The Barclays scandal is a chance for Miliband to show leadership

The Labour leader most move swiftly to articulate public anger.

The time for "remorse" is over, Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond told MPs in January 2011. It turns out it wasn't. The revelation that Barclays repeatedly manipulated interest rates in a bid to increase its profits means that there is much remorse to come. The latest corporate scandal, combined with the ongoing crisis at the RBS-owned Natwest, should make banker-bashing an Olympic sport among politicians.

Labour has rightly called for a criminal investigation into Barclays, with former city minister Paul Myners accurately observing on Newsnight: "This behaviour will only change if people face the prospect of criminal charges." The sense, however, is that most in Westminster are waiting to see how many others banks are implicated - Lloyds and RBS are both under investigation - before showing their hand. With the exception of the Lib Dems' Matthew Oakeshott, Vince Cable's representative on earth, no senior politician has called for Diamond to resign.

Soon, however, the voters will be demanding answers. On tonight's Question Time, you can expect the audience to ask two questions: "why has no one resigned?" and "why hasn't a single banker gone to jail?" The mere announcement that Diamond, presciently described by Peter Mandelson several years ago as the "unacceptable face of banking", and other top executives will not accept bonuses this year (while retaining handsome basic salaries) will do nothing to sate public outrage. And rightly so. As Labour's Chuka Umunna notes on Twitter, "LIBOR is used to calculate interest rates for SME loans, student loans, credit cards etc - manipulation of it would affect most people".

So here is another opportunity for Ed Miliband to show political leadership as he did during the phone-hacking scandal and the row over Stephen Hester's bonus. On such occasions, where Miliband has led, Cameron has followed. If he is to set the political pace again, Miliband should use his speech to Unite's conference to call for Diamond to resign and for a criminal investigation into Barclays. 

Update: As I predicted, Miliband used his speech at Unite's conference to call for "criminal prosecutions" against anyone at Barclays who broke the law, although he did not call for Diamond to consider his position. See my post here for the full quote.

Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond has resisted calls for his resignation. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a force at least united in name.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will remain a story.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.