Labour MPs have made a virtue of necessity by extolling the merits of external consultation and public engagement, even as they prepare for an internal battle for the levers of power
Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters did not sweep him to victory simply because they like him. They see his triumph as the first step towards a transformation of the Labour Party, and have already identified MPs who do not belong in their Brave New World. If Corbyn does not deliver on their aspirations, he risks being abandoned in favour of a new firebrand.
There is little doubt that Corbyn would oblige if he could, but though he has taken the Leader’s Office, he has not yet taken control of the Party. Many in Labour headquarters are viscerally opposed to a man they consider to be disloyal and self-indulgent. Less than 10% of Labour MPs supported his candidacy, and a majority of his Shadow Cabinet appear to hold the view that they should serve the Party in order to save it from its Leadership, rather than serve the Leadership for the good of the Party.
The price of their service has been to allow themselves to be frank about their disagreements with their Leader, and in doing so force concessions from Corbyn and his close ally and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. Every area of policy is ‘under review’ until further notice. As one Shadow Minister told the Financial Times when it emerged that a key plank of Corbyn’s campaign, the abolition of university tuition fees, was to be shelved, “It’s like everything else from Jeremy’s leadership campaign, it doesn’t automatically become policy.”
Corbyn tried to wriggle free from his shackles during Labour’s recent Annual Party Conference in Brighton, declaring that as Prime Minister he would instruct defence chiefs not to use Trident missiles under any circumstances, thereby rendering the system obsolete. This caused consternation because so many Shadow Cabinet members had agreed to serve on the understanding that Corbyn would not seek to adopt a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament. Corbyn was saying that even if they got their way on policy, he could sabotage the nuclear deterrent by himself. His colleagues lined up to remind Corbyn of his responsibilities not to undermine Labour’s fragile consensus.
But if Corbyn and McDonnell are the Princesses in the Tower being kept under the watchful eye of the Labour Establishment’s Praetorian Guard, they have reinforcements gathered around the castle walls. In order to transform the Party, Corbyn must find a way for the massed ranks of his enthusiastic supporters amongst the membership to seize control of the means of policy production. That is why in the past few weeks there has been so much discussion of Party ‘democratisation’ and its internal processes. Now that the hard left have their foot in the door, it really matters.
Corbyn’s internal opponents know that even if he lasts until the 2020 General Election, if he is not able to consolidate his supporters’ grip on Labour’s internal structures the moderates will have ensured that though they may lose a further election or two, they will have saved the Party from collapse or electoral oblivion – a triumph in the circumstances. Their problem is that if they rise too early they will be blamed for the ensuing donnybrook, but if they fail to mobilise properly, they will suffer the Corbynistas’ urge to purge. Instead, they must hope that by denying Corbyn the means to implement his plans, he will be brought down or abandoned by members of his own side.
Both sides are biding their time. Each are hoping to establish a rapport with the massed ranks at the castle walls – Corbyn and McDonnell to prepare, organise and co-ordinate; the Establishment to persuade any waverers and, as a last resort, seek to limit the ferocity of the reprisals once the Princesses find a way to let down the drawbridge. Newspapers have already published leaked battle-plans from each side: a regicide attempt here, a purge of ‘Blairites’ there – though senior figures on all sides have distanced themselves from the plotting.
Until hostilities commence, the Labour family has a mutual interest in maintaining a relatively united front to the outside world. They cannot pretend to share opinions or policy positions, but they can pretend to share a platform. Members of the Shadow Cabinet have taken to the airwaves to tell the British public about the exciting debate they are having. Corbyn’s deputy Tom Watson managed to use the word ‘debate’ nine times in a single interview. Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Owen Smith said ‘debate’ or ‘debating’ a heroic twelve times in an interview the next day:
“What we heard today from John was a quite brilliant attempt to reboot the debate about our economic situation…” / “We are rejecting the framing of the debate we’ve heard the last five years.” / “We’ve got to open up this debate, Eddie.” / “Yes we need to debate all of these things.” / “There is a serious debate to be had about what the right levels of taxation – income tax, corporate tax, in this country – and I think people expect us to have that debate…” / “I want to have that debate, and you want me to tell you what the conclusion of the debate is on the radio…” / “I am in favour of a top rate of tax of 50%, you know, which was the policy at the last General Election, but I am in favour of Labour debating actively all of our…” / “Why do we not have a debate about that in Britain … these are the sorts of questions we should be asking Eddie, not constraining debate. It is only in the interests of the Tories that we boil the debate down to a few stock phrases and a few limited discussions.”
Labour are ‘engaging in debate’, ‘involving people in debate’, ‘initiating a debate’, ‘rebooting the debate’, ‘leading the debate’. Except they are not. Corbyn is not going to persuade his Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn to countenance advocating Britain’s departure from the EU. Watson is not going to ‘engage Jeremy in a debate’ and persuade him to come round to his point of view on Trident, as he has said he hopes to do. A more futile exercise is barely imaginable.
Labour MPs have made a virtue of necessity by extolling the merits of external consultation and public engagement, even as they prepare for an internal battle for the levers of power. They are talking about having a debate, rather than actually having it, because an honest and open conversation is the last thing they can afford to have. Conference could have debated Trident if it wished, but sensibly chose not to. Indeed in Brighton the two factions did their best to avoid each other altogether –as The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman observed, ‘the two different tribes of Labour activist aren’t really mixing … You need two materials to rub against one another for there to be friction: if they are kept separate then all seems calm.’