Sunday, 27 December 2015

Why the confrontation with Corbyn can't wait

With every passing month, Jeremy Corbyn’s position at the top of the Labour Party is becoming further entrenched. His minders promise a purge of dissenters early in 2016 and they propose ‘consultations’ on policy which will not just be restricted to long-standing members, but will also involve anyone who has paid a few quid and signed up on a whim to support Corbyn’s far-left platform. 

Many of these newbies follow their leader with a religious fervour and are impervious to rational argument. They openly dismiss the concrete polling evidence that shows JC’s elevation to be an unmitigated disaster. I even had a discussion with one fan recently in which he seriously argued I should ignore the polls and look instead at how quickly Corbyn merchandise was selling online.

There are many Labour moderates who caution against precipitous action. Why mount a coup d’├ętat which is more than likely to fail?  Wouldn’t it be better to bide our time and let the Corbynistas see the error of their ways? Perhaps we should wait until defeat in 2020? At that stage, it will be obvious to everybody what a tragic mistake was made in the autumn of 2015.

It’s a beguiling argument, but one that is riddled with holes. 

First of all, untold damage will be done to the Labour Party’s reputation over the next few years if Corbyn remains in charge. We have the forthcoming referendum on membership of the EU, the ongoing debate about how best to take the fight to IS and the whole climate of retrenchment and cuts in the public sector under Cameron and Osborne. Labour needs to have something serious to say on these issues and a leader credible enough to deliver the message.

Second, the defeat when it comes in 2020 will be of catastrophic proportions. I feel its extent is underestimated today, even by those who have no time for Corbyn and his sidekick John McDonnell.  Looking at the current polling data (which is probably artificially boosting Labour numbers), I think it quite likely that the party will fall below the 25% barrier. If that happens, the prospects will already be fairly bleak for 2025, regardless of who takes over the leadership.

Third, the narrative from the Corbyn left will be one of betrayal.  Labour’s failure will not have anything to do with their beloved guru, but will have been the result of the fiendish attacks of the capitalist press and the treacherous behaviour of ‘red Tories’ within the party.  Our Jez was never given a proper chance, they will bleat disingenuously.  

So we can play the waiting game and find that we have enveloped ourselves in blanket of delusion. Every month that Corbyn remains unchallenged is a month in which he remodels the party to support his own interests and consolidate his power base. The danger is that we look back on the early months of 2016 and realise we missed a vital opportunity. Perhaps our only opportunity. 

One interesting option might be for the PLP to elect its own leader, signalling its independence from the grip of the party machine.  The Corbynistas would shriek in outrage, but would have few levers to pull. Although they may still command a majority among the members and pseudo-members, the reality is that the frontline political message of the Labour Party is carried to the media and the public by parliamentarians.

An alternative is a strategy of non-cooperation with the leadership. This means a mass resignation of all moderate forces in the current shadow cabinet and from junior shadow ministerial appointments.  While Corbyn might well be able to pick off individuals such as Angela Eagle and Hilary Benn, he would be seriously challenged to find credible people to fill a whole load of empty seats.

A likely criticism of these suggestions is they lack a real game plan. What is supposed to happen as a result of any action taken by the PLP?  Is Corbyn meant to cave in and call it a day?  It seems highly unlikely.  And even if he did, would he not simply put himself up for re-election again?  While some members will no doubt regret their decision to back him in the summer, the likelihood is that he could once again carry a majority.

I don’t disagree with any of this. If it did come to another leadership election, there would need to be a strong, impressive candidate to take Corbyn on. Someone who attacked his extremist policy positions from the outset and who had the credibility the erstwhile contenders lacked. A figure such as Alan Johnson perhaps. Or Tom Watson, the man who managed to achieve his own mandate as the party’s deputy leader.  But I fully accept that this seems a little pie in the sky.

Ultimately, the challenge must happen anyway, regardless of the prospects of success. Why? Because Labour is a party with a proud history, dating from the very start of the twentieth century. It was created to represent the interests of ordinary working people who wanted a better life, not the ideological agenda of activists. Never has the disconnect between the membership and ordinary Labour voters been so catastrophically large.  So our fight is for the people who rely on the Labour Party rather than the people who comprise its membership.

If the confrontation with Corbyn fails, we walk away. There is a new party and a fresh start. But at least the process of recovery and renaissance can begin. Delay may prove deadly.