It’s a critical week for Labour Party moderates.
It’s a critical week for Labour Party moderates. Corbyn’s decision on whether Syria will be a free vote is a key test of Party unity, and his ‘new politics’ is also being put to the test with voters for the first time, at a by-election on Thursday in Oldham West and Royton which is making the Party nervous.
In a notable intervention in the Labour leadership contest back in August, Labour’s “modfather” Alan Johnson reminded us that Jeremy Corbyn had been cheerfully disloyal to every Labour leader he’s ever served under, and that “that’s fine so long as members understand that it’s the loyalty and discipline of the rest of us that created the NHS”. Tracking back in time to the origins of the Party, Johnson pointed out that attaining power and winning elections was always at the heart of the Labour movement.
This refrain has become widely repeated in recent weeks by moderates in the Party concerned that Corbyn’s politics will not have resonance with the wider electorate when it comes to elections. Although there has been a big influx of new members over recent months, inspired by Corbyn’s “honest, straight-talking” politics and effective leadership campaign, the Labour Party is still a broad church and moderates remain very influential.
For a start moderates are still being selected. Council leader Jim McMahon has been selected in Oldham, a reflection of his credibility in the local party, but also a reminder that despite the influx of new members local parties have not unanimously shifted to the left. In a constituency where UKIP came second in May, this is perhaps unsurprising, and it’s a fact that is reinforced by recent votes across the country for regional boards and key constituency level positions. In marginal seats, many local parties remain acutely conscious of the need for a broad appeal to voters. Moderate trade unionists will also be alarmed at the prospect of potentially a decade of Conservative government if Labour should lose in 2020. The pressure to have a winning platform will mount for Corbyn with the important elections coming up in 2016 in the devolved administrations and London, and Osborne’s sweeteners in the Autumn Statement last week for some of those key electoral battlegrounds puts Labour under pressure to be thinking ahead to May.
The Parliamentary Party is by and large not made up of Corbynistas and moderates have also claimed almost all of the chairs of key backbench PLP committees, which are intended for the backbenches to hold frontbenchers to account. Although Corbyn has a huge 60% mandate from the party membership, when it comes to being a functioning opposition the support of the PLP clearly remains essential, not least because in theory 20% of the PLP can form a leadership challenge.
Though Corbyn’s legitimate and large mandate makes a challenge out of the question, it is hard to see how he can assemble a credible and stable leadership programme unless he ensures some degree of compromise with moderates – especially since his frontbench comprises of people like Hilary Benn, Seema Malhotra and Maria Eagle who have already demonstrated influence in policy. This makes it all the more extraordinary that Corbyn is suggesting there will not be a free vote on Syrian intervention. Faced with mass resignations from a shadow cabinet that, by all accounts, was difficult to assemble in the first place, and his own background as a serial rebel, Corbyn may have to show lenience with MPs breaking the Party whip if he does proceed.
Moderates still comprise a large percentage of the party membership and many are experienced members who know how the Party works and are leaning in to ensure their voices are still represented in the debate. Their organisation and understanding of the party machinery will mean that they cannot be sidelined or ignored. Corbyn also has a very slim majority on the Party’s governing body the National Executive Committee, but it isn’t compelling enough to mean he can be complacent. Moderates are also keen in many places to engage new and enthusiastic members with their views.
Many are now already focused on securing delegates for next year’s party conference where important votes are likely to take place which might dictate future Party politics.
This week is likely to be a memorable one, and could set the tone for the remainder of Corbyn’s leadership.