Miliband's agenda lacks a whole lot more than an EU referendum

The Labour line that Europe is a needless distraction would sound better if the opposition had more to say on everything else.

The fury that some Conservative MPs feel towards the European Union and the contempt in which a hardcore of them hold David Cameron is now familiar. It is unusual but not surprising that 116 Tories last night supported an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, expressing regret that their government’s legislative programme didn’t include plans for an EU referendum. Arguably the more peculiar feature of last night’s vote is the fact that the motion was defeated by Labour. Conservatives who didn’t want to look actively disloyal to the Prime Minister abstained.

The opposition rode to Cameron’s rescue, marching through the “no” lobby in an expression of implicit satisfaction with the Queen’s Speech in the form read out by Her Maj. Of course that isn’t the point Labour was trying to make. Ed Miliband wanted to disagree with the specific view that there ought to be a referendum bill in this parliament. That doesn’t mean he endorses everything else the coalition plans. Quite a few Labour MPs are unimpressed by that subtlety. Parliamentary combat of the kind played out last night doesn’t lend itself to nuance. The opportunity was there to wound Cameron more than he ended up being wounded.

If Labour had supported the amendment it would have implied a screeching U-turn. Miliband has said he doesn’t think an EU referendum is currently a priority, so he could hardly start voting for one. We’ll come to the disputed wisdom of that position in a moment. Meanwhile, Labour could still have abstained, declaring that the whole soap opera was a private coalition grief in which the opposition felt no need to intrude. The line that Miliband would rather be thinking about ways to deliver jobs and growth than banging on about the EU and chasing alliances with Ukip would not have been contradicted by Labour MPs standing aloof from the Tory rebel amendment. Instead, they put their parliamentary muscle into opposing it. Had it passed, Cameron would now look close to crushed.

An old convention holds that a Prime Minister should resign if his or her Queen’s Speech is defeated. That notion has since been made obsolete by the fixed term parliament act, which makes more explicit the circumstances in which a government falls. But there is still a unique depth of humiliation contained in having a legislative flagship holed. As things stand, Cameron looks weaker as a result of last night’s vote but not, technically, defeated.

One Labour MP told me there were Tories laughing at the opposition trooping through the “no” lobby in defence of the Prime Minister, with only Lib Dems for company. The mischievous jeer from the Conservative side is that, had the roles been reversed, raw opportunism would have been embraced with glee. What is the opposition for if not to injure and eventually kill the incumbent government? It is a question that Tories posed in mockery and some Labour MPs asked themselves in despair.

The response from Miliband’s allies is that Labour should aim to look like a responsible government-in-waiting; that it should not be indulging distraction from the core questions of the economy and the rising cost of living and that, as one shadow cabinet minister likes to put it, “our problem is hardly that we don’t look opportunist enough.” It is a view with some merit. Indeed, I’ve blogged before in defence of Miliband’s position on an EU referendum. There are some voters who are obsessed with this question and who will stride into a polling booth with the express aim of facilitating a plebiscite on relations with Brussels so they might then vote to end them. But those people almost certainly aren’t voting Labour anyway and won’t be swayed if Miliband performs a desperate U-turn. According to this argument, authenticity – that most cherished of modern political virtues – resides in sticking with a principled position.

There are two problems. First, if Miliband’s principled position is support for British membership of the EU, he could just as easily say he agrees that a referendum has become inevitable and declare himself up for the fight to secure an “in” vote. Yes, it might be a distraction from more pressing matters and, yes, Labour shouldn’t have to customise its putative governing agenda to suit a neurosis on the right wing of the Tory party. But there is clearly some appeal to opposition MPs in having a leader who will come out and say: “Come on then. Bring it on! You want this bloody referendum so much, Cameron, so call it. You say you think Europe can be reformed and that the UK can stay on board. Let’s settle it. We’ll fight for the pro-European cause together and we’ll win.”

After all, it is clear that no amount of renegotiation of membership terms will satisfy Tory rebels. The ultimate question is whether or not Britain sees itself as inside the European project. Cameron doesn’t want to be the man to take Britain out of the EU; much of his party wants a leader who will do just that. By supporting a referendum sooner rather than later, Labour could force the Prime Minister to either campaign against his own party or share platforms with Ukip and announce himself as a wobbly facsimile of Nigel Farage. Miliband would have the quiet but sensible wing of the Tory party on his side along with the Lib Dems, the overwhelming majority of British business, trade unions and, for what it’s worth, Barack Obama.

What, then, of the claim that Labour would be better off talking about something else? That is the strongest argument for Miliband’s current position. Europe is not most voters’ number one concern. It isn’t usually in the top ten. If swivelled-eyed fixation on Brussels makes the Tories look out of touch, Labour should certainly not be swivelling its own eyes in pale imitation of fringe mania. Rise above it, goes the argument, and concentrate on a programme for sensible government that meets the concerns of the masses.

