Anybody who is still confused about how Jeremy Corbyn managed to hold on to the Labour Party leadership should get hold of The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power, in which Alex Nunns explains how Corbyn was able to survive the attempt of his MPs to overthrow him.
This extract is informative because it shows how Mr Corbyn was able to capitalise on recent developments in Labour Party democracy to defeat his ‘New Labour’-based opponents whose expectations were rooted in a past that was no longer relevant:
Corbyn was able to see off the attempted coup of summer 2016 because his sources of power, in the membership, the unions and the movement, were greater than those of his opponents in the PLP, the party bureaucracy and the media. Any conventional politician who had won the leadership by advancing through parliament and the press would have been unable to survive. But Corbyn’s success was achieved in spite of those institutions. He was not playing by Westminster rules. In their bewilderment and exasperation at his refusal to resign, many MPs appeared not to realise this.
The issue at the heart of the coup—and indeed the whole first year of Corbyn’s leadership—concerned where power lay in the Labour Party. Was it with the PLP, as had historically been the case, or was it with the membership? And where did the unions, with the constitutional might to settle the matter one way or the other, stand?
Corbyn’s survival made this clear: power now resided with the membership. Politically, Corbyn was only able to defy the coup because of the legitimacy he took from the members—hence his frequent reminders that he had been given a huge mandate by a greatly expanded party under a one-person-one-vote system.
In contemporary Western societies, at least, individualised, one-person-one-vote democracy commands greater legitimacy than any of its alternatives… on this standard, Corbyn’s credentials were impeccable. Consequently there followed the odd spectacle of the same MPs and commentators venting their outrage at Corbyn for sticking to democratic principles in which they openly professed to believe. They were unable to clearly articulate what he was doing wrong in refusing to resign. All they could charge him with was constitutional impropriety, arguing that it was harmful for the country to not have an opposition in which the MPs were loyal to the leader—a problem for which there was an easy fix entirely in the PLP’s hands.
The extract continues:
Labour’s electoral reforms only took on such significance because of a political divergence between MPs and the members that was already in train before the Collins Review was adopted. In the aftermath of the 2008 crash, the membership had adapted to the new political context. Its shift left under [Ed] Miliband was then greatly accentuated by the influx of new recruits during and after the 2015 leadership contest.
In contrast to the flexible, responsive membership, the parliamentary party was largely a relic from the New Labour era. The stitching up of parliamentary candidate selections over many years had resulted in a PLP that was unhitched from the wider party—exemplified by its decision, sharply at odds with the views of most Labour Party members, to abstain on the Welfare Bill in June 2015.
There was no quick mechanism to alter the composition of the PLP in fast-changing times… Under first-past-the-post, where most constituencies are safe seats, many MPs can have what are effectively jobs for life if their party has no recall process in place, such as mandatory reselection. This creates a lag effect. At any one time the PLP is the product of a bygone age… The particular diligence with which New Labour controlled parliamentary selections meant that, as leader, Corbyn faced a far less politically diverse cohort of MPs than had Labour leaders of old, and certainly one less reflective of the party at large.
And it points out the fallacy of MPs claiming that they had a responsibility to their constituents as a whole that outweighed their responsibility to the party members who had won their seats for them.
There is a further dimension to this conundrum that became apparent during the coup. MPs justified their defiance of the elected leader by emphasising their personal mandates from voters. They had a higher calling than to the party membership, they said, which was to their constituents… [But] candidates’ electoral prospects often depend considerably on the campaigning efforts and resources of their party.
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