How are anti-Corbyn Labour MPs going to spend their time now?

Most Labour MPs realise they can’t stage a coup and so can’t even spend their time plotting

Isabel Hardman
Thursday 07 January 2016 19:36
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Jeremy Corbyn’s reshuffle is allegedly finally over, bringing to an end the longest and least eventful week in politics in a long time. More people sacked themselves (possibly out of boredom) than were purged by the Labour leader, and yet somehow he seems to have become even more powerful than before, with just a couple of changes to his Shadow Cabinet.

By sacking Michael Dugher and Pat McFadden and reaching an “agreement” with Hilary Benn about differences of opinion on foreign policy, Corbyn has told his frontbenchers that – like a normal political leader – he doesn’t tolerate open dissent. By appointing the anti-Trident Emily Thornberry as shadow Defence Secretary, he has told his party that he is going to pursue policy positions that he believes in, even if it upsets other MPs.

It must be miserable being a Labour shadow cabinet member who still disagrees with Corbyn but thinks staying in will somehow help the party. A number I spoke to this week who had kept their jobs are still threatening to resign if the leader does change party policy on Trident. One says: “I haven’t caused any trouble. But if [Corbyn] breaks the assurance he made to me about Trident, then I’m out.” Otherwise, they’ll just continue to plod along, hoping they’re holding Labour together for the long-term, and scrutinising the Government in the short term.

Being sacked isn’t quite as miserable for Dugher and McFadden, as they can at least say whatever they want to. But they join a group of backbenchers, previously in senior roles, who are still trying to work out what on earth to do with themselves.

Most Labour MPs have decided that they can’t stage a coup against their new leader, and so can’t even fill their free time with plotting. And the lack of opportunity for a coup means these disconsolate backbenchers know they may have years of not serving on a credible opposition frontbench ahead of them. They are stuck.

So what can underemployed Labour backbenchers do with themselves so that they don’t explode with fury and boredom? A number spent the autumn considering this, and have decided that campaigning for Britain to stay in the EU is better than spending too much time on their own party.

Others, fearful that Labour is neglecting its role as the official opposition, are acting like frontbenchers, but just a few seats back. Caroline Flint, Chris Leslie and Yvette Cooper are constantly bobbing up and down in the Commons, trying to catch the Speaker’s eye so that they can ask ministers questions. It’s not just the novelty of seeing these three on the back benches that is striking, but also the way their questions invariably focus on scrutinising policy details rather than their own constituency issues, and the amount of time that they choose to spend in the Chamber.

Others are editing pamphlets about Labour’s future, or even looking forward to spending unexpected extra time with their families for a few years. Some have a nice-sounding theory that the best way to spend the next few years is to take their new members out on the doorstep as often as possible to show them how different most voters are to the Labour membership, and how difficult it will be to sell Corbyn’s Labour to this electorate.

This is time-consuming, and may ultimately be pointless if, as in the 2015 general election, many of those members are left mistakenly thinking that the voters love them and everything is going to be hunky dory. What might be more productive would be trying to convince moderate members that no matter how hard those around Corbyn push them, they shouldn’t rip up their membership cards and leave the party, because this just makes it easier for Corbyn and his cronies to stay in power for longer and to make their ideas official Labour policy.

Then there are the MPs who are trying to stop the Corbynites seizing control of every part of the Labour machinery. This is one reason for staying in the Shadow Cabinet, as at least MPs can try to reason with Corbyn in private: and Corbyn himself is not a particularly dogged fighter.

He doesn’t really like confrontation, and it is his aides who tend to push things. But the Shadow Cabinet isn’t the only powerful forum in the party. Indeed, it is far less powerful after this week. Other committees, such as the National Executive Committee, which is currently balanced between “moderates” and Corbynites, are much more important. The old-right faction Labour First is the most active grassroots group that is trying to defend the party from what it sees as a hard-left takeover, and is running a slate of candidates for the NEC.

Labour First also has strong links to Labour’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson, and is the most likely site of any effective uprising against Corbyn. For now, most of its actions against the left are defensive – merely stopping takeovers rather than advancing against the Corbynites. But if Watson, whose wings have been seriously clipped this week with the sacking of Dugher, a key ally, decides to serve up his own very cold dish of revenge at some point, then he can rely on Labour First to go on the offensive in his aid.

For Watson and many colleagues, the discomfort of Labour’s current chaos will continue for a good long while. And that’s why many are settling into other activities, knowing that while a week may be a long time in politics, longest of all is the reign of a leader you can’t budge.

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