The Labour Party has reached an impasse.
On the one hand, a sizeable number of Labour MPs are placing pressure on party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s position due to concerns regarding the effectiveness of his leadership, adding their support to a significant rump of Blairites (to use the word broadly) who have been actively opposed to Corbyn’s leadership from the very start. And indeed, even many Corbynistas will privately admit that Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance on the Last Leg could have gone better.
On the other hand, there is a great reluctance among the rank-and-file for these concerns to bring in, by the backdoor, the most obnoxious form of right-wing machine politics in the Labour Party that 60% of members, supporters and trade unionists voted to reject last summer.
This deadlock pitches principles against the pursuit of power, whereas the promise of the Corbyn campaign in 2015 had been to scale the false dichotomy between the two. As the party is paralysed, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is the key figure who could overcome this divide – but that would require MPs who do not support his policies nominating him in a leadership contest.
The paradox of the party’s current crisis is that Corbyn probably has little desire to act as party leader. There was probably little expectation when he was nominated in June 2015 that he would score an overwhelming victory on the first round of voting. Had this been known, who is to say that Corbyn and those around him would not have put forward another figure, namely John McDonnell, who is more visibly relaxed in a leadership role to be the candidate of the left?
Whereas Corbyn is now opposed by many MPs who had initially sought to make his leadership work following his election, McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor has consistently struck a much more assured and focused tone in his media and parliamentary appearances.
And yet, several factors bar Corbyn from standing down in favour of someone he would rather see lead the party. Corbyn struggled to receive the exact minimum number of MPs required to appear on the 2015 leadership ballot (a reflection of the discrepancy between the views of the Labour base and its comparatively right-wing parliamentary representation). Many who nominated him to widen the debate would not now nominate another left-wing candidate and another loyal supporter, Michael Meacher, is since deceased. For this reason, Corbyn’s supporters, within and outside of parliament are urging him not to stand down as his default position on the ballot paper as incumbent leader in the event of a challenge is seemingly the only hope for a candidate of his politics to be present in the race.
In contrast, Corbyn’s opponents have so far been reluctant to mount a direct leadership challenge (something for which they have the requisite number of MPs) because they fear that Corbyn would be re-elected by a landslide. Consequently, they have sought to undermine and humiliate him (and the party in the process), resulting in the current deadlock.
Neither side – the bulk of the parliamentary party, or Corbyn’s supporters backed by the membership – are inclined to back down. How to answer calls that Corbyn is ineffective, without the question of style depoliticising the issue of party leadership so much that the political orientation for which Corbyn was elected being entirely overturned, whilst consciously abandoning the new members and energy who flowed into the party following his election?
McDonnell is arguably the only individual in the party capable of combining the radical change demanded by 60% of Labour’s internal electorate in the summer of 2015 with a public command of the political narrative capable of running Labour as an effective political force. But Corbyn is unable to handover to his Shadow Chancellor unless McDonnell is nominated by 20% of MPs in a leadership contest.
Arithmetically, this will require MPs who do not support the politics of Corbyn and McDonnell gritting their teeth and nominating the latter. And yet, this is the only means of reconciling the two irreconcilable poles of opinion in the Corbyn leadership crisis. MPs who say they have resigned not due to policy differences but over whether Corbyn has ‘the qualities of a leader’ should have their bluff called – if they are unwilling to nominate McDonnell, then it is clear that political divergences, not concerns over style are paramount to their opposition to Corbyn. Any other route may result in the destruction of the party, at a time when they should be making significant gains on a Conservative party in post-Brexit disarray.
[This article was submitted anonymously by a lifelong Labour member]