Troubles in the Labour Party
Historically it is the Tories who have torn themselves apart over Europe. Today it is the Labour Party which does so. Whilst Ken Clarke was the only Tory MP to vote against the government’s Article 50 bill, 52 Labour MP’s defied the party whip in voting against the bill. These included 13 of Corbyn’s own team, 10 front benchers and 3 party whips. A further 4 front benchers (Dawn Butler, Clive Lewis, Rachael Maskell and Jo Stevens) quit their roles prior to the vote. Shadow Business Secretary Clive Lewis’s resignation brought the biggest headlines, with many tipping him as a potential leader in waiting. For his part Lewis was quick to distance himself from this suggestion calling it "total bollocks" and "a game of fantasy politics in Westminster" (Haroun Siddique, ‘Clive Lewis dismisses talk he could challenge Corbyn for leadership’, The Guardian, 11 February 2017). Of course whether Lewis wishes to stand or not, he would publicly deny this fact out of political expediency, right up until it is time to strike.
Backbencher Chris Leslie was one of the pro-EU rebels. Regarding the front bench rebels he noted: "Collective unity among the ‘payroll’ vote, ought to be a trait for any putative government in waiting. In a parliamentary system, the team is everything" (Heather Stewart, ‘Corbyn lets off Labour Brexit rebels with a written warning’, The Guardian, 10 Feb 2017).
The Labour Party under Corbyn’s command is evidently in disarray. Even in a relatively modest social democrat in Corbyn, Labour finds itself with its most left-wing leader in a generation. Admittedly, this amounts to as much as being the toughest kid in boarding school. Coupled with this is a party machinery and parliamentary party which is as far to the right as at any point in history. Unsurprisingly the leader lacks authority. So this conflict will be played out over a host of divisive issues until Corbyn is eventually replaced as leader, whenever this may be. Or Corbyn grows a spine and purges the PLP.
The unlikelihood of the latter has been highlighted by Corbyn’s response to the mass rebellion. Written warnings have been handed out to rebels, with Corbyn reminding the media he is a ‘lenient’ man. Leniency is rather favourable spin for what amounts to a breakdown in leadership and lack of authority. Such leniency is little but political weakness.
Just how perilous a position JC finds himself in is made clear by the constant reshuffling of the shadow cabinet under his leadership. He has juggled things so often that he is seemingly unable to act now. Over a third of Labour MP’s have now served in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. Such is the extent of the juggling he has been engaged in, stemming from his lack of support and inability to command the PLP.
This lack of authority has been made further evident by a series of further post-vote developments. First of all, Corbyn will have been rocked, despite his protests, at the resignation of his campaigns director Simon Fletcher.
“Fletcher, a former aide to Ed Miliband, led Corbyn’s campaign to become Labour leader in 2015. He was a senior adviser to Ken Livingstone as London mayor and one of the most powerful people in City Hall.
“Sources suggested Fletcher had been feeling restless in his position as campaigns chief, after being moved from his previous job as Corbyn’s chief of staff last June and replaced by Karie Murphy.
“Fletcher’s role was to provide ‘direction, advice, planning and delivery of campaigns, and our message on Jeremy’s behalf throughout the organisation, including preparations for the general election’….
“In a statement confirming his departure, Fletcher said: ‘Working for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign and in the leader of the opposition’s office in parliament has been a huge privilege.
“’I have worked with Jeremy for well over two decades and I will continue to support him and his leadership of the Labour party, and look forward to working together for many years to come.’
“Corbyn released a statement thanking Fletcher. ‘Simon has played a vital role in shaping the new politics and building Labour’s campaign to rebuild and transform Britain,’ he said. ‘I’ve known Simon for many years and we will continue to work together on the cause of social justice in Britain, and I wish him well in the future.’
“Fletcher is the second former Livingstone aide to depart from Corbyn’s office in just over a year. The veteran Labour campaigner Neale Coleman quit as head of policy and rebuttal in January 2016, amid reports of Labour infighting.
“Coleman was later hired by the Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith to be his chief policy adviser during last summer’s election. Corbyn’s head of media, Kevin Slocombe, among those hired by Fletcher, also stepped down last year to oversee communications for the Bristol mayor, Marvin Rees” (Jessica Elgot, ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign director leaves to pursue other projects’, The Guardian, 17 February 2017).
