Labour MPs’ next choice: which leadership coup to back

If Jeremy Corbyn wins, expect much pondering of Tony Benn’s last question: ‘How do I get rid of you?’

22 August 2015

9:00 AM

22 August 2015

9:00 AM

Jeremy Corbyn’s close friend Tony Benn had five questions he always asked of those in power: ‘What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how do we get rid of you?’ Labour’s leadership election has a month left to run, but most of those involved think Corbyn will triumph. So they’ve already started working out how they’ll get rid of him.

John McTernan, a former Blair adviser, recommends deposing him immediately. As he said on The Spectator’s podcast: ‘I can’t see any case for letting him have two minutes in office, let alone two years, because of the damage that will be done.’ Most think an immediate coup unfeasible, but some would still like an urgent inquiry into the way the different types of leadership contest voters — 300,000 members, 121,000 ‘registered supporters’ and 190,000 trades union-affiliated supporters — voted in the general election. They suspect that such an inquiry would undermine Corbyn by exposing the scale of entryism in the party. The plan then would be to overhaul the voting rules and stage the contest again.

Some Labour MPs say they would refuse to recognise Corbyn’s authority. The joke is that they’ll follow Corbyn’s approach to loyalty on key policies and votes (he defied his party whip more than any other Labour MP). One MP says: ‘He says he rebels because he’s got principles. Well, so do I, and I’m not voting for what he stands for.’

Such rebellions would evolve into serious pressure for Corbyn to step down — perhaps after the poor results in next May’s local elections, which members of the ‘Resistance’ movement set up by Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna expect to be the first sign that voters don’t like Corbyn as much as Labour members do. But this wait-for-the-implosion theory has a flaw: it assumes that Corbyn would fare worse than Ed Miliband did. What if he doesn’t?

As one key figure in the stop-Corbyn movement admits: ‘On some of the tests which people will set up he may actually do quite well: I could imagine people being interested in him and what he says and him seeming a breath of fresh air compared to some of the others. Then in next year’s local elections, Labour does quite well and so by those tests he may pass — but it won’t make a jot of difference to our overall direction.’ One modernising MP says rather hopefully: ‘I think he’ll step down at some point anyway.’ Maybe so. But the left will soon find a replacement with the same political leanings.

It is odd that so many Labour figures are confident about their ability to topple Corbyn, given that the party has never got rid of a leader in its postwar history. The Conservatives can defenestrate a bad leader over a wet weekend, and even the Liberal Democrats have been getting quite good at it. But Labour — as a party — likes unity, even when it’s the unity of lemmings. It could end up sailing into the 2020 election with Corbyn as leader because it has never worked out how to answer Benn’s ‘How do we get rid of you?’ question.

The fact that bookmakers and opinion polls are united in predicting a Jeremy Corbyn victory shouldn’t tell us much; it wasn’t so long ago that David Cameron was being given a 0.2 per cent chance of winning the general election. But even if Corbyn doesn’t win, he’ll have left Labour in an almighty mess.

This contest has pitted its MPs against each other in open warfare, and some of them have been stunned to be denounced as ‘fucking Tories’ by their own members, when they’ve served their party for years. Unpleasant rumours about candidates’ personal lives are swirling.

Only the summer recess has stopped the fights being more dramatic: if they had all been buzzing about in Parliament, there could have been shouting matches in the bars and tantrums on the terrace. This has been a far more vicious, personal and brutal contest than that five years ago — the wounds are deeper and it will take much longer for the scars to heal. Whoever becomes leader has to work out how to reunite the party to stop schism and disintegration.

Andy Burnham thinks he has healing powers because he says he hasn’t insulted Corbyn in the way that Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall have. He believes he has, if anything, been conciliatory. He plans to offer Corbyn a job that uses his skills at pulling in crowds: the Labour equivalent of Boris Johnson’s campaigning role for the Tories in the 2015 election. Not everyone on Team Andy likes that idea. ‘You don’t have to make someone a senior cabinet minister to keep pulling people to rallies,’ says a Burnham source. ‘There are cleverer ways of doing this.’

But some frontbenchers warn that snuggling up to Corbyn will make it more difficult — almost impossible — to manage the party. One says: ‘On one hand, Andy will have the Corbynistas who he has been sucking up to and then on the other hand he’s going to have the Parliamentary Labour Party, who don’t suffer fools gladly.’ Yvette Cooper will also have a lot of work to do mollifying the MPs who have been victim of her team’s Gordon Brown-style character assassinations. The moderate candidates have been so busy fighting each other that they have not worked together to stop Corbyn.

Whatever happens, the Labour party conference at the end of next month should be more entertaining than usual. Labour seems to be settling down to a long, passionate and rather vicious debate about its future — a debate that has not really happened in the course of this long, bizarre contest. One Labourite suggests that the party needs to go through a year of fighting before it can deal with its splits, rather than simply papering over them again in an Milibandesque pretence at unity.

At some point, though, it will have to answer a question Tony Benn never posed, which is ‘How do we all get on again?’

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Show comments
  • davidshort10

    Very wrong-headed. If Corbyn wins, the Labour Party will rally around him not seek to depose him.

    • Velo

      Well said. There’s already a considerable rump of support for him the PLP.

