David Herdson: Corbyn and McDonnell are missing a trick

Written by David Herdson on 22 September 2016 in Opinion

The Labour left could strengthen its grip on the party by giving members are greater say over who the leader is.

When Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election is announced at the weekend, as it’s almost universally expected to be, it will confirm two things about his movement within Labour. 

Firstly, it can only be challenged defensively. Those opposed to him can protect their pre-existing power but attempts to take him on directly are doomed to fail and in so doing, they will consolidate the man and the movement in place. But secondly, Labour’s left is absolutely dependent upon the man himself, and therein lies the opportunity for his opponents.

Were it not reliant upon him, there’s a good chance he’d have already stood down. He doesn’t look as if he much enjoys the job, he’s isolated from and held in contempt by the majority of his Westminster colleagues, and he must know that he’s simply not very good as a leader.

Indeed, a lot of the time, he doesn’t even aspire to lead. He maintains both the political and personal lifestyle of a rebel backbencher.  He finds the attention the media gives him an affront rather than an opportunity, he ignores collective responsibility, at the time when his leadership was under maximum pressure from his own MPs, he attended a Cuba Solidarity Campaign event in preference to meeting the PLP.

But in the curious stalemate Labour finds itself in, not only is Corbyn trapped but so are both his supporters and opponents. 

Those against him cannot act because they’ve tried everything up to and including a leadership challenge and everything so far has failed; those on his side cannot put someone keener to lead into the role because despite their strength in the party, they know that were Corbyn to go, their next candidate wouldn’t make it to the ballot.

As it was, Corbyn was only nominated in 2015 with minutes to spare and with the support of some MPs who did so only to ‘broaden the debate’, an objective they achieved beyond their wildest nightmares. Since then, two of the 35 who nominated him have died (Michael Meacher and Jo Cox) and two more have left Westminster to pursue politics elsewhere (Sadiq Khan and Huw Irranca-Davies). While it’s possible that membership pressure might swing a few MPs towards, say, John McDonnell in the event of a vacancy, that’s at best highly speculative; not the sort of basis on which the Momentum wing can plan.

So for the time being, the ascendency of the Labour left rests on both the political skill and the physical endurance of Jeremy Corbyn. Neither should be overestimated. His skills – or lack of them – are evident enough from the polling, where he continues to set the wrong sort of records (a recent one being that no Labour leader of the opposition has had such bad ratings on his first anniversary in office).

We shouldn’t overlook the strains on his health either, which might ultimately prove a diplomatic route out. Corbyn, at 67, is the oldest leader of any of Britain’s main parties since Michael Foot.  By the scheduled date of the next election in 2020 he’ll be within a few weeks of 71, the oldest since Attlee. The strains of modern political life are hard enough for those climbing the greasy pole the traditional way and who enjoy the support of the great majority of their party. Corbyn has neither advantage.

As such, for as long as the leadership rules remain as they are, and while no deselection purge is begun by the Momentum wing, the moderates are highly unlikely to split.  They have no need: their trump card of controlling the nominations remains intact.  For now.

That fact, however, is just as well known to Corbyn’s supporters – hence the idea put forward to reduce the threshold for MP/MEP nominations by two-thirds, from 15% to 5%.

Those doing so are missing a trick.  Proposing to simply reduce the threshold is an open acknowledgement of their weakness whereas reform to the rules could be used to embed their strength.

Corbyn has been open in refusing to recognise any particular legitimacy unique to the PLP.  His mandate as leader comes from the party selectorate at large, rendering votes of no confidence irrelevant.  Why then should MPs have any special role in the process at all?  Wouldn’t it be more in keeping with his notion of internal democracy to keep the threshold at 15% but to make constituency Labour parties (CLPs), rather than MPs, the nominating entities?

Given that CLPs already make nominations, albeit with only symbolic effect, we’ve a pretty good idea how such a change would pan out.  In 2015, rather than scraping onto the ballot paper, Corbyn, with 152 CLPs behind him, would have led the field.  Liz Kendall, with only 18 constituency nominations, would almost certainly have missed out.

This year, Owen Smith might have struggled to make the ballot.  He won only 53 constituency endorsements, or 15.7% of those who made a nomination.

Critics could certainly argue that there’d be some anomalies with such a system.  Scotland, for example, where CLPs are arranged by Holyrood rather than Westminster constituencies, would be over-represented.  Small CLPs would carry the same weight as big ones.  The nominations process would be lengthened from days into weeks.

But such drawbacks would pale against the strength of both the philosophical case for broadening the nomination base in a members’ movement, and the strategic advantage to the left in doing so.  It makes you wonder why they haven’t tried to do it.

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