Whilst Corbyn and Fletcher are adamant this is an amicable split, of course rumours to the contrary persist. Even if this were an amicable breakup and the two remain ‘great friends’ (JC’s words), the timing of the resignation could not possibly be worse. Fletcher’s departure could not have been timed to cause more trouble for his pal if he had tried. With ‘great friends’ so thoughtless, who needs enemies? Again assuming the truthfulness of the amicable split line, this is possibly even more damning (if not damaging) for Jezza. For this removes the option that the resignation was meant to harm his boss. Therefore JC is appointing people to key positions (requiring the deep level of strategic thought that campaigns director does) who are unable to analyse the most basic of political situations. In fact a situation in no small way related to his former job, given the ongoing crucial by-election campaigns in Stoke and Copeland. This kind of incompetence in making key appointments is not too far-fetched a theory given the number of reshuffles and resignations in the Corbyn era. Perhaps it would be better to be have been stabbed in the back.
The intervention of Tony Blair was further ill timed. Although in this case there is no ambiguity. Tony and Jeremy are not ‘great friends’ and Tony definitely meant to cause harm with the timing. Blair told assembled media on February 17th that it was personal mission to change people’s minds and have them ‘rise up’ against Brexit. Despite talk of changing minds, typically unashamed, he admitted that failing this, parliament can still overturn the decision.
“Mr Blair, who campaigned to remain in the EU, said that while he accepted that people voted to leave by 52% to 48%, he would recommend looking again at Brexit when ‘we have a clear sense of where we’re going’.
“Pressed on whether he thought there should be a second referendum, he said: ‘All I’m saying is a very, very simple thing, that this is the beginning of the debate – that if a significant part of that 52% show real change of mind, however you measure it, we should have the opportunity to reconsider this decision.
"‘Whether you do it through another referendum or another method, that’s a second order question’" (BBC News, 17 Feb 2017).
The suggestion of ‘another method’ is a reminder, as if it were ever required, of Blair’s Machiavellian tendencies and use of the dark arts. His trampling over the conventions of the British Constitution by centralising power in himself was often described euphemistically with terms such as ‘sofa cabinet’. He was perhaps the apex of a process that saw the office of Prime Minister run in a presidential fashion. As a result, entirely unaccountable unelected men like Alistair Campbell undoubtedly held more power than almost every cabinet minister. This is not even to scratch the ‘other methods’ of dodgy dossiers and consequently lying to parliament, multiple wars, extra rendition and therefore complicity in torture. Certainly, Blair knows how to get things done by many methods.
The real crushing blow from the old leader to the new came with the line that "the debilitation of the Labour Party is the facilitator of Brexit." There is at least some truth contained, in the fact that the Labour Party is enfeebled. The social-democratic revisionist left would lay the blame for this fact at the door of Blair. However under his leadership Labour did win an unparalleled 3 general elections. There was an authoritative leader with a tight party apparatus ready to swoop against any indiscipline, as any honourable MP such as George Galloway found out. As unpopular as the Iraq war was, his party was not weak and divided. Under Corbyn it undoubtedly is. This is not to sing the praises of New Labour and Tony Blair. It merely serves as a reminder of the high improbability of magically ‘reclaiming’ a party machinery, even for Old Labour from New Labour, not to mention the logical impossibility of ‘communists’ reclaiming a party that was never theirs in the first place.
In response, Corbyn gave a fairly measured and soft rebuttal to Blair.
"Well, it’s not helpful. I would ask those to think about this – the referendum gave a result, gave a very clear decision on this, and we have to respect that decision, that’s why we didn’t block article 50.
“But we are going to be part of all this campaigning, all these negotiations about the kind of relationship we have in Europe in the future. The referendum happened, let’s respect the result. Democracy happened, respect the result (BBC News, 18 Feb 2017).”
However, Blair wasn’t the only former leader to lay into JC’s performance. Appearing on BBC’s ‘Sunday Politics’, Lord Kinnock also did the current Labour leader no favours by accusing him of a strategic error.
“Quizzed on how he felt Mr Corbyn was dealing with Brexit, the former MP for Islwyn told BBC Wales’ Sunday Politics programme: ‘I don’t think it’s being handled actually.
"‘What potentially could have been a serious problem for the Conservative Party because of the deep divisions in that party over Europe… has actually turned, because of the rather ineffectual handling of the issue by the leadership of the Labour Party, into a series of difficulties for the Labour Party.
"‘I actually think that the Labour Leader made a strategic error in not saying there should be a free vote, so that MPs could reflect the vote in the areas that they represent, and then simultaneously have focused really hard on what the conditions for our departure are to be’" (BBC News, 12 Feb 2017).
The divisions within the Labour party are clear for all to see. Even Ian Lavery, who is Labour’s election coordinator has been less than solidly behind the current leader. After it was leaked that Labour had been ‘road-testing’ potential future leaders, Lavery told ‘Sunday Politics’ (BBC1) that “There’s plenty of leaders to pick from if and when Jeremy decides, of his own volition, that it’s not for him at the election. That isn’t the case at this point in time." It may not be so at this time, but leaving open the possibility does little to protect his leader and will have only strengthened the resolve of plotters. The Labour Party is in crisis.