Labour peers have decided against holding a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn. Having debated a motion to censure their leader over the party’s response to the BBC Panorama investigation into anti-Semitism and the sacking of Dianne Hayter, its Brexit spokesperson in the upper house, the Labour Lords have instead decided to keep the option of a vote on the table until after the summer recess – to be triggered “if the situation deteriorates”.
Their decision to defer the vote – which some peers privately acknowledged was always likely – averts a messy row that could well have dominated the summer months. The complexion of Labour’s group in the Lords is overwhelmingly Corbynsceptic and as such any ballot was always likely to result in a decisive rejection of the current leadership. That much is obvious from the unanimous resolution the group reached in support of Hayter, who compared the leadership’s supposed “bunker mentality” to Hitler’s in his final days, and its condemnation of the party’s handling of anti-Semitism more generally.
However, not being binding on Corbyn, a vote of no confidence would have amounted to little more than a howl of rage. Labour’s peers cannot change their leader, and short of sacking them en masse, Corbyn cannot change his Lords group either.
But that isn’t to say there would have been no lasting political consequences for the leadership or the Parliamentary Labour Party, of which peers are of course only one half. The impact of any move from peers to withdraw their confidence from Corbyn was most likely to be felt among Labour MPs, most of whom are facing re-selection this summer. They feared that they would be the lightning rods for members’ anger come September’s trigger ballots, should there be any move to destabilise the leadership from Westminster.
That was the case made by anxious MPs to their colleagues in the upper house in private. In public, they argued for party unity in the face of a looming Boris Johnson premiership, which is the line many hope will see them through to the other side of the selection process. The irony for the leadership, meanwhile, is that a bitter confrontation with peers may well have helped dislodge some of their internal opponents in the Commons. But should the Lords end up holding a vote after September’s trigger ballots, as they have threatened, then it will only come at a cost to Corbyn and his MPs. As so often in the row over anti-Semitism, the ensuing argument will deny the party the airtime to talk about literally anything else. Faced with a resurgent Liberal Democrats, that could be a high price indeed.