About eighteen months ago, my father (then aged 85) had a bit of stomach trouble and so he went to his doctor. The doctor prodded his stomach and found something very dodgy (later confirmed by ultrascan) – an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm. He needed to have a heavy-duty stent fitted pronto, which was obviously a serious operation, with no little risk, especially at his age. The alternative would be to risk the aneurysm bursting, which would have been fatal.
The reason for this story is to justify the nature of Bad Year Blues Parts 1 + 1½, which was various described by others as “self-flagellation” and “depressing.” This is quite correct: like in my father’s case, the patient needs to know the choice – a serious operation or death, or in Labour’s case, to change or to become extinct. Likewise, the remedy in each case is not without risk, but the alternative is still worse.
So what are the steps that Labour could take? The main radical procedure required is essentially a matter of Leadership – the person and the post.
As described in Bad Year Blues 1½, it is clear that Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of filling the post of Leader of the Opposition. It is worth remembering that he has never sought such an office (or any other) in 32 years as a career MP; that he did not expect to win the leadership election; and that he his lack of experience or expertise was horribly exposed by the pure fiasco of his first Shadow Cabinet reshuffle.
He is the wrong man in a job he did not want at any time; when Labour is a critically ill patient, he is adding to the illness. However, it is also worth considering that it may not be the man that is wrong – it is equally likely that it is the post.
The membership of the party is by definition not representative of the electorate: it may not quite be Neil Kinnock’s satirical “sign of extremism, obsessiveness or a failed love life” to do so, but to be a member of the Labour Party remains an anomalous behaviour. Therefore to be elected by the membership is to represent a group already at a disconnect with electorate.
It is true that some Labour leaders have managed to overcome the gap between Labour members and ordinary people, notably John Smith and Tony Blair. However, there would be few people who would honestly compare the personal political skills of Jeremy Corbyn to those of Smith and Blair – even amongst his admirers.
On the other hand, there is a large and influential body of Labour members who are by definition more representative of the voters, and indeed whose job it is to be connected to the wider electorate: the Labour MPs who comprise the PLP.
One of the prime causes of the current Labour illness is that the head (those MPs) is at least partially disconnected from the heart (the membership). Members supporting Corbyn must remember that few Labour MPs wanted him as their leader and that even fewer of them have ever, in his 32 years as an MP, looked at him and thought “there goes a future great reforming Labour Prime Minister.” His floundering with his reshuffle is a symptom of this rejection of Corbyn as a parliamentarian of any standing at all, as well as of his unelectability; otherwise, MPs would have been expected to flock to serve in his Shadow Cabinet.
There is however, a way to deal with the illness which also gives place to both the electoral mandate of the PLP and to the decision of the members to elect Corbyn. It is the solution chosen by other socialist and social democratic parties in Europe, for example, the Partie Socialiste, and its practicality in the UK is proven by its seamless use by the SNP – and indeed, the Scottish Labour Party.
The time has come to divide the leadership of the Labour Party from the leadership of the PLP, and the responsibility for appointing the Party’s Parliamentary leadership should be “repatriated” to the PLP.
The PS has a First Secretary (currently Jean-Christophe Cambadelis), who if necessary stands down from that post when seeking high legislative office while François Hollande is President of the Republic; Willy Brandt became Chairman of the SPD after having been replaced by Helmut Schmidt as Bundeskanzler . Nicola Sturgeon is Leader of the SNP while Angus Robertson is the party’s Parliamentary leader; and Scottish Labour Party leaders had not been members of the Westminster parliament until Jim Murphy’s short tenure.
The distinction between Party leader and PLP leader would have a number of benefits. First, it would bring increase the leadership resource available; secondly, it would better define and develop the purposes of the party in and out of parliament; thirdly and as a consequence, it would for the first time formalise the relationship between the two (linking heart and head).
Above all, it would re-establish the formal sovereignty of MPs and of Parliament in Labour’s constitution.
In addition, the National Leader could have responsibility for organisation and for elections strategies, and should welcome the role formerly played by Herbert Morrison, George Brown and (to some extent) John Prescott – of the embodiment of Labour and election cheerleader. In the current circumstances, such a post would suit Jeremy Corbyn far better than the ill-fitting role of Statesman In Waiting.
It is easy to see a dynamic and progressive relationship between a figure such as Hillary Benn and Jeremy Corbyn – a long way short of Brandt and Schmidt, but nonetheless a far better arrangement than what we have at the moment, which satisfies no-one, except Labour’s opponents.
The combination of party in the country and party in Parliament would also be better equipped to develop policies which are radical and practical, and which will attract popular support. In the face of the threat of “programme exhaustion,” Labour’s new programme for the 2020s needs to be developed in response to both heart and head.
The other question which needs to be asked is how such a change is to come about. This could be in a number of ways, but if necessary, I would urge the PLP to take definitive action in this direction.
- Option 1 would be to gather around the proposal and present it as an offer to Jeremy Corbyn.
- Option 2, if this fails, would be for a substantial group to go ahead anyway, as they will be tempted to do if the current position of unelectability persists. Such a move would not be without risk, and may not succeed in saving the patient. However, as in the case of the AA Aneurysm, it needs to be tried: the choice is between certain risk and certain extinction.
(Incidentally, such a substantial group – e.g., 70 or 80 MPs would become the Third Party in the Commons, at the same time deposing the SNP from that position.)
As Bad New Blues Part 1 set out, if Labour fails and dies out, there is no guarantee that the next opposition to the Tories will be progressive – indeed, the evidence of Scotland is that our successors would be populists and other identity politics parties. We have a duty as social democrats to do all that we can to prevent that from happening: drastic action is needed and needed urgently. This proposal could be a bold first step in the direction of doing so.