The so-called shadow cabinet rebels have cocked up – and the contrast with Blair/Brown era is marked.
Given that Jeremy Corbyn has already proved he could win a leadership contest by a landslide there is only one big lesson from his second victory in a year. The so-called shadow cabinet rebels must be the most strategically inept political group in the history of British politics. Instead of removing Jeremy Corbyn, the aim of their shapeless and poorly co-ordinated insurrection this summer, they gave him a dream platform to enhance his authority.
Their moves were both blatantly unfair in that Corbyn had won a landslide only a year previously and were also against their own interests. What better way for Corbyn to be strengthened internally and in terms of his own self -confidence than another summer of adoring rallies in a contest he had won the moment it was called?
When the rebels resigned from the front bench over a weekend in June had they all got together to answer these obvious questions: What would happen if their resignations did not force Corbyn to give up the leadership? If there were to be a second leadership contest had they signed up enough additional like- minded people as members? Who would be the big figure that could take Corbyn on and win?
In the unlikely event that they discussed very much at all in advance of the resignations they evidently did not have answers to those questions and probably did not ask them. The contrast with Blair/Brown era is marked. At their peak the duo and advisers would ask a thousand such questions and get the answers before making their moves. Instead the rebels’ attempts to offer Corbyn a deal to bring about his departure in the summer were absurd. He was asked to stand aside with an assurance that his legacy would be protected. As if anyone in their right mind would say “Yes, that’s fine. I’ll resign”.
As for the second question about membership, the result shows there were insufficient new anti-Corbyn members to give an alternative candidate a chance. Nor did they have an answer to the third obvious question. They had no substantial candidate. Owen Smith is the latest Labour figure to have performed well a couple of times on Newsnight and to assume from this that he has the qualities required for leadership.
The bar is set low for leadership these days, but not that low. Inevitably Smith made mistakes in the contest. He would have made many more if he had become leader of his party.
This is not Smith’s fault. The contest came far too early in his career. Future Labour candidates should note that a few good TV appearances are not enough even if performing and projecting to voters is a fundamental requirement of modern leadership. Neil Kinnock had been an MP for thirteen tempestuous character -forming years before he became leader in 1983. Tony Blair became an MP in the 1983 election and was involved in many twists and turns for eleven years before becoming leader. As in all other fields experience matters.
The strategic ineptitude, albeit in a desperate context for the rebels, invites a degree of humility from them now. If they cocked this up so badly we need to hear a little less from them in the immediate future about their insights as to how Labour could win a general election, not that many offered much before beyond vague talk of the ‘centre ground’.
Instead the strategic choice open to the rebels now, given that they are not going to form a separate party, is to co-operate as much as possible with the Corbyn leadership for the next year, including becoming part of the new shadow cabinet. Such a commitment does not exclude forming internal groups with different ideological objectives, or from seeking to attract members for another leadership contest in the future.
The two big UK parties are broad churches. When Labour won elections under Harold Wilson there were all types of scheming factions. That is politics. But there is a difference between internal divisions and Labour MPs tweeting that Corbyn is useless while briefing journalists of their despair. They should do now what they should have done a year ago and give Corbyn the space to build or to fail without them being a legitimate scapegoat for the party’s abysmal poll ratings.
Corbyn is neither the prophet that some of his supporters imagine him to be nor the ogre of his enemies’ fuming fantasies. His faults are obvious, reported around the clock and will could well prove fatal to his leadership before the 2020 election. His preparation for leadership was as non- existent as that of the more youthful Owen Smith, being on the backbenches since 1983, never needing or choosing to reflect on how to lead a team of different views, and how to project messages, frame arguments to a wider audience.
But I do not believe that he and his allies are indifferent to winning a general election and are only interested in taking over a doomed Labour party. Anyone who spends any time with Corbyn’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, would discern a hunger to wield power in government as he once did on the much smaller stage of the Greater London Council. When I interviewed him recently he described himself above all as a “bureaucrat”, no doubt deliberately seeking to step free from ideological baggage that alarms his opponents.
But the fact that he even seeks to convey a desire to administer policies is part of a genuine hunger to win. His unwisely provocative comments in public exchanges with Alastair Campbell on BBC Question Time and private ones with Owen Smith in the summer were in the context of the internal battle that has raged for a year. I assume he would prefer to govern than bring down the Labour party in flames.
If I believe Corbyn and McDonnell want to win an election it follows that they are sincere in seeking unity. They know that divided parties lose. Whether they are capable or big enough to find a way of meeting the enthusiasm of their members and to keep MPs on board is a different matter. The challenge is not impossible as both sides are not exactly precise in their policy objectives. This is not like the early 1980s when the SDP was led by titans with clear ideas of what they were for as well as what they were against, ideas incidentally well to the left of some current Labour MPs and commentators.
Once Corbyn has been given a fair chance, having won two landslides on rules he did not devise, MPs can legitimately move against him if he is failing. They would have a duty to do so as there will come a point in this parliament when the current government will enter a nightmare over a Brexit. There will need to be a credible, election winning alternative. Having won twice Corbyn gets the first chance to seek that alternative.
In the meantime the rebels, sheltered by the Blair/Brown duopoly and the control freakery of the Ed Miliband leadership, must grow and discover a strategic guile accompanied by a policy making depth they have failed to show in their frantic, panic stricken, misjudged impatience this summer.
Steve Richards’ Radio 4 series, The Corbyn Story, is available on the BBC Iplayer.