Luke Akehurst: A kind of functional unity across the two wings of the PLP is possible

Luke Akehurst

Jeremy Corbyn PMQs parliament commons

We are in the remarkable situation where a leadership election is still being concluded, but it is not the most important thing going on in the Labour Party.

Everyone has discounted the result and assumed it will be broadly similar to last year.

The big strategic mistake Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents made was to assume additional recruitment would harm them. This froze the selectorate at roughly where it was last summer. Given that existing selectorate had already backed Corbyn once, a more sensible strategy would have been to argue for the maximum possible recruitment period at the cheapest rates possible for both members and registered supporters, and to throw the kitchen sink at advertising online and in the press to sign people up and reshape the selectorate like Corbyn did in 2015.

This would also have been more easily achieved by a strategy based on motivating centrist non-members to join by expressing a very clear different path to Corbyn, rather than trying to triangulate with him and concede policy ground, which was a strategy based on the selectorate being frozen and therefore getting the soft component of Corbyn’s vote to switch being the only path to a win

Obviously we want people who have supported Jeremy to see that his leadership isn’t working, but the policy stance they might be prepared to support is likely to continue to render Labour unelectably left-wing, so it would be better to try to recruit new members and supporters who are more similar politically to the views of the wider voting public, so that the offers required to win inside the party and to win a general election can be the same.

Corbyn’s strategy post-election seems confused. He talks about olive branches, party unity and bringing back MPs into the tent as frontbenchers. Yet his supporters are threatening the same MPs with deselection, and Corbyn does not publicly condemn this. Nor does he refute newspaper allegations that a meeting between his key supporters and the Unite union plotted to remove key party staff from the General Secretary downwards – even though officials simply implemented the party rules on who can vote in the leadership election, as agreed by the elected NEC.

It is difficult to see how real unity – a common sense of what the Labour Party is for, a common strategy about how to return to power, a common vision of what Labour should do in power – can possibly be obtained with the current political differences between the Leader and his let’s guess 60 per cent of mainly newer members and the PLP and their let’s guess 40 per cent of mainly longer-serving members on the other hand.

On domestic policy the gaps are not huge but, on foreign and security policy, style, personnel, rhetoric, sense of whether Labour’s mission is to win the centre ground and govern or to articulate the protesting rage of the left, there is a chasm. Too much has been said that cannot be unsaid on both sides. MPs have expressed contempt for Corbyn’s leadership and activists have expressed contempt for the MPs. They are not all going to suddenly reconcile themselves and live happily ever after.

Some kind of functional unity – putting together a coalition of Labour’s two wings to be an effective parliamentary opposition is possible. But we can’t just have Groundhog Day and repeat the effort made by moderate MPs to serve under Corbyn that happened in September 2015. That failed. There is more distance between the two sides now. Goodwill has been squandered.

So any new effort to engage and work together, even if temporary, would have to be on a different power basis – serving as partners with a mandate, not appointees. That can only be achieved by a return to a Shadow Cabinet elected by the PLP.

That’s why Tuesday’s NEC, and the follow up one on Saturday, and the rule changes these submit to Conference, are more important to Labour’s future than the election result in the leadership election.

The Tuesday NEC meeting agreed a huge raft of 23, overwhelmingly positive, rule change proposals.

For the first time ever Scotland and Wales will get guaranteed voting representation on the NEC. Kezia Dugdale swung this vote by making an impassioned plea for it as part of the wider package of greater autonomy for Scottish Labour that Jeremy Corbyn has signed up to last year. 

Local Government rep Alice Perry secured an impressive array of reforms. She wasn’t able to secure extra NEC seats for councillors, who currently only have two reps, again due to factional advantage coming into play (councillors are considered generally to be a bastion of moderation in the party, unlike in the 1980s). But she did secure rule change proposals to end male-only representation in multi-member wards, council cabinets that reflect the gender and community diversity of their electorates, and proper accountability to local parties for the new metro mayors. Despite one speech against, the NEC unanimously voted to ban Labour councils from setting illegal budgets, which had been one of the key tactics of the municipal Hard Left in the 1980s heyday of Derek Hatton and John McDonnell.

Tom Watson also secured a package of reform proposals including a policy-making women’s conference and bursaries for working class candidates and candidates with disabilities.

The key decision on returning to an elected shadow cabinet is going down to the wire. Powerful speeches were made by the GMB’s Cath Speight and Unison’s Wendy Nicholls urging the leadership and the PLP to sit down and negotiate an agreement on this issue. Unite are trying to delay a decision to beyond conference despite conference being where rule changes are agreed. Jeremy Corbyn conceded to talks despite previously refusing them. The mood of the NEC seems to be that they could force their own proposal through on Saturday if the negotiations between now and then break down.

In terms of policy debates annual conference looks like being a tame affair. A debate on Trident looks like it can’t happen as the motions submitted were not judged “contemporary” by the conference arrangements committee. Not a single CLP submitted a motion on the Middle East and boycotting Israel. So the big symbolic policy changes that might really divide the party have been avoided for another year. The GMB is pushing a mixed energy policy including nuclear power as they represent many workers in that industry, but otherwise there is unlikely to be much division over domestic policy issues such as housing, austerity and public services.

The real action will be on the rule changes. We shall have to wait until Saturday to find out what the final ones look like. With everyone already guessing an unexciting outcome to the leadership election, all eyes will instead be on the NEC meeting.

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