When he first emerged as a candidate and then potential Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn was confronted by his record as a ‘serial rebel’ and the likelihood that he would not be able to depend on the support, in parliament, of Labour MPs. Over the years, Corbyn has many times defied the party whip; and Labour MPs have been quoted as saying they will offer Corbyn the same loyalty as he offered his predecessors. In August, the Telegraph played up the possibility of a coup against Corbyn, an argument resting on the assumption that a majority of Labour MPs (described, for the benefit of Telegraph readers, as ‘moderates’) would heroically resist the ‘hard left’ leader, and might do so on principle. In recent weeks there has been open disagreement over Trident and the bombing of Syria, and now a number of abstentions in Wednesday’s fiscal charter vote, the first time under Corbyn’s leadership that party discipline has been tested in parliament. So it might be asked, given the tendency of the media to exaggerate and often create anti-Corbyn stories out of the unlikeliest material, is this ‘rebellion’ a significant challenge to Corbyn’s leadership? If so, how does it compare to Corbyn’s own past record of disloyalty? Further, can rebels, indeed, be accused of the kind of opportunism that might undermine any talk of principle?
To begin, of course, one might question the gravity of abstention on this occasion. Does it even matter? The vote on the welfare bill in July saw a larger rebellion as more Labour MPs refused to abstain, as requested by acting leader Harriet Harman. Is it more acceptable for left-wing MPs to vote on principle? Did those rebels (including Corbyn; and Andy Burnham later said his own leadership bid suffered because of a failure to vote against the bill) damage the party more or less than have this week’s right-wing rebels?
Such votes, of course, have little or nothing to do with legislation being passed or not passed; that the government would have lost the vote for either welfare bill or fiscal charter is an unlikely proposition. N such occasions, voting is for show; and a ‘debate’, for want of a better term, gives MPs an opportunity to make speeches that might or might not be worth listening to, speeches that will establish a position but might have no other consequence. When, for example, in July, John McDonnell said he ‘would swim through vomit’ to oppose the welfare bill he was offering a coherent alternative to the politics of austerity his party leadership had signed up to; he challenged the view that Labour should compete with the Conservatives for the mantle of most effective manager of a particular kind of state, one where welfare spending will be cut repeatedly. One might, indeed, point out that the role of any opposition is to provide an alternative to government arguments. Harman said Labour, having lost the election, had limited scope to oppose welfare cuts; that is, Labour had lost the argument and therefore any capacity to promote alternative policies. It is worth spelling this out, given that McDonnell might now be accused of a U-turn in the fiscal charter vote, having previously said Labour should vote in favour. Throughout, his strategy as shadow chancellor has been to find the most effective way of opposing the government, not surrender the duty to do so. If one considers the U-turn clumsy politics, that is about as far as it goes. Yes, George Osborne was able to use his speech to mock McDonnell and distract attention from his own failures; and media coverage has gratefully followed suit. In the event, few speeches from the Conservative benches were worth the effort expended in making them; and it was even comical, as McDonnell himself indicated (‘if she could just keep up it would be really helpful’) that Conservative MPs attempted to ingratiate themselves with their own leadership by wasting time to ask a question that had already been answered. Attacking McDonnell before the television cameras was more important than seriously debating the issues involved. This might be thought a damaging episode, then, if it means the arguments against the fiscal charter are now more likely to be ignored; and this must become the context for Labour abstentions on Wednesday. If it contributes to media constructions of a supposed ‘fucking shambles’ or Corbyn’s ‘failed’ leadership, does such behaviour become damaging to the party and its long-term prospects?
As is well known, Corbyn’s appearance on the leadership ballot was unexpected; no one might reasonably argue that his game-plan for 30-odd years has been to establish a reputation that would, eventually, underpin a cunning leadership bid. It is very difficult to argue that, at any time, the Labour leadership (in government or in opposition) has been threatened, let alone seriously, by Corbyn’s opposition. Corbyn (the same might be said for McDonnell) has never, in the past, come anywhere near a front bench role. However, by way of contrast, it might then be argued that right-wing rebels are fully aware that their interventions have a quite different meaning. If the proclaimed ‘new politics’ means a different, less dictatorial kind of leadership, MPs (and other party members) surely have a duty to act responsibly with regard to the likely consequences of their actions. For example, if this minister does exist, and isn’t simply a figment of the Telegraph‘s fervent imagination, it would be difficult to justify their behaviour as, in any way, principled. In short, time and again, the disaffected Labour right, those for whom Corbyn’s election has been an affront to their sense of entitlement, have thrown their toys out of the pram and responded with spite, their actions designed quite openly to damage Labour. To then try to dress up an intervention as, somehow, principled, rather than crudely opportunist, is unconvincing.
And so to the cry of the playground (‘Well, you’ve done it, so I can as well’) as a defence. The young child will say this when they feel that another child’s actions give them automatic carte blanche; given what is known about cognitive development, this (somewhat limited) perspective on fair play should not be considered surprising for the six- or seven-year-old. Of course, older children will use the same argument as well, even when they are thought capable of a more nuanced response; although any definition of adult responsibility would certainly have to include appreciation that circumstances matter. Fast forward to the court of law: the adult defendant whose case rests on the same kind of argument (‘Well, I’m not the only one …’), without any evidence offered by way of mitigation, can hardly complain when they hear a guilty verdict. The child might be outraged that they have been found guilty; the adult (whatever they might say) should expect nothing else. One can go further, and consider the role played by principled action, and the person who says: I know I have done wrong, and expect to be punished, but I am drawing attention to what I think is right. This might be because an unjust law has to be exposed as unjust: Durkheim and Foucault, radically different in their thinking, would broadly agree that the law is the consequence of discussion, rather than preceding it. Unpopular laws are opposed; the ensuing debate gives the community an opportunity to reach some kind of consensus (although Durkheim and Foucault would have different takes on the notion of consensus, of course). One must then, bringing this analogy back to where it began, ask if the behaviour of disaffected Labour right-wingers can be regarded as principled or self-serving and opportunist. It can be agreed that there is currently a discussion, in and out of the Labour party, as to the nature of party discipline and principled action. Corbyn, as an unknown backbencher, opposed his party leadership, and acted on principle, not expecting that he would benefit from his actions. He went off and wrote an article for the Morning Star. Right-wing Labour MPs and other ‘senior party figures’ now seek to undermine his leadership and therefore the party as a whole, when they know full well the consequences of quotation, on or off the record to the Mail or Telegraph, or the signed article in the Guardian. It is difficult to see how these various behaviours can be seen as comparable.