After pompously telling anyone who will listen that they cannot possibly work with Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s centrist MPs are preparing to bend the knee and meekly return to Corbyn’s shadow cabinet once he is re-elected leader of the party
UPDATE: Read Part 2 here.
Labour’s tantrum-throwing centrist MPs, recognising their man Owen Smith’s imminent defeat by Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest, are apparently now making frantic overtures to the Corbyn camp so that their treachery might be forgiven, allowing them to serve in the shadow cabinet once again.
The Telegraph reports:
Senior Labour politicians who quit the shadow cabinet in protest at Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership are drawing up plans for a truce that would see them return to his team if he is re-elected this month.
Mr Corbyn was rocked by dozens of resignations from his shadow government in the aftermath of the EU referendum, in a rebellion that triggered a leadership contest.
However, with polls suggesting that Mr Corbyn is on course to win next week’s leadership election easily, a number of former shadow ministers are preparing the ground to return to work with him.
They will demand a list of assurances from Mr Corbyn as a sign of his goodwill before pledging their support.
These include allowing them greater say in the running of the shadow cabinet, giving his support to a return to shadow cabinet elections, and dropping the threat that MPs who opposed his leadership will face de-selection.
And the FT:
Some senior Labour MPs who resigned from the shadow cabinet en masse in the early summer are braced to go back and serve under Mr Corbyn. One said: “I do not see what the other options are. At the end of the day, we have to fulfil our role, which is providing opposition to the Tory government.”
[..] One former frontbencher said that if Labour MPs did not fall back into line, it would continue to “feed the narrative” that Mr Corbyn was being undermined by “Blairite” enemies in the Parliamentary Labour party. “Quite a few of my colleagues feel the same way, although not everyone.”
[..] “There is a real determination among a number of us to make sure that we try to do the job that needs to be done: holding the Tories to account,” said one former frontbencher. “You can do that to some extent from the backbenches but you can do it much more effectively from the front benches . . . but the onus is now on Jeremy to unite the party.”
Translation: “Being out of the political spotlight and festering away on the backbenches is killing us and our career aspirations, so please can we come in from the cold?”
Well, well, well.
I suppose one has to admire the nerve of the centrists, daring to issue conditions for their return to the shadow cabinet having taken the reckless and self-serving decision to flounce out and destabilise their party at a time (in the aftermath of the Brexit vote) when stability was most required. Corbyn has thus far shown no qualms about filling the gaps in his shadow cabinet with D-listers and nobodies – what makes the likes of Chris Bryant, Lucy Powell or Angela Eagle think that Corbyn is desperately pining for their return?
But in another sense, this pitiful capitulation is not surprising. The Parliamentary Labour Party called Jeremy Corbyn’s bluff and lost, badly. There is ample blame to go around – some for the remaining “big beasts” of the party who were too cowardly and self-serving to put their names forward as leadership contenders, leaving it to unloved support acts like Angela Eagle and the contemptible Owen Smith; some for misbehaving shadow ministers like Hilary Benn who took the job and then rebelled and briefed against their leader at every opportunity; and last but not least, a portion of the blame rests with every single one of the 172 Labour MPs who opportunistically calculated that the confused aftermath of the EU referendum provided a great “fog of war” in which they could go full Brutus on Jeremy Corbyn’s Caesar and get away with it.
Well, it didn’t work. Nobody viable stepped forward, the party membership was enraged at the parliamentary party challenging their pick for leader less than a year into the job, and Owen Smith’s damp squib of a campaign lurched from one unforced error to the next. Apparently the odious man can now be found swanning around Britain portentously comparing himself to Saint Aneurin Bevan of Tredegar, founder of Our Blessed NHS (genuflect), hoping that Labour members will not take the time to google his past career as a pharmaceutical lobbyist and statements broadly supportive of privatisation.
So what should the centrists do? Well, if they had an ounce of genuine conviction and commitment to principle (ha) then they would part ways with a Labour Party which has “left them” (to paraphrase their unconvincing bid for sympathy) and set up shop as a new party of the centre-left. But they will not do so, partly for selfish reasons – they want to keep ownership of the party apparatus and assets – but also for the very practical reason that starting a new political party from scratch and making a success of it is almost impossible. Sure, 150+ defectors would be much better than the “gang of four” who helped to found the SDP back in 1981. But while their parliamentary contingent might initially be fairly large they would need to build up a party structure and grassroots campaigning organisation from scratch in a very short space of time, or face certain annihilation at the 2020 general election.
And so the unhappy bedfellows will likely limp on together, Corbynites and centrists openly despising one another but remaining stuck with each other thanks to the British political system. The centrists will continue to moan to any journalist who will listen, Dan Hodges will have more material for his Mail on Sunday column than he knows what to do with, the PLP will do everything they can to make Jeremy Corbyn’s life a living hell, and Corbyn’s team will do all they can to set the stage for a purge of the centrists, either at the upcoming constituency boundary review or when it comes time to choose candidates for the 2020 general election.
Besides, the centrists have some thinking to do before they can make a plausible bid to take back leadership of the Labour Party. First and foremost, they must decide on a shared position on Brexit, which will be close to impossible – the centrist MPs are salivating at the prospect of thwarting Britain’s exit from the European Union by any means possible, no matter how far-fetched. Their every instinct is to take up and amplify the great howl of anguish emanating from the metro-left at the prospect of being forcibly ripped away from a European Union which most of them barely understand but which is absolutely central to their identities as progressive, enlightened model citizens. Unfortunately, this involves waving a big fat middle finger to Labour’s working class supporters, particularly those in the north of England, who were some of the most enthusiastic voters for Brexit.
The result will likely be another fudge and evasion as regularly practised by the Labour Party. They will reaffirm their commitment to the European Union and their desire to overturn the result of the EU referendum or at least to hold a second or third referendum until they achieve the desired result, while uttering glib, platitudinous assurances that they understand people’s frustration with the EU and with immigration, and that they will work for some mystical reform at some point in the future. They will grab hold of the Magical EU Reform Unicorn as tight as they can, while repeating to themselves that in fact they simply need to work harder to educate people of the wonders of European political union and mass immigration.
The political ground has shifted underneath all of Britain’s political parties, and while none have yet truly come to terms with the new post-Brexit reality and the schism on the Left, it is the Labour centrist MPs who are in the strongest denial right now. This is mostly because original thinking is required, and few of their number are capable of the feat. Jeremy Corbyn offers (with one or two exceptions) a very traditional and anachronistic form of socialism, ossified since the late 1970s. To regain power, the centrists cannot simply repudiate Corbynism or match Tory centrism while blathering on about equality and fairness. They need to jack in the Blairite triangulation and reimagine the role of the big, activist state that they love in a way which makes sense in the new century. Most are unwilling to put in this work – they think they can cheat their way back to power using a playbook which is twenty years old.
It won’t work. And however limited Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal to the wider country may be, he will not be dislodged as party leader until somebody else comes along with a compelling, clearly identifiable programme for government of their own – something sufficiently distinct from Theresa May’s authoritarian Toryism that Labour Party members (a) agree with it, and (b) think the country might vote for it.
Owen “I’m Nye Bevan!” Smith is a pitiful joke, as was Angela “I am my own woman!” Eagle when she was also running for leader. When the centrists have done their homework, one of them – preferably one with name recognition and a sprinkling of gravitas – can step forward and present their shiny new plan for Labour, and maybe the party membership will listen.
But until that happens, this is Jeremy Corbyn’s party. And that is how it will remain.
UPDATE: Read Part 2 here.
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