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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

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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.