  • BillRees

    The real danger for the Tories is that Corbyn becomes the leftist equivalent of Margaret Thatcher, taking his party back to first principles and finding that there’s a significant degree of support for such an approach.

    The assumption that he will automatically go down like a lead balloon with the majority of the electorate could be fanciful.

    The fortunes of Labour under Corbyn are not as easy to predict as we might hope.

    • Alex Jackson

      Same people that were predicting he woud sink in the leadership contest now predicting that he will sink in PLP – and GE.

    • Kin62

      I have also being saying this! Corbyn’s position now is curiously like Thatcher’s in 1975: party has leader regarded as a bit of a w****r; unexpectedly lose election; losing party’s grassroots becoming horrified by victorious party’s lurch to extremism; party Establishment put forward bland candidates who basically agree with other party; at last minute charismatic leader emerges from party base; everybody laughs and says “what a nutter, they’ll never win”; party Establishment appalled and hates said person.

    • greggf

      Not really BillRees, mostly because he’s not the Leftist equivalent of Mrs T – that is Nigel Farage. But I think, when he’s elected leader, Corbyn can materially affect the Conservative party in unexpected ways.
      At least I’m hoping as much…!

  • Garnet Thesiger

    The electorate are now so volatile and loath career politicians so much you have to wonder wither they will vote for Corbyn just for the hell of it…

    • boiledcabbage

      Yes and the electorate are never rational. Not anywhere

    • Dr. Heath

      Unless, of course, voters don’t warm to the prospect of an Islamofascist-lite sort of ‘decent’ guy as Dear Leader. Bin Korben is undoubtedly popular with Press TV and Russia Today. To the Russians, Hamas and Iran, JC is only of interest to the extent that his views serve Russia, fundamentalist Palestinian islamofascists and Iran. A man who’s spent thirty two years as a backbencher – one who’s shown strikingly little interest in the collapse of our real economy – is the very definition of a career politician. But who knows? He might become Prime Minister. And Yvonne Ridley or Anjem Choudary might be in his cabinet. The madness of crowds. Let’s not underestimate it!

  • Peter Stroud

    And to think that the Labour Party dubbed the Conservatives the nasty party.

  • MikeF

    A ‘resistance movement’ led by Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna – that really is funny.

  • Kennybhoy

    “Whatever happens, the Labour party conference at the end of next month should be more entertaining than usual.”

    Oh Jesus I had forgotten about conference! Popcorn time! 🙂

  • Hegelman

    The Labour Party pre-Corbyn was such a mess anyway, and failed so miserably and in such a consistently cowardly manner to stand up to the Tory destruction of the social safety net, that it is pointless whining about Corbyn.

    He can hardly be worse. He could even be much better. At least he has the guts to vote against Tory welfare slashing bills that will throw millions into destitution. The majority of Labour MPs abstained gutlessly.

    We’ll see. Let us give the man a chance.

    • Kin62

      Very good point. If Andy Burnham wins the Labour leadership, he is not going to become PM. Their only hope is to try something new.

  • boiledcabbage

    Corbyn would be getting no traction if the Establishment/Tories/New Labour [delete at will] hadn’t left themselves wide open to charges of maladministration on several fronts – a slew of issues from Non-Doms to corporate troughing – that are very popular with ordinary people i.e. those not on 40% tax.

  • Velo

    Electing Corbyn to any office is reckless folly. His latest threats to print money only underline how utterly clueless he is. Until now it didn’t matter if Corbyn held power or not. That helps to account for his madcap ideas because there was no danger he’d
    implement them. Obama has printed more money during his presidency than all of his predecessors combined. Writing this on Black Monday 2015, look where that has got us.

    • Steve Larson

      Printing money like that has been a mainstay of Brown and now Osborne for years.

      • Velo

        Printing money on this scale is the last resort of a scoundrel and has reduced our room for manoeuvre. After a brief rally, the DJI has now lost all the gains it made since yesterday. Six days in, this bear market is now biting.

        • Steve Larson

          QE in this situation should have been straight in to the hands of taxpayers, especially those who would have spent it or in to infrastructure building etc but modern politics call for deregulation and less State involvement, politics over economics.

          That was the major mistake, it just turned it in to a asset bubble.

          • Velo

            Really, QE like this is a political policy rather than an economic one. It reveals how myopic our political class is. Obama doesn’t care. His second term of office will be done with soon. People deserve better. As someone said earlier today, we’ve run out of ammo economically.

  • tolpuddle1

    Unless the Tories perform disastrously badly, it’s difficult to see Labour being elected ever again in its current form – and certainly not under any of the other three leadership contenders; Bully-Girl Cooper, Nice-but-Dim Andy and Liz Kendall (the Conservative candidate).

    Common sense would suggest a wholesale re-alignment, involving the Lib Dems, on the Centre and Left of British politics.

    Instead, we have a dying party thrashing around on its deathbed.

  • tolpuddle1

    A defenestration (real or attempted) of Corbyn by the Parliamentary Party would be instant death for the Labour Party.

    It would be left without activists, and the public – even the Labour voters – care nothing about it.

    • DomesticExtremist

      Spot on. This is what the dog-in-the-manger types plotting to get rid of him fail to realise. If they continue to treat the party as their own personal property, the activist, supporters and voters will leave them to it and go elsewhere.