just wants to use it to hammer the other side.
There are different approaches to leadership. As Chair of the Labour Group on Islington Council, I thought it was important that we discussed the key issues and agreed a collective position. On one difficult issue, there were no less than three discussions and votes taken and each time there was a large majority in favour of the decision. Yet a small number of members voted against their colleagues in full council. It was a bit of a shock to realise that in other Labour groups, members were expected to support the Leadership without any internal democracy. Likewise, in Parliament the Leader’s policies are sometimes debated by the PLP but the expectation is that they will be supported and enforced by the whips. But there has never been any doubt that the Leadership had the support of a majority of Labour MPs and where significant dissent was expressed, the policy changed. The whips are a significant conduit for this dissent – it is the quiet voices explaining the nuances and rationale for their disagreement that persuade leaders to change direction not people like Corbyn who were always against.
There was a real opportunity for Corbyn to set out a radical agenda and then have a discussion with colleagues and reach a consensus that might have been quite different from what came before but had broad-based support.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Corbyn’s leadership is the fact that despite arguing not only for internal democracy but also for his right to defy the leadership whenever he chose, he and his acolytes have demanded the support of Labour MPs even when they know that a majority of Labour MPs disagreed with them – and even when the Labour Party conference has a clear policy to the contrary. He clearly doesn’t believe in straight talking honest politics, nor in internal democracy. He thinks he is right and that there is no need for further discussion.
This is sometimes called strong leadership. That is what Tony Blair was accused of – but although he may have told Bush “I will be with you whatever” he still understood that he needed to secure the support of his Cabinet – and for the first time in history he sought the consent of Parliament as well before going to war. That is an important precedent and a positive legacy. There can be no doubt that if a majority had not backed him, Blair would have resigned – which of course was a factor in many Labour MPs backing him. But contrast this with Corbyn. He knows that most Labour MPs won’t follow him and his response is that he doesn’t even turn up to meetings of the PLP anymore.
Leadership relies on the consent of those you wish to lead – and in a Parliamentary Democracy, that means your colleagues in Parliament. This is a clear political choice – the path of democratic socialism or revolutionary socialism. For a century we have pursued the democratic path and there can be no turning back now. Members of the Labour Party are faced with a choice: if you think the way to change this country is through persuasion and voting for MPs, we cannot continue to be led by Corbyn.