Like Margaret Thatcher in November 1990, Jeremy Corbyn finds himself in a hole, a hole dug by their own parliamentary parties. Then, as now, they find their backbenchers are determined to bury them in it. In ordinary circumstances, losing the confidence of one’s backbenchers should prove fatal for a leader of a political party. It was for Thatcher but not, thus far, for Corbyn. That is because he has one trump card that she never had. He can appeal to the membership. Thatcher could not. If she did, she might well have survived her ordeal, for doubtless the membership would not have tolerated what was a palace house coup. However, destruction at the hands of the electorate would have more than likely have been the Party’s fate.
We all know why Thatcher’s MPs decided to stab up one of their most successful leaders ever. It was because they feared annihilation at the hands of the electorate. She was going to drive the party over a cliff and many of her MPs with it. Her hated poll tax was just one reason. She was out of touch and, to some, was sounding like she was going mad, with her talk of Thatcherism lasting a thousand years. So they took an axe to her. For her devotees, then and now, this was treachery. But, for the coup leaders, it was a necessary step, for the greater good, as they saw it.
So, why are Corbyn’s MPs desperate to get rid of him? The reason should be obvious. They fear a rout at the hands of UKIP, if he stays on as leader. Otherwise, their behaviour makes no sense. If they thought that Corbyn could carry a snap election, called now, then they would be mad to get rid of him. Even if they had reservations about him, the best thing to do would be to stay silent and therefore retain opportunities to influence him, behind the scenes, once Labour is back in power.
I have serious reservations about what the plotters are doing. But I reject, out of hand, the lazy allegations being made against these backbenchers, which fail to explain their motives. MPs are in their job because they have been elected to do it. Therefore, they would be mad to do anything that ended up with them being thrown out of the job, by their electorates. That would be career suicide and MPs are no more prone to that than the rest of us. As I have said, these MPs would be mad to rebel against a leader with a serious chance of winning a general election, and keeping them in their jobs.
Moreover, the plotters are well aware of the risks of what they are doing. They risk accomplishing what they seek to avoid, namely, splitting the Labour Party, and fatally. They are aware of the gauntlet of public and membership opprobrium that they will have to run. They are aware of the threats of deselection and the ruin of their careers and their reputations. Yet, they are prepared to risk all that rather than have Corbyn at the helm. If simple self-interest was the explanation, then none of this would be worth it.
But, they clearly think that the alternative is worse. Like Tory MPs in 1990, they are convinced that having their current leader at the helm will be suicidal. Those loudly condemning the plotters today for seeking to oust Corbyn would probably have welcomed the ousting of Thatcher in 1990, if they are old enough to remember it. Only Thatcher, unlike Corbyn, was the democratically-elected leader of the UK and no doubt would have won any Conservative leadership contest, if Conservative members had had any say, at the time. Like Spock in the Wrath of Khan, the plotters might have said that the logic of the situation clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – or the one (only, unlike Spock, self-sacrifice was out of the question). Then, as now, fear was the dominant motive. Corbyn’s supporters will accept that of Thatcher’s plotters but not those against their own leader.
The question we should be asking, now, is this: are the fears of those wanting to get rid of Corbyn reasonable? If so, then they have a case to be heard. However, if their assessment of their leader’s prospect is wrong, and if their fear of UKIP is overblown, then Corbyn should stay and they should stay silent.
This approach at least allows a genuine conversation to be had. Alas, Corbyn’s die-hard supporters deny that any such conversation is necessary, in spite of the clear evidence that backbenchers’ fear of a UKIP induced meltdown are not groundless; therefore there is a need for their fears to be respected and heard. Instead, there is endless barracking on social media, designed to shut the conversation down, and reminders that Corbyn represents the will of the membership, forgetting, as if we had not been reminded a thousand times already, that the membership is not the same as the country.
Labour is not a pressure group, like Amnesty International. It is a government in waiting. An opposition leader that cannot lead his own shadow government can never lead the real thing. That means being able to deal with opposition and criticism. His supporters, swarming like a shoal of piranhas around critics, simply make it harder for him to acquire the necessary political skills he will need if he is ever to become PM. Opposition and criticism are facts of political life and Momentum cannot shout down all his critics, who won’t all come from Labour’s backbenchers.
My own feeling is that the plotters’ fears are reasonable even if not everything they are doing is. I think they are right to be sceptical about their leader’s prospects and I think their fears of rout at the hands of UKIP are well-founded. UKIP has encroached in Labour heartlands, coming second place in some Northern constituencies in the 2015 election, a truly astonishing development. And, in case no one had noticed, we just had a referendum in which immigration was a salient issue, when large numbers of Labour’s traditional voters flocked to UKIP’s colours, in defiance of exhortations from Labour and its allied unions to vote Remain.
The brutal arithmetic of this has been summed up by Robert Ford, Professor Politics at the University of Manchester, writing in the Guardian:
‘Labour’s problems may run deeper [than the Tories]. They are led by a leader who is an open and professed enthusiast for mass migration and who sits in a borough with the fourth-highest Remain vote in the country. It is hard to see how such a leader can credibly hope to represent the voters in the hundred or more Labour seats where the vote for Leave ran at 60% or more. This much has been obvious to many of the MPs representing those seats for a long time. But it is not yet clear whether it is a message that Labour’s membership – who are among the most socially liberal, cosmopolitan groups in all of England – will be willing to accept.’
These realities are denied by many of Corbyn’s die-hard supporters but for no good reason. But it is they, in their obtuse denial of the brutal realities laid bare in the aftermath of the vote, that threaten to unravel the Labour Party, and not the machinations of its MPs.