In the matter of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the UK Labour Party, there are two distinct issues. One is crushingly obvious and should be boring but it excites media. The other is great and ignored. One is the need for ordinary – even collegiate – leadership and management within the parliamentary party. The other is coming to a decision about the nature of the party.
It is untenable that the party leader in any party be opposed by a significant minority of their parliamentary party. It is plain daft to continue when opposed by the majority. Either the leader goes, their opponents go, or one so changes as to placate the other side. Appeals to party unity just aren’t enough because it’s not a matter of one decision. It’s a matter of working together day after day – for years.
Party Leader is a difficult institution. Leaving aside more thoughtful considerations, the leader is the party figurehead for both the party generally and for its parliamentarians, and must enjoy the confidence of both.
There was a time when members played no role in electing a party leader. In recognition of their membership and in a spirit of democracy many parties changed. They developed different ways of selecting their leaders but always to prevent two outcomes: i) A leader popular with parliamentary colleagues but opposed by the wider party; and ii) A leader popular with the members but unacceptable to parliamentary colleagues. Now, it might be argued that all members are equal and that a parliamentarian should have no special role in selecting a leader. This refuses to accept that those working closely with the leader have a special interest or that that interest should simply be disregarded. In short, it is deaf to a parliamentarian’s plea, “Jaysus, we have to work closely with this person day in, day out. We must have some say.”
The UK Labour Party led by Ed Miliband devised a system of one member, one vote while effectively giving the parliamentary party a veto. Nomination for leadership is the preserve of the PLP and then the members vote for their preferred candidate. The idea is that members of parliament would hardly nominate someone whom they didn’t generally support. However, that is exactly what they did in nominating Jeremy Corbyn – while explaining that they did it to encourage contest and debate.
His election was assured by another development. Ed Miliband and co. made party membership inexpensive and undemanding. Registered supporters pay a fee of £3 and are entitled to vote for a leader. Members of long standing were lost in a huge throng of new arrivals. To complicate matters the new people are predominantly affluent and urban; they are middle class in the sense that pollsters use that term and unlike the constituents with whom the majority of Labour MPs would identify.*
Interestingly, the profile of the new member is a good match for that of a remain voter in the Brexit referendum, while the “heartland” Labour voter is a good match for a leave voter. Clearly the composition of the party and its relationship with voters is far more complex than is often presented.
Turning to the more basic question of the nature of the Labour Party, there was a time when the fundamental division on the left was between revolutionaries and those who chose parliamentary democracy. As more and more leftists abandon revolution and the nature of exploitation changes – at least in the West – a new division is apparent between those who remain with parliamentary democracy and those who see parliament as part of a wider struggle in which activism, street politics and pressure on the establishment is more important.
This is not the place to offer a critique; the point here is merely to emphasise that the two components of leftism are markedly different and cannot be reduced to policy differences, to “Corbynistas” versus “Blairites” or to “real socialists” versus “Tory-lite”. While it may be presented as a struggle for the “soul of Labour” or who represents true Labour values or who is more in touch with the people, the division is more basic. It’s about how the left should operate. It’s about parliament.
For this reason the best course now might be for Labour to split. Of course there are many arguments against that. It will be characterised as a split over policy or some tawdry question of the “electability” of Jeremy Corbyn. However, in time – most of it being out of majority or left-led government – the two approaches can contend openly in public rather than pretending that this is a mere squabble within a party.**
** In Ireland where the left is much smaller this essential difference focusses not on a split but on whether the tiny Labour Party should follow the other left parties into protest, pressure and campaigns or should adopt a more socialist position by opting exclusively for parliament. https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/time-for-labour-to-think-before-taking-the-familiar-path/