Since his election as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been under attack in the press from Tories, Blairites, and anybody who has bought into the propaganda about his apparent unelectability. Unfortunately many in this final category are members of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). There is a need to remodel the Shadow Cabinet and the PLP to be more accepting of Corbyn’s democratically chosen policy programme. In order to get this party unity there are many things that need to be done; some are easy but some are not.
I have said in a previous article that I believe it’s in Labour’s best interests to have a split but there are many on the Right of the party who stubbornly believe they are ‘Labour to their core’ despite supporting policies that would make Keir Hardie spin in his grave. The fundamental problem with Labour at the moment is that the ‘big tent’ that the party has always been has become too big. The history of the party is littered with examples of socialist MPs and supporters tolerating a more social-democratic leadership; from Ramsay MacDonald through to Gordon Brown, socialists and trade unionists have been able to coexist with social-democrats. However the Blairite experiment must now end.
The reason social-democrats and socialists could work together was that they both recognised the importance of the public sector being operated by the state and that the market needs to be subject to significant regulation. Blairites, who are neoliberals, have a fundamental disagreement with the Left of the party; this difference is irreconcilable. The party in its current form cannot function because one wing of the party wants to abolish capitalism and renationalise key industries like railways and utilities, and another wing that wants to continue Thatcher’s neoliberal consensus albeit with greater regulation.
The reason that Blair was able to keep the party in check was that the electoral mood of the membership was supportive of this brand of neoliberal capitalism; as a result of this the Left of the party had to suck it up. Now that the shoe is on the other foot Labour’s neoliberals aren’t willing to play ball, even though Corbyn won more votes in the Labour leadership that all the New Labour candidates combined. The long-term result has to be an SDP-style split. If the liberals in Labour cannot stomach the fact that a self-declared ‘democratic socialist’ party elected a socialist leader and started promoting socialist policies, they know where the door is.
The next way of ensuring party unity is focussing on areas of policy agreement whilst removing barriers of disagreement between the leadership and the membership. For example all or a significant majority of Labour MPs, including Blairites, support renationalising the railways, raising the minimum wage, building more social housing, and opposing the Trade Union Bill. Indeed Chuka Umunna, who is hardly a leftist, supports rent caps in London. By focussing media attention on these domestic and economic issues, infighting will become less pronounced and in this time period preparations can be made to remove barriers in regards to other issues.
A key point of disagreement is over the renewal of Trident and the reason that this has traction in the press is that some trade unions support its renewal because of potential job losses. The solution to this problem would be to sit down with the unions concerned and promise to create jobs in industries that those unions represent; this way the unions don’t lose members and those who lose jobs from cancelling Trident can get a job in a similar industry. By shifting the toward areas of policy agreement whilst working behind the scenes with Labour Party members, Corbyn can create a coherent manifesto that social-democrats would be comfortable running on.
But the elephant in the room remains the intransigence of the PLP, which thankfully can be weakened. There are two constituencies in which Corbyn can strengthen his hand: Rochdale and Tooting. In Rochdale Simon Danczuk has been embroiled in a scandal that has resulted in the Labour Party whip being withdrawn. After the allegations became public his constituents are demanding he step down and a by-election be called. Danczuk is an outspoken critic of Corbyn in a relatively safe seat; if grassroots organisations can get a Corbyn ally to win a Labour primary, it is highly likely that this pro-Corbyn candidate would be elected to Parliament.
The second is in Tooting in London. Despite what Boris Johnson says, being the Mayor of London is a full-time job and if Sadiq Khan wins, as polling suggests is likely, it is probable that he would step down as an MP. Khan isn’t a Corbyn critic but he has said that if he wouldn’t have nominated Corbyn for the leadership election if he knew that the Islington MP would win. Replacing Khan with a Corbyn supporter would be beneficial to the leadership as the PLP would begin to be more supportive of policies supported by the leader.
Another mechanism that would prove useful would be passing a bill in the Commons enabling recall of MPs. This would achieve cross-party support as MPs like UKIP’s Douglas Carswell and the Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith would vote for this proposal. It would be difficult to pass as MPs don’t often support legislation that would make it easier for them to lose their jobs, but if passed it would give grassroots groups and Labour Party members a renewed impetus to organise alternative candidates.
Labour has to end its infighting and focus on the Tories. As I write this the news of Shadow Attorney General Catherine McKinnell’s resignation has just broken, and this proves my point. The PLP are significantly more right-wing than the leadership and the membership which has them worried. These people cannot have their cake and eat it: either respect the membership’s choice of leader and shut up, or go and join the Lib Dems. It is not Corbyn undermining Labour’s electability, it is those on the Right of the party seeking to undermine their leadership.
If I were people like John McDonnell I would keep the anti-Blairite rhetoric to myself, but I would work to systematically undermine their influence in private. It’s time for an end to infighting and the solution is to restructure the PLP. I’m tired of being tolerant of media briefings and resignations that make the Tories look competent at governing. We need to force Labour’s liberal MPs into a simple choice: support the democratically chosen leader, or fuck off.