MPs are acting now on Corbyn to escape the cycle of defeat which dominates Labour’s history

by Frederick Cowell

“Michael there are people who are going out to fight the election who won’t be coming back….” Gerald Kaufmann said “I implore you stand aside from the leadership.” Michael Foot listened carefully and then somewhat apologetically lent forward in his chair and said, “I’m sorry Gerald I just can’t do that.”

It was February 1983 – four months later went down to its second largest General Election defeat in history. From Attlee in 1954 to Brown in January 2010 the same conversation has been had – ‘we’re going to lose, your leadership is taking us there.’

History creates odd prisms through which to view things. It is hard to remember that there was once a Post-Miliband – Pre-Corbyn period in the Labour party. But that period was an attempt to confront the conversation that has dogged Labour’s history.

Less than 10 days after the 2015 general election the Labour leader in the House of Lords said that party needed a break clause with their new leader in 2018. A day later the Guardian called for a two-year interim leader and suggested Alan Johnson for the role.

Alastair Campbell warned a week later that he would step in and remove any failing leader after three years and although this provoked a scornful reaction from John Prescott, Campbell stood his ground.

“If only the rest of Labour wanted to win as badly as he did” tweeted the FT’s political correspondent Jannan Ganesh.

At the first hustings of the leadership election in Nuneaton on the 17 of June 2015 the question that prompted Liz Kendall’s flirtation with the Palin-esq phrase “country first” was the question about whether the four candidates would be step down if they were failing as leader.

Kendall said that if “you are not doing well enough you can go… we cannot put our values into practice unless we win.” Corbyn agreeing with what Kendall had said went on to say that there could be a return to the rule where Labour’s leader was elected annually. After this at subsequent events over the next month or so the basic position was again endorsed – if you were failing as leader you should go.

This argument had actually been played out a couple of weeks earlier when it had been mooted by Tristram Hunt but Harriet Harman dismissed a formal rule change on the 31st of May fearing that such a move would lead to derision from the Tories.

Nevertheless Westminster insiders noted in the early summer of 2015 there was a desire within the PLP not to stay silent when things were going wrong.  In fact less than 24 hours after the BBC exit poll some MPs were publicly regretting not saying more and staying quiet in the interests of party unity.

It is important to understand this side of the Corbyn election, which was a movement of constituent power unprecedented in British political history.

However, the wider context of the role that Corbyn was being elected to was forgotten.  There was a strong feeling, pre-dating Corbyn even being on the ballot for the leadership election, that the new leader should be there on probation not perpetuity.

The chance of a leadership coup was therefore far more likely than ever before, regardless of whom the leader was.

Given these conditions even had Liz Kendall won she would have been far more likely to have been toppled than any of her predecessors since George Lansbury.

Competence was going to be everything. This sentiment was captured by Professor Tim Bale in an article for IPPR on 1 June 2015, when he argued that the evidence from the election showed that Labour members “shouldn’t pay too much attention to what those vying for the leadership choose to say right now but should pick whichever of them looks best able to project competence, credibility, and authority.”

It did not help that Corbyn had little support in the PLP.  Yet, his election to the leadership was always predicated on mobilising support that bypassed traditional conduits of power creating a grassroots movement within the framework of a rigid parliamentary democracy.

It was fuelled by the desire to take a clear position on George Osborne’s second round of public spending cuts, described as a rollercoaster by the Institute of Fiscal Studies prior to the 2015 election.

In this the 200, 000 plus strong coalition Corbyn assembled had depth but no real breath of support. There was a profound mistrust in daemons, real and imagined, from a seemingly elastic Blairite past.

There was also a genuine desire to signal what politics ought to be and to make some sort of meaningful social change. All of this underscored the motivation for voting for Corbyn in the summer of 2015. But as Keynes said “when the facts change, I change my mind.” This does not add up to an argument that he should stay on in the summer of 2016.

This was an uneasy tension – much like an elaborate house of cards, it was possible to balance all of the pieces, but required everything around it to stay still. The problem is things have stayed anything but still – the struggle against ISIS became more dangerous,  international economic turmoil is looming and the national explosion of Brexit are destroying the established political order.

There were victories along the way, which could keep to coalition in balance –forced academisation and the tax credit fight – yet the world is crumbling and the left itself needs a not only be ready to fight a general election very quickly, but to rethink almost everything over the past 40 years.

None of this will satisfy those who want Corbyn to stay.  But it’s important to see why Labour is having this internal rebellion in the last 80 odd years only one leader has been removed and the Labour party has often fought on with leaders whom they know are destined to lose. With leadership ratings only slightly better than Michael Foot, internal polling showing anything from 1/4 to 1/3 of Labour’s 2015 general election vote fraying and no signs of sufficient ground being gained in May’s election to guarantee victory; history seems to be repeating itself.

