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Chris Mullin: "I think there are one or two people who are riding for a fall"

Chris Mullin talks white tie, deselection and why he'd be sharpening his sword to take on certain dissenting Labour MPs.

The British press has responded almost exactly to script with the election of a democratic socialist to lead the Labour party.  Indeed, a copy of this script was written 35 years ago, by Chris Mullin, the author of A Very British Coup and former Labour MP for Sunderland South. Here, he speaks to George Greenwood about the establishment’s reaction to Jeremy Corbyn’s election, Labour’s need to arrange mutual stand-downs with the Lib Dems and Greens if the Conservatives are to be beaten in 2020, and how to deal with those who attempt to directly subvert Corbyn as leader.

George Greenwood: One of the things we have seen with the election of Jeremy Corbyn has been some of the scaremongering you wrote about in your book. Do you think this will be a real hindrance for Corbyn as Labour leader? 

Chris Mullin: It is interesting that most parties are behaving exactly according to a script one could have written 35 years ago. I think whoever is the Labour leader can always expect a hostile press, though Jeremy’s has been ludicrously over the top. I noticed that someone wrote a column in the Sunday Telegraph even trying to blame him for the row over tax credits.

GG: Criticism has been made of Corbyn that he failed to adhere to what we might call the basic traditions of government. Do you think this has been a weakness of his?

CM: I think the learning curve is rather steep when you become Leader of the Opposition and you have never held office of any kind before, particularly when you come from the fringes as Jeremy does.  

However, the picture of Jeremy in white tie and tails at the state banquet for the Chinese president suggests he’s adapted rather quickly. I think it was a seminal moment.

He’s bound to make mistakes along the way, wouldn’t we all? I was impressed by the fact he had learned how to use an autocue in time for his conference speech! Another little milestone.

GG: What do you think Corbyn’s major mistakes have been so far?

CM: Well I think merely standing for the leadership when you’ve only got the support of ten per cent of the Parliamentary Party is a high risk strategy.

I like Jeremy, and I think he is a thoroughly decent man, who has lived all his life according to his principles. I met him once on the train, and he immediately got out his sandwiches, which were vegetarian of course, and divided them in two and gave me half. I think that might well come across to the public.

What he has to do, and he didn’t do this at the outset in his victory speech, is to address the middle ground. Labour, can’t hope to win an election, merely by mobilising the disaffected. We live in a country that has majority affluence. Labour has to bring with it a swathe of the fortunate as well as the less fortunate.  You don’t have to win over every last Daily Mail reader, but you do have to have some.

GG: With the rise of Momentum as a new large scale left wing organisation based on Cobyn’s campaign, bringing in other elements of the left, do you think that this has the potential to split the left and weaken Labour as a whole?

CM: Well it has that possibility, but much will depend on how those who run it behave, and what their attitude is to non-believers

Labour’s key problem, is that it has to reach out beyond its hard core base. Retreating to its hard core base is not a good idea.

Mobilising lots of enthusiastic young people is exciting, but we need to do more than that. It will be interesting to see how many of these three pound members turn into full members.

Not long ago I had an email from a party member in Sheffield Hallam. He had just come back from a branch meeting since Jeremy’s election. “Standing room only,” he said, adding, “But my goodness, these three-pounders want a lot for their money!”

GG: Owen Jones told me on Saturday that we need to mobilise along the Obama model, to go out to populations that aren’t politically engaged, and using those new voters, Labour could win the next election. Is there any scope for doing this sort of thing?

CM: I’m sure there is a lot of room for this. But there’s one thing that I think Labour are going to have to do if we are to stand any chance of defeating the Tories next time around. We are going to need all the non-Tory voters we can find. Labour urgently needs a Lib Dem revival. The Lib Dems can win seats in parts of the country that we can’t. When they do well, we do well.

Jeremy needs to be thinking about an electoral pact with the Lib Dems and the Greens. In a list of key marginal seats, there needs to be just one anti-Tory candidate. In one or two places, Totnes for example, and certainly one of the Brighton seats, it will be the Greens. In many places it will be the Labour candidate. And in quite a lot of places it needs to be the Liberal Democrat candidate.

Now the tribalists on all sides will start jumping up and down at the suggestion. But if they want to get real, given the political climate in which we live, this is the only hope of getting a non-Tory majority in the foreseeable future, and it needs to be thought about very seriously.

And there is a precedent. The Liberal chief whip in 1906, Herbert Gladstone reached accommodation with Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour along these lines,  which resulted in the election of many of the first 29 Labour MPs. History is on our side here.

That bullet is going to have to be bitten in my view, and sooner or later we are going to have to start talking about it.

GG: One of the interesting contradictions with Corbyn’s supporters are that while Corbyn himself is trying to build “a new kind of politics”, a lot people in his wider base of support have been attacking people from the right of the Labour Party on social media, case in point, the list published of the MPs who abstained on the recent fiscal restraint motion. To what extent do you think the Corbynite movement is an exclusive one?

CM: I don’t think it is particularly exclusive, I think there are quite a lot of people in Corbyn’s big tent, not quite as many people as in New Labour’s big tent, but then, that tent proved to be overcrowded in due course. I think Jeremy would be very foolish, and he shows no inclination to do so, if he tries to purge dissidents. Bearing in mind he only has the support of ten per cent of MPs it would be very unwise, from that base, to consider a purge

I think there are one or two people who are riding for a fall. This Simon Danczuk fellow seems to have teamed up with the Murdoch press. I don’t object to anyone who has a different opinion from Jeremy or who supported another candidate, but there is a minimum level of solidarity that one would expect to see shown, and I notice that Danczuk has been putting himself around in the Murdoch press in the week after Jeremy was elected. He seems to have inspired a very nasty front page lead in the Sunday Times that talked about “punishment beatings”.

Now collaborating with the nastier elements of the Murdoch press to do down the party is quite a high crime in my book, and if I was in Simon Danczuk’s CLP, I would certainly be sharpening my sword. He might well go away to Ukip or somewhere in the end, but good riddance to him, I say. As we have seen, people who defect to Ukip don’t usually last very long.

Overall however, we shouldn’t be too downhearted. The Tories have only got a majority of 12, which is quite small by historical standards! 

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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.