One of the most familiar misreadings of the distribution of power within the Labour Party imagines that the Party operates like one of the monarchies of the middle ages. There is a King whose power is under threat from a caste of barons (the union leaders). The King has reached an agreement with them under which they fund his regime. In return he allows them a disproportionate save over his party’s policies. The key to the happy functioning of this regime, as imagined by the press, is that the King is prohibited from reaching too far towards public opinion. Life itself would demand that he adopt the sensible policies of the parliamentary centre (such as, say, the immediate sale of the National Health Service to some billionaire combining the enlightened business practices of a Richard Branson with the personal morals of a Rupert Murdoch). Labour is restrained from adopting such common sense policies only by the self-interest of the union barons, who insist on interposing themselves into policies debates in which they could have no reasonable stake (it being plainly offensive to recall that UNISON’s members, for example, staff, clean and supply the same NHS).
If we think beyond this parody to how parties actually operate, one of the ironies of the last few weeks is that the Labour leadership has created something like baronial society, save that the Council with which Labour’s new monarch is surrounded, is composed of MPs not of trade unionists.
When William the Bastard landed at Hastings in 1066 (he became William the Conqueror only on seizing London), he had an army of fewer than 10,000 soldiers. Having defeated Harold, he had to rule a society of some 3 million people. He had enough troops to occupy a dozen castles; he was not strong enough to hold a country without persuading the existing rulers that his kingdom was secure and it was in their interests to submit.
In Labour’s recent election Jeremy Corbyn was the preferred candidate of around 20 of Labour’s 232 MPs: principally the then nine members of the Socialist Campaign Group, and a similar cohort from the 45 or so Labour MPs elected for the first time in 2015. The Campaign Group comprises such Parliamentary stalwarts as Dennis Skinner, veterans within no interest in a front bench role (it is even a rule of the SCG that on becoming a shadow minister, you have to leave the Group). The new MPs were for the opposite reasons unsuitable for rapid promotion. Corbyn’s isolation is shown by the presence of just two of his supporters (McDonell, Abbott) within the 28-strong shadow cabinet, and this proportion barely rises when you include junior ministers as well. Altogether Labour has a frontbench of 150 MPs and Lords: only three in total come from the Campaign Group.
In early modern England, it became common to present the relationship between the King and his subjects as a contract, in which the throne agreed not to govern beyond certain limits, and the people agreed in return to submit to the King’s rule. But certain features of this relationship are worth noting: the bargain between King and people was not recorded in writing (there was no constitution), indeed the terms of the bargain could not be formally negotiated (because to do so was to admit a dual power within the regime as King John discovered to his cost by conceding Magna Carta). That said, most people, from barons to the lowest serf, believed they knew the limits beyond which the King had agreed not to cross. When the feudal commons rebelled, they did so in the name of the King and the proper implementation of the King’s laws.
From the last fortnight it seems that the lines of the social contract underpinning Corbyn’s leadership are now tolerably clear:
- Jeremy Corbyn has agreed not to use his role as Labour Party to promote the Labour left to ministerial roles in greater proportion than their numbers in the Parliamentary Labour Party (strictly, speaking, as I’ve tried to show, Corbynistas are presently underrepresented on Labour’s front bench). This may possibly change as the new cohort find their feet, but Corbyn has effectively agreed not to promote them rapidly
- Corbyn has agreed not to back proposals for mandatory reselection of MPs – ie provided that their opposition to his leadership does not exceed a certain extent (yet to be defined), he will not use the Corbyn voters to oust his critics and replace them with his supporters
- Corbyn has agreed that for the time being – although possibly, this concession is limited until there has been a thorough discussion within the Party as a whole – he will not seek to impose on the Labour Party views with regards to foreign policy (ie Trident, Nato, the EU, presumably the bombing of Syria) which are out of kilter with those of Labour’s most right-wing supporters
- Corbyn has left the key tasks of internal party discipline (and, to an extent, the nuclear option of whether or not to allow the PLP to topple the leadership) in the hands of the most determined organisers of the “Anyone But Corbyn” bloc in Labour’s recent election – ie Rosie Winterton, Alan Campbell and Mark Tami, the same individuals who were the whips during the leadership contest.
In return, the PLP (Labour’s barons) have agreed
- Not to stage an open rebellion against Corbyn’s leadership, or at least not to do so at least until after local elections next year
- Tentatively, to allow Corbyn a role in the formulation of economic policy which has been refused to him in foreign policy terms (although, the terms of this part of the deal is still subject to skirmishing, so that for example rather than allow Corbyn simply to declare that Labour will reverse the Tories’ cuts to legal aid, ie make a spending commitment, a compromise has been reached under which a Labour peer Lord Bach will consider what parts of legal aid shall be restored. We will wait to see whether there shall be similar internal party investigations of housing, education and health policy).
What happens from here?
In a heroic scenario, Corbyn consolidates his leadership by persuading enough Labour MPs that in conventional Labour Party terms he is up for the job, will increase their chances of winning an election and therefore getting better jobs as actual ministers, etc. He is able to do this by following, essentially, a similar path to Syriza in Greece in about February-March 2015, ie having policies for the reversal of austerity which are backed by large numbers of economists, and showing that a redistributive government would run Britain better than the giant tax haven Osborne envisages.
In a disaster scenario, Labour MPs continue to undermine his leadership by briefing against him, weakly restrained by a group of whips, who are his committed opponents. Labour drags on to the spring, does badly then, and the PLP launches its coup at that moment.
Corbyn has an advantage over his PLP opponents in that they tend to see the battle strictly in internal Labour terms. To a greater extent than them, he sees the consolidation of his leadership as dependent on how Labour does. They can only imagine a disaster, possibly mitigated for some time, but in the end they can see only his defeat. He, by contrast, understands that success outside the Labour Party would give him greater power to (albeit very, very slowly) renegotiate the terms of his present contract with the parliamentarians. New blood could be brought in, reselection may yet emerge as the mere logical corollary of the great redrawing of constituency boundaries – but only if Corbyn proves himself electorally.
Corbyn’s principal disadvantage is that even he has a very weak sense of the targeted abuse that will come his way as and when he takes on not the Conservative MPs but the interests of the rich that stand behind them. It is simply not the case that when Labour and the Tories oppose each other, there is a battle of opinion, on equal terms, with the great British public waiting to step in as referees and declare one or the other side the victor. The more effectively Corbyn lands blows against the Tories, the more he raises people’s hopes of, for example, that distant impossible utopia in which a millionaire would have to declare their true income and might in future pay even just half as much tax as the typical streetsweeper, the more weeks he will like his first, and the greater the storm of popular indignation that the press will try to summon against him.
The most decisive battle isn’t going to be between Corbyn and the Labour Party (a working compromise has been reached on that front), but between a redistributively-minded Corbyn leadership and the champions of the rich. There will be a role for those – in the Labour Party or not – who can lay a blow on capital. It may yet prove an equally important task to that of those who focus on the internal struggle within Labour.