That position would be a whole lot stronger if anyone really knew what Labour’s programme for government might involve. This isn’t a question of specific policy. (The case for not revealing that hand a full two years before polling day has been made ad nauseam, but it remains sound.) The shortage is not in detail but direction. Not enough people can say with certainty what kinds of things a Labour government would prioritise. There is some clarity about what the opposition is against – tax breaks for millionaires, cutting “too far, too fast”. It is less obvious what Miliband is for. The One Nation message describes a vague aspiration towards solidarity, with an implicit attack on the government for pursuing nasty policies of social division. It tells voters that Labour wants everyone to get along. It hasn’t been fleshed out with an account of how Labour would make everyone better off.

Meanwhile (as I wrote a couple of weeks ago) Miliband isn’t making much progress winning big arguments on the economy, public spending and welfare, which are sure to be the fields of battle at the next general election. How does this relate to the debate about how to handle Euroscepticism? The way one Labour MP described it to me after last night’s vote, there seems a lot less to lose from being mercenary and opportunist when there isn’t much of a responsible government-in-waiting image to sabotage. It may sound defeatist, but there is a feeling in some quarters for the party that if Miliband doesn’t really look like a lofty statesman poised to serve as Prime Minister he might as well get down into the trenches and start hurting the Tories any way he can and at every available opportunity.

According to this view, no-one will care or even remember what Labour’s exact position on a Queen’s Speech amendment was one Wednesday night in 2013, but if the outcome of that vote is to hasten the coalition’s demise, the opposition is winning. Or, to put it another way, the strategy behind last night’s vote springs from a kind of delusion that Miliband can soar above the dirty business of parliamentary game-playing because his mission is loftier. That would be a more plausible approach if the mission was comprehensible beyond his most loyal supporters.

That is a pretty bleak account of Labour’s prospects for the rest of this parliament. With two years to go, Miliband might yet supply the missing parts of the picture and become the candidate of visionary, optimistic change and national unity that he and his closest allies are sure he is capable of being. It is true that consistency and authenticity are political commodities of more enduring value than an appetite for short-term tactical sabotage. There is still time, but not much and the ticking clock provokes anxiety on the Labour benches. If the party felt it had a whole bunch of popular, election-winning things to say, it wouldn’t be sweating the absence of an EU referendum in its offer to the country. Miliband’s problem isn’t his reasonable refusal to follow a Conservative/Ukip agenda on Europe. It is his difficulty in articulating a Labour agenda on everything else. The line that a Brussels fixation is a pursuit better left to a Tory party marching blindly into opposition would sound more authoritative from a Labour party that looked confident in its march towards government. 

Ed Miliband walks through Hyde Park after addressing TUC members at the end of a march in protest against the government's austerity measures on October 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty Images/Ian Forsyth
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The big battle in Corbyn's Labour party will be over organisation, not ideas

Forgotten and near-moribund institutions of the parliamentary Labour party will become vital once again, explain Declan McHugh and Will Sherlock. 

“Decidedly downbeat” was Chris Mullin’s assessment of the first Parliamentary Labour Party meeting following the 2001 landslide General Election victory. Blair was “received well, but without elation … the managing director was treated to some blunt warnings that this time around the boys and girls on the shop floor expect to be treated with more consideration.”

Assuming he wins the leadership, Jeremy Corbyn’s first PLP meeting will be anything but downbeat. The ‘shop floor’ will be more akin to a Lions’ Den. Labour’s new figurehead will face a PLP overwhelmingly opposed to him. Many will question the legitimacy of his election and some will reject his authority. From day one, he will face a significant number of Labour MPs not merely against him but actively out to get him. There has probably never been a situation where a leader of the Labour Party has been so far removed from the parliamentary party which he supposedly commands.

The closest historical parallel with Corbyn is arguably George Lansbury, another ardent socialist who took charge of the party after serious electoral defeat. But the comparison doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Lansbury may have been on the left but he had been a leading figure at the top of the party for many years. Corbyn has never been anything but part of the Labour fringe – rarely even attending PLP meetings.

Nevertheless an immediate move to oust him is unlikely. Whatever their concerns about the circumstances of his election, the scale of the contest will make MPs nervous about executing a coup. And crucially there is no obvious alternative leader waiting in the wings.

