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20 November 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 2:47pm

Labour’s peers are in a stand-off with Jeremy Corbyn – and Labour MPs are worried

By Stephen Bush

Labour’s peers will vote on whether or not to hold a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Their decision to do so comes after Dianne Hayter, their deputy leader, was sacked from the post of Labour’s shadow Brexit minister, after remarks she made comparing the “bunker mentality” around the Labour leader’s office to the last days of Adolf Hitler were published in HuffPost.

Hayter will retain her role as deputy leader, a position she holds thanks to the votes of her fellow peers, but will no longer be a shadow minister.

The vote is non-binding, which highlights two things: the first, of course, is the ongoing disaffection of Labour’s peers with the leadership. The majority of Labour’s peers, who were appointed by past Labour leaders, believe that Corbyn’s leadership is a political and moral disaster for the party, and, unlike MPs, they aren’t put off from voicing their displeasure by the threat of a trigger ballot or tricky questions about how they will make ends meet if they walk away from parliament.

But the second is that ultimately Labour peers have a leader they do not like and cannot change. And just as there is a selection bias that makes Corbynscepticism more prevalent in the Lords than the Commons, there is a selection bias that makes defection to another party less likely too. As one of their number once observed to me, plenty of them have been elevated to the Upper House for “services to fucking the Trots and not joining the SDP”, which makes them even more reluctant than Labour MPs to jump ship to a new party. David Triesman, one of four Labour peers to leave this year, had privately resolved to walk out some time ago – but opted not to join Change UK and will sit as an independent peer.  

So what next? That Corbyn cannot rid himself of his peers and that Labour peers cannot rid themselves of Corbyn is discomforting for both. But it is a third group – Labour MPs – who are particularly uneasy over the row. Most are of the view, in the words of one, that Corbyn’s leadership is an unalterable fact of the political leadership and there is no real appetite to imperil their own position by testing that thesis. As one MP observed bitterly after a third of Labour peers criticised Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of anti-Semitism in the Labour ranks in a Guardian article, “it’s alright for them – they aren’t the ones who’ll lose their seats if the trigger ballots become PLP vs Jeremy”.

And that’s the bizarre paradox of the Corbyn vs peers row: it gives Labour peers an opportunity to vent their frustration at the Labour leadership. It risks dominating a summer in which Labour could otherwise roll out eyecatching policies in advance of an election. But it also increases the chances of a wholesale remodelling of the Parliamentary Labour party, without which the Corbyn project cannot wholly succeed. 

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