Fred Cowell is Councillor for Thurlow Park Ward, Lambeth 

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9 Responses to “MPs are acting now on Corbyn to escape the cycle of defeat which dominates Labour’s history”

  1. Peter Kenny says:

    Indeed! With an SDP style split if Corbyn wins again.

    Do you really think they’re that interested in winning the next election when they’re so self defeating?

  2. Forlornehope says:

    Corbyn will win and the constituency parties will select a new set of PPCs who reflect the views of the party members. Perhaps Labour will start off with fewer MPs and it may take years or even decades to form a government but that government will be committed to creating a socialist United Kingdom. This is the best chance that the Left has had for a Century. If not now, when?

  3. buttley says:

    here we are on coup day 5, even the kitchen sink brackets have been launched & despite all this, obi jez, remains unmoved, (clears throat, best david coleman voice) “quite remarkable”

  4. madasafish says:

    Sorry but this article is a triumph of hope over reality.

    We have just had a Referendum where the people have voted – amongst other things – to control immigration.

    Corbyn supports unlimited immigration.
    MPs support unlimited immigration.

    And at present Labour are going to go into the next GE supporting unlimited immigration.

    That is hardly going to endear the Party to many voters.

    “Escape the cycle of defeat”..

    Labour are ranked incompetent on the economy. Labour’s current policy: spend more, tax more and borrow more.
    Labour are ranked weak on immigration. Labour’s policy. Unlimited immigration.

    Sound more like “continue the cycle of defeat ” and “ignore what reality tells you.”

    Most supporters and writers are failing to recognise harsh reality..You have a track record of economic failure.

    And your recipe for winning? More of the same.

    Not an original thought amongst you all. You need to reinvent the Party with NEW ideas.

    If this was a business, you would be bankrupt. As it is you are bankrupt – of ideas. Where is the original thought? There is none.

  5. labouring life says:

    While I believe that Jeremy Corbyn is a man of great principle, I do not believe that he has the skills or capacity to effectively lead the opposition in this vital period for the future of our nation. As negotiations begin for our exit from the European Union it has never been more important for the Labour Party to hold the Tories to account and to be positive about our European partners. With Jeremy Corbyn as a leader we are unable to do that and are not on course, or even likely to form the next government.

    Jeremy Corbyn has tried to offer leadership during this difficult period, so thanks for that and the many years of service he has given the Labour movement, and hope that he places the needs of that nation first at this crucial moment.

    If The Labour Party leadership is contested, it won’t just be about persuading the wing of JC’s previous voters who have been alienated by incompetence, sectarianism, failure to make electoral headway and what increasingly looks like the deliberate sabotage of the Labour In (REMAIN) campaign, to switch, but also by recruiting hundreds of thousands of new members and supporters ourselves, so the Labour membership is more representative of the voting public.

    There is a huge constituency of people who have been galvanised by the referendum result and desperately want and need a credible Labour Party – many of them are former party members, former voters and even voters for other parties who wanted to REMAIN as well as Labour people who dropped out in recent years.

    Please reach out to all of your friends and family who share the inclusive Labour values that have been there since its inception, that allow people to work together whatever their race, class, sex, gender, position or affiliation. Use Facebook, Twitter and email as well as personal contact. At the moment the £3 registered supporter scheme is not open (this only happens once a contest has been triggered) so people need to sign-up as full members, which will also give them voting rights in the NEC ballot which opens on 11 July. Please point them towards the party website here:

  6. Mark Livingston says:

    What’s the point of having a Labour party with a Tory at the helm?

  7. Tony says:

    “internal polling showing anything from 1/4 to 1/3 of Labour’s 2015 general election vote fraying”

    What exactly is meant by the term ‘fraying? It seems a very vague term.
    I do not think we have actually seen this ‘internal polling’. Does it even exist?

    It is also difficult to reconcile with Labour’s by election performance and with published opinion polls.

    Oldham West: Labour vote up 7.3%.

    Ogmore: Labour down 0.3%

    Sheffield Hillsborough and Brightside: Labour vote up 5.9%

    Tooting: Labour vote up 8.7% This is a marginal seat and the election was held only two weeks ago!

  8. Ian says:

    Isn’t the flaw in all of this arguing that the Labour MPs are no more in touch with core Labour voters, outside London, than is the current leadership?

    All you are doing is reducing the amount of air time that the deep divisions in the Conservative Party is getting in the media.

  9. John P Reid says:

    Tony the turnout in those by elections was down, maybe in a general election,where Tories think they don’t have a chance the turnout will be down, very unlikely though

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