I’ve been saddened in the days since the general election and its stunning outcome for Labour, to see activists and leaders from both sides of the party itching to return to factionalism. For those on the right, this is still a defeat, and we should be reaching for sackcloth and ashes and questioning where it all went wrong, while those on the left crow that “Jez, we did” while seeming not to notice that “Actually, we didn’t really”.
But now there is an opportunity for us to be the opposition that this country so desperately needs. To get there – and this might seem unfair given Jeremy Corbyn has proven himself to be a formidable campaigner – it’s the guy in the big chair who has to make it happen.
Much of the anger of Corbyn supporters who couldn’t understand why critics wouldn’t roll over and “accept the mandate” is based on a misunderstanding of what winning a leadership election means.
Winning a leadership election doesn’t give you an automatic right to lead without being questioned. It gives you an opportunity. An opportunity to unite your followers behind a common cause.
And the opportunity has for many been squandered at many turns by the current leadership. The EU referendum campaign debacle, the lack of a media strategy, irresponsibly calling for the invocation of article 50 the morning of June 24th. Supporters cry that the PLP and media did not give him a fair ride – but winning them over is part of the job description. It’s why it’s a hard job. As Powell once said, “a politician who complains about the media is like a sailor who complains about the sea”.
But this election result gives Mr. Corbyn a renewed opportunity to be the leader that not just his faction, but that the country needs him to be. Labour has, for the first time since losing power in 2010, an unrivalled chance to be a truly effective opposition and to make the case to the British people that Jeremy Corbyn should be Prime Minister.
To do that, we have to accept that some things have to change. That means that those on the right of the party must admit that they were wrong about Mr Corbyn’s ability to galvanise the youth vote and to encourage former non voters to get to the polls. A new path to power has been offered, an alternative strategy to the incrementalism of the Blair years which achieved so much, but disillusioned many.
But at the same time, those on the left must be prepared to engage in a grown up conversation about how, after a result that exceeded all but the most naive expectations, the party is going to secure the 75-80 additional seats that it needs to form an effective government. More of the same is extremely unlikely to be enough.
So what do we do? In my opinion there are three hurdles that Mr Corbyn must clear to demonstrate that he wants a united party and therefore secure the backing going forward of the entire party, as he has enjoyed in this crucial election period.
First – there must be significant returns to the shadow cabinet. We have to demonstrate that Mr Corbyn has the backing of the entire party at its highest levels. Being able to make peace with his critics will show the country that he has the ability to work through differences, which will only add to his credibility as a potential Prime Minister.
Imagine the shot of credibility our plans would receive if we had a shadow Chancellor who disagreed with Corbyn politically, but who confirmed that his policies were costed and affordable? The weight of this independent voice would carry into the country worth more gravitas than any number of IFS studies. Even Chris Mullin in his (supposedly) fantasy novel A Very British Coup placed a right wing chancellor at the heart of a socialist government for exactly this reason. Given that John McDonnell is such an important ally, I don’t see this happening, but maybe Shadow Home Secretary or Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury might open up an opportunity to broaden the team?
Those who snort at this idea and revel in demonising the PLP (interpreted to mean anyone not in the Campaign group of MPs) should remember one thing about why they have historically held so much power in the party. While CLPs represent the membership and the Unions represent working people, the PLP are supposed to represent the country as a whole – they have a mandate running to the millions of votes, and have directly engaged with individuals from across the country. When so many voted no confidence in Jeremy in 2016 it was in part because their constituents had no confidence in him. That he has convinced so many to change their mind is a huge achievement, and should explain the change in the position of the PLP. Getting more big hitters into the top team will create the sense of unity that the country craves from us.
Second – and for similar reasons – there must be no attempt to force mandatory reselection of sitting MPs.
The people have just returned these representatives to parliament, many with enormous majorities. We don’t yet know why the polls surged in each seat so to attempt to cleanse the party of Mr Corbyn’s critics based of an assumption that he was the sole reason for our success risks being viewed by the electorate as similarly narcissistic to calling an unnecessary general election on the assumption of a thumping victory and then promptly losing it.
Sadly, Len McCluskey and Ken Loach, among other high profile Corbyn backers, have already been calling for the reselection of MPs – a short sighted and disgraceful act of division at a time when we have a real chance to unify and challenge the government.
Third – something has to be done about the more undesirable elements of the original Corbyn coalition.
As repugnant as it was, I can almost understand why, beset on all sides by perceived threats, Mr Corbyn felt the political need to be less than unequivocal in his condemnation of antisemites, bullies and other undesirables in his coalition of support.
Now that his power base is consolidated in the mainstream, a proper focus on the darker reaches of our party should be carried out, and members (regardless of their level of seniority in the original Corbyn project or indeed its Bennite predecessors) should be properly disciplined, and if necessary expelled. A truly independent inquiry into antisemitism along the lines of the one proposed by Tulip Sadiq would be a good start.
We have an unparalleled opportunity – and there are tens of thousands of members within the party who now want to give this new, radical approach a chance – but they will not do it at any cost, and without a show of good faith like that which I’ve outlined above, it will be near impossible for them to fall fully behind the leader in a way that will secure a Labour consensus, a true Labour movement and, yes, even a Labour government.
Supporters of Mr Corbyn will rail against this. Why should their man be the one to compromise? Especially after his recent electoral success?
Because as the leader, Jez is the only one who can.