The internal battle against Corbyn will instead be more drawn out and fought through the internal structures of the party. The number of Labour MPs showing a sudden and hitherto undiscovered interest and expertise in the PLP Standing Orders is an indication of what is to come. When Labour is in government, journalists pay little notice to obscure internal committees. Now they are going to be the centre of attention. The PLP may be energised on an organisational front in a way that it never was during the Blair, Brown and even Miliband years. Conflict is likely to be focused in the following arenas:

  • Shadow Cabinet

Corbyn is now understood to populate his shadow cabinet by appointment, but opponents in the PLP are seeking a return to the system of elections. That will not be straightforward. Although the 2011 decision to end elections was primarily achieved by means of a PLP vote to change Standing Orders, it was subsequently agreed by the NEC and passed into party rules by Conference. It will be harder to undo that constitutional knot than it was to tie it. The PLP can vote to change Standing Orders again but the NEC and Conference will need to reflect that in further amendments to party rules if the decision is to have constitutional authority. That sets the scene for a messy clash between the PLP and the NEC if Corbyn chooses to defy the parliamentary party.

 

Even if elections are restored, it is not clear how Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP will respond. MPs seeking the return of shadow cabinet elections hope to run a slate of candidates who will work to emasculate the new leader. But others have already resolved to boycott the front bench, regardless of how it is selected. Corbyn’s opponents face a dilemma. On the one hand abandoning the shadow cabinet may be viewed as walking off the pitch at a time when others are prepared to get stuck in and organised. On the other, it will be impossible to take a shadow cabinet post without signing up to some level of collective responsibility. That means undergoing the daily grind of defending the party line in front of the 24 hour media spotlight, with all statements scrutinised and recorded by Conservative researchers for future use.  How many Labour MPs would be willing to support a Corbynite line on foreign affairs, defence and economic policy? The new Labour leader will soon find out.

 

  • PLP meetings

The Monday evening meetings of the PLP are a weekly arena in which the frontbench and the party leadership are held to account by the wider parliamentary party. In the Kinnock, Smith and Blair days, although occasionally raucous, there was a degree of deference to the Leader. That has waned of late but will likely be non-existent under Corbyn. No one can remember the last time the PLP voted on a matter of policy, but Standing Orders permit it to so – expect opponents of the leadership to use this device.

 

  • PLP Chair

John Cryer, the current PLP Chair, will have his work cut out trying to manage what are likely to be stormy meetings. Moreover, the annual election of the Chair is an important barometer of the parliamentary party’s mood and the easiest means of organising a proxy vote on confidence in the leader. Importantly, the Chair of the PLP approves what motions can be tabled at the weekly PLP meeting. 

 

  • Parliamentary Committee

The parliamentary committee are effectively shop stewards for the backbenchers and the election of representatives is similarly a reflection of political sentiment in the PLP. New elections won’t happen until next May but the PLP could decide to initiate earlier elections. Labour MPs will ask whether the current committee, which includes one Corbyn nominator, is representative of the majority view. If not, a slate opposed to the leader could be organised. The Parliamentary Committee has executive powers that it rarely uses but this may change and will be significant. 

 

  • Departmental Groups

The PLP’s internal policy committees have been in decline since the early years of Tony Blair and have rarely made waves but have potentially important powers, including the right of Committee Chairs to speak from the Despatch Box. MPs may use these bodies to challenge frontbench policy positions in a way that no leader has experienced, promoting alternative agendas at odds with the leadership line on foreign affairs, defence and the economy. The Chairs have not yet been elected and this could be a key focus in the autumn.

 

  • Whips Office

The idea of Jeremy Corbyn directing the PLP to follow three-line whips is, to many, a source of amusement. A man who regularly topped the charts of rebel MPs will struggle to maintain the traditional system of party discipline – and indeed he has already indicated that he has no intention of “corralling” MPs in the traditional way. Most likely the whips will play a distinctly different role in the future, acting more as shop stewards for backbench MPs who want their concerns made clear to the Leader’s Office. And the likely deputy keader Tom Watson, who hails from the right wing union tradition but is close to some of the left, will play a major part in trying to balance the needs of the new leadership with the real anger of backbench Labour MPs.

Corbyn’s lack of authority and support within the wider parliamentary party puts a major question mark over his long term prospects as Labour leader. He would certainly lose any direct trial of strength against the PLP.

But the Corbynite group will seek to avoid confrontation inside Westminster. They believe their strength lies in the party outside Parliament and in the new influx of members and supporters. Their agenda will be to capitalise – though they might not use the term – on the leadership triumph by instituting rule changes that will revive the left within the party machine. Not just inside the NEC, the Conference and the party HQ but in the regional and constituency party organisation.

Most particularly, they are likely to seek to convert supporters into members, with a role in the selection of parliamentary candidates. By such means they will seek to apply external pressure on MPs from their own constituency parties. Labour members may be understandably wary about moving to decapitate a new leader so soon after his election. But they face a race against time to prevent him and his supporters from reshaping the party machine in ways that will undermine them from below.

 Will Sherlock and Declan McHugh are former Labour special advisers who now work at Lexington Communication.