Labour’s unity is skin-deep

Members of the shadow cabinet don’t trust their leader to cover their backs, says Dan Hodges.

So much for unity. On 19 March, Ed Miliband experienced the most damaging parliamentary rebellion of his leadership so far, when 43 Labour MPs defied the whip and voted against the Jobseekers Bill, which enables the government to withdraw benefits from those refusing to participate in the Work Programme.

On the surface, it looks like the standard fisticuffs between the hard left and the Labour leadership. Glance at the names of the rebels, however, and it soon becomes clear that these were not your daddy’s usual suspects. Gerry Sutcliffe, John Healey and Nick Brown were just three of those who defied their leader’s order to abstain and voted against the legislation.

Fault lines are widening between Miliband, his shadow cabinet, the Parliamentary Labour Party and his party activists. They have existed since Miliband’s election but his shift to the left, a succession of coalition crises and Labour’s stalled programme of policy development masked them. Not any more. No sooner had the rebels set foot in the division lobbies than what one Labour MP described as “Ed’s teenage outriders” began opening up on members of Miliband’s shadow cabinet.

“Labour will never offer a coherent alternative to the Tories so long as the likes of Liam Byrne wields influence,” the Independent’s Owen Jones wrote. “It is a question and a challenge for Jon Cruddas,” wrote Sunny Hundal on the Liberal Conspiracy website. “Will he take on Liam Byrne’s failed policies of the past or let him continue and take Labour into the ditch . . . again?”

The attacks did not go unnoticed by some of Byrne’s and Cruddas’s colleagues. They are aware that Miliband’s office has been courting Jones and Hundal. The suspicion is forming that whenever Miliband faces a backlash, individual shadow cabinet members will find themselves pressed into service as human shields, protecting their leader from criticism.

Much has been made in recent months about Labour’s “policy vacuum”. Less attention has been focused on its difficulty in holding the line on policies that have already been unveiled. In the wake of the recent debacle, Byrne wrote what was in effect a mea culpa for LabourList. Acknowledging that the party’s “decision not to support the bill in the Commons but to abstain was very, very difficult”, he meekly concluded: “I think we made the right call.” Yet in January, Ed Balls was placing welfare sanctions – which the Work Programme seeks to enshrine – at the very heart of his “tough but fair” jobs guarantee.

A vicious circle is forming. Policy is announced. It generates a backlash. Miliband ducks for cover. His “outriders” start picking targets among the shadow cabinet. The shadow cabinet dives for cover. A vacuum develops.

Meanwhile, suspicion is increasing. Members of the shadow cabinet don’t trust their leader to cover their backs. The leader doesn’t trust them to cover his. Labour MPs see a lack of authority and begin to act in their own interests – interests increasingly defined by activists, who see a leadership prepared to back down whenever they flex their muscles.

Unity may be strength but, in Miliband’s Labour Party, it is only skin-deep.

 

Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Leader: The divisions within Labour

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change.

Labour is a party torn between its parliamentary and activist wings. Since Jeremy Corbyn, who this week appealed desperately for unity, was re-elected by a landslide last September, Labour has become the first opposition in 35 years to lose a ­by-election to the governing party and has continually trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin. Yet polling suggests that, were Mr Corbyn’s leadership challenged again, he would win by a comfortable margin. Meanwhile, many of the party’s most gifted and experienced MPs refuse to serve on the front bench. In 2015 Mr Corbyn made the leadership ballot only with the aid of political opponents such as Margaret Beckett and Frank Field. Of the 36 MPs who nominated him, just 15 went on to vote for him.

Having hugely underestimated the strength of the Labour left once, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not do so again. In the contest that will follow Mr Corbyn’s eventual departure, the centrists could lock out potential successors such as the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Under Labour’s current rules, candidates require support from at least 15 per cent of the party’s MPs and MEPs.

This conundrum explains the attempt by Mr Corbyn’s supporters to reduce the threshold to 5 per cent. The “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make the ballot in 2007 and 2010) is being championed by the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Jon Lansman of Momentum, who is interviewed by Tanya Gold on page 34. “For 20 years the left was denied a voice,” he tweeted to the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, on 19 March. “We will deny a voice to no one. We face big challenges, and we need our mass membership to win again.”

The passage of the amendment at this year’s Labour conference would aid Mr Lansman’s decades-long quest to bring the party under the full control of activists. MPs have already lost the third of the vote they held under the electoral college system. They face losing what little influence they retain.

No Labour leader has received less support from his MPs than Mr Corbyn. However, the amendment would enable the election of an even more unpopular figure. For this reason, it should be resolutely opposed. One should respect the motivation of the members and activists, yet Labour must remain a party capable of appealing to a majority of people, a party that is capable of winning elections.

Since it was founded, Labour has been an explicitly parliamentary party. As Clause One of its constitution states: “[The party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.” The absurdity of a leader opposed by as much as 95 per cent of his own MPs is incompatible with this mission. Those who do not enjoy the backing of their parliamentary colleagues will struggle to persuade the voters that they deserve their support.

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change. Rather than formalising this split, the party needs to overcome it – or prepare for one of the greatest defeats in its history.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution