by Atul Hatwal
It’s been a difficult day for Labour moderates. The numbers aren’t great– an increased majority for Jeremy Corbyn with a plurality of in each section of the selectorate backing Labour’s incumbent. This is clearly a decent result for Corbyn.
Two challenges must be faced, one in the short term, one in the medium term.
The immediate question will be whether moderate MPs return to serve on the front bench.
There are currently over 60 vacancies and a real danger that Labour will be stripped of the title of official opposition if these roles remain unfilled through to Christmas.
However, things have been said which can’t be unsaid. It’s not credible for people who have been decrying Jeremy Corbyn as a catastrophe for the past months to suddenly say, with straight faces, that this man should be prime minister.
Even if tongues could be temporarily held, the rancour would soon re-emerge in the internal struggles that are imminent as the hard left try to rewrite the party rule-book and tighten their grip on the machine.
The answer for moderate MPs is to make Labour’s Swiss cheese front bench Jeremy Corbyn’s problem.
They should serve while not trimming or changing anything they say. If an MP disagrees with the leader on an important issue, they should make that point publicly. If they don’t believe Jeremy Corbyn is fit to be prime minister without major changes to his approach and policies, they should say so on air.
If this type of candour, which has defined Jeremy Corbyn’s behaviour as an MP since 1983, is unwanted by the leader, he can always relieve them of their front bench duties.
PLP moderates – who, based on the number that voted against Labour’s leader in the motion of no confidence, constitute 80% of the party in the Commons – should unionise. If they collectively agree to serve while being straight with the public about what they believe, it will be down to Jeremy Corbyn whether he wants to sack them all and leave most of the front bench unfilled.
To quote a song title from one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal backers, Billy Bragg: “There is strength in a union.”
However, this can only be a temporary palliative. As long as Jeremy Corbyn remains leader, Labour is on track for electoral annihilation. For the sake of the people of the country who need a Labour government, he needs to be removed. In the medium term, moderates need to learn and internalise the lessons of Owen Smith’s defeat.
Two points are clear: the contest came too early and Smith’s campaign was not as effective as it should have been.
The primary reason Smith lost was that Labour’s members and supporters, who do not spend every waking moment poring over Labour’s latest Westminster disaster, did not feel Jeremy Corbyn had been given long enough to prove himself.
There is a clear trend. The more engaged Labour selectors are with the day to day operation of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the more rapidly they become disillusioned.
Soft left MPs, who wanted to give Corbyn a chance and worked with him at close quarters daily, are now uniform in their despair at his leadership. Media and union supporters, such as Owen Jones and Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, who were enthusiastic backers last year were notably cooler this summer, even if they ultimately voted Corbyn.
Over time, this same understanding of Corbyn’s egregious inadequacies will percolate through to members and supporters. Nine months might be too soon but two years is another matter.
But even accepting that the timing of the challenge was far from ideal, Owen Smith did not help himself.
His gaffes, failure to effectively rebut Corbynista caricatures of him as a Blairite big Pharma lobbyist or give voters a reason to back him with an alternative policy offer, meant he did not maximise the anti-Corbyn vote.
When Corbyn is challenged again, there needs to be a much more developed ground operation within constituencies on day one along with much sharper policy dividing lines.
In July I wrote of how the local level debate, as evidenced by discussion on CLP’s private Facebook groups, was dominated by chatter about Smith’s big Pharma ties with very few members stepping up to defend him.
The absence of local advocates or an alternative narrative meant that Owen Smith was defined in these days and effectively lost what little chance he did have in the campaign, before the end of July.
Had he garnered just 3% more, and held Jeremy Corbyn to below 60%, the story today would be very different. Headlines about Corbyn’s mandate would have been replaced by discussion of how a 5% swing could see him deposed.
That’s the narrow margin, real measure of how much Owen Smith fell short.
There’s much talk about moderates leaving the party. It’s understandable. Politics is a world driven by the minute to minute news cycle. The impetus is to do something, anything. To respond immediately.
But if moderates want a working centre-left opposition, the only vehicle for that task under a first past the post system is Labour. Now is not the time for a knee-jerk reaction.
Patience and clarity of purpose are what’s required at this point.
Patience to wait for the desperate incompetence of Jeremy Corbyn’s operation to be evident to members in the next few years. Clarity of purpose that the next challenge needs greater preparation and organisation to finally remove Corbyn.
Moderates should take a leaf out of Jeremy Corbyn’s book.
In the thirty-two years he was an MP before winning the leadership, he remained doggedly in the party, despite his hard left corner of the party being marginalised and discounted. He didn’t leave to start a new party or join one of the many hard left partylets beyond Labour’s fringe, he stayed to fight for his cause and unexpectedly, ultimately won the leadership.
Moderates need to show a little of the same commitment if we are to get our party back.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut