by Kevin Meagher
‘Infamy, infamy, the PLP have all got in it for me!’ This seems to sum up the mood in the Corbyn inner circle, certainly judging by the leadership’s now infamous list ranking Labour MPs on their relative loyalty and disloyalty.
The author – still unconfirmed but reported to be Corbyn’s political secretary Katy Clark – really shouldn’t have bothered. There’s really no need for lists of friends and foes because Labour MPs are utterly rubbish at coups.
Unless all his detractors can agree on who should replace him (which they can’t) it’s hard to see how the mechanics of a successful insurgency against Jeremy Corbyn will ever come about. John Woodcock’s plaintive cry to his colleagues that ‘We can’t go on like this,’ will remain unheeded.
The initial thought was that May’s elections would see Corbyn’s Labour crash to the ground once electoral gravity hit his ‘straight-talking honest politics’. Yes, there will be a collision, but the fall will not be as precipitous as first thought.
May’s elections to the Scottish Parliament are already factored-in as a wash-out. Labour will win both the Brightside and Hillsborough and Ogmore by-elections without breaking sweat, while Sadiq Khan will romp home in London.
Plus, the party will do well enough in his heartlands in the local elections to please activists and reassure most Labour MPs they are not facing electoral oblivion in 2020. Labour will struggle in battleground seats, particularly in the south of England, but ‘not winning’ is much less damaging than ‘actually losing.’
So, yes, there is feverish plotting, but most Labour MPs are the political equivalent of Adele fans. They will settle for lowest common denominator mush. They will go with the flow and offer no threat to Jeremy Corbyn out of a mixture of reasonableness and indolence and dare not fall out with their local activists. They will put loyalty to the party ahead of intellectual principle (assuming they have any) every single time.
Some may even respect Corbyn’s electoral mandate and believe he has the right to make a go of it, even if they have reservations about where this leads. Some are even quietly relieved he is offering a blast of the old religion after being starved of ideology and belief through the New Labour years.
The parliamentary party is a mixed bag and there is little prospect of galvanising them behind a different proposition while a snaking line of leaders-in-waiting make elliptical noises from the sidelines, hoping someone else will do their dirty work for them and trigger the circumstances where they will then make a seamless rise to greatness.
Unless, that is, Corbyn continues to self-immolate with a string of bad decisions and weak performances and openly invites a coup. Unfortunately, his entire leadership is doused in gasoline and he has a box of matches in his hand.
Just look at his record so far. He’s not made a single interesting speech since becoming leader of the party. His decision-making borders on chaotic and he clearly resents the disciplines of the 24/7 media. At the root of it all, he still hasn’t reconciled the fact that he’s the leader of a hierarchal political party committed to constitutional politics and can no longer be the guy on the platform in Trafalgar Square basking in the activists’ adoration.
Corbyn would create much more space to set out a bolder policy platform if he reassured his colleagues with displays of basic competence. Yet even his greatest supporter would have to concede there’s room for improvement.
It’s often simple things like ensuring someone pens the odd gag for Prime Minister’s Questions so he doesn’t keep getting caught out by Cameron’s zingers, offering up that withering, constipated expression every time he becomes the butt of another joke.
His backroom staff hardly seems equal to the task either. In all fairness, it’s hard to get traction when your boss is dead set on inverting all the lessons of modern political leadership. Even ridiculously small decisions, like joining the Privy Council or wearing a shirt and tie, are dragged out and converted into tortuous, self-defeating psychodramas.
If he kept his politics narrowly focused around opposing austerity, he would have more luck. A lot has changed since 2010 and the shine has rubbed off George Osborne’s explanations as to why he can’t get the deficit down and economic growth up. But instead of pressing the advantage, we get self-indulgent gesture politics. Like his beloved kebabs, we are presented with lumps of reheated policy gristle to consume, like unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Party management is reduced to dealing with a steady stream of activists and councillors exposed as enthusiastic anti-Semites and ISIS sympathisers. Hardly surprising given a good chunk of the new members are clearly raving mad, having spent years trying to destroy the Labour party from outside.
For the left, the risk is that Corbyn is squandering his – their – political capital through basic ineptness. The significance of last year’s leadership contest was not just Corbyn’s victory, but the fact fewer than one in twenty members and supporters opted for Liz Kendall, the neo-Blairite option. The party’s grassroots voted with their hearts for a more meaningful, principled and radical politics than the New Labour ancien regime was offering.
This was an extraordinary moment for the left in British politics and a chance to take their message mainstream. However it is being frittered away, and while there is no inherent conflict between adopting more radical positions on a range of issues and displays of basic political competence, Jeremy Corbyn seems determined to prove there is.
For all the talk of coups and challenges and breakaways, it is, ironically, the one thing in Jeremy Corbyn’s gift that will determine whether anything happens or not: his own personal performance in the job.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut