Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 2 September 2016

Competence and strategic vision

I keep trying not to write stuff about Labour: I think it will be therapy but it just makes me more depressed. But events, dear boy, events.

With Corbyn’s victory now almost certain, both sides (the Corbyn camp and the PLP) have been thinking about what happens next. This piece by Stephen Bush, reporting from inside the Corbyn camp, is very revealing. First, there is an understanding that Corbyn will have to try and bring at least some of the PLP back on board. Here are two direct quotes from the article:
“If we show competence, that will bring some people back onside,” says one senior figure. Another sums up the view: “The reality is that most MPs are not out to get him every day or talking to press. There are 10 or so who are, we could both name them, but there is a winnable middle out there.”

This suggests that there are those within team Corbyn who understand that
  1. What I call the anti-Corbynistas - the far too vocal critics of Corbyn within the PLP - are a small minority. This is a very different picture from that held by some Corbyn supporters among the membership, who like to pretend that most of the PLP was always out to get Corbyn.

  2. That the majority of the PLP are a “winnable middle”. Again, on most issues there is no fundamental policy divide between Corbyn and the PLP.

  3. A major problem, as I have said many times, has been the lack of competence shown by the leadership. Once again, I have been told by many supporters that the countless complaints from MPs about this has been an exaggerated sham. Again, team Corbyn do not see it that way, which is positive (although I wish they would tell their supporters)!
As for the PLP, according to George Eaton they are following up a suggestion made by deputy leader Tom Watson to reinstate PLP elections for the shadow cabinet. It seems to me that, if suitably structured (in particular, allowing Corbyn to keep McDonnell as shadow Chancellor), this proposal could do two very helpful things for Corbyn. It would bring some of the talent among the PLP back to the front line, and it would have the possibility of rebooting Corbyn’s attempts to unite Labour. It would also give MPs something concrete to convince themselves, and tell the media, that things have changed since the vote of no confidence. But
“a Corbyn source dismissed the idea when I recently raised it: "It’s not going to happen, they don’t have the numbers to get it through conference." He added, however, that the election of a "PLP representative" was a possibility.”

It is not just about competence, but it is also about having an imaginative strategic vision. What team Corbyn should be doing now, before conference, is working with Watson to ensure that a compromise version of this idea can be agreed at conference.I am more than willing to be surprised.


  1. «this proposal could do two very helpful things for Corbyn. It would bring some of the talent among the PLP back to the front line,»

    But the original Corbyn shadow cabinet had a wide range of mandelsonian MPs in important positions, chosen by Corbyn himself for the sake of party unity.

    They all dumped on party unity and the party by resigning voluntarily, according to a schedule designed to put the shambles of the conservatives in the background and to inflict maximum damage on their own party's election prospects, all for purely factional interest, as if they were tory trots.

    Is bringing back that kind of talent what is best for an opposition party?

    Corbyn has said that he is willing to forget, but to go beyond that to reward them seems a bit excessive. Even more excessive to adopt "loyal deputy" T Watson's proposal to remove from the party leader the right to choose his shadow cabinet, effectively making him just an irrelevant scapegoat, even if he has the overwhelming support of the membership and the unions, the two constituencies that the PLP wants to get rid of.

    «and it would have the possibility of rebooting Corbyn’s attempts to unite Labour»

    So it is up to Corbyn to unite Labour. What about the majority of the PLP? What is that you propose *they* do to attempt to unite Labour? So far you have proposed that they should remove from the leader they ability to choose his shadow cabinet. Hurrah for party unity! :-(

  2. A reasonable analysis and the MacMillan quote never loses its charm. I remain unconvinced by the call for PLP elections, though. Its just another cynical strategy to diminish the leader, don't you think?

  3. Was wondering if you could provide an opinion on the latest discussions by economists at Jackson Hole.

    Gillian Tett had a piece in the FT today regarding pre financial crisis Jackson Hole and much macroecononmic discussion not focusing on financial markets and its impacts on the real economy. Despite this, and attempts to improve the financial sector over the years, economists at the most recent Jackson Hole did not discuss the possible effects of stretched equity valuations and negative bond yields on the real economy.

    It seems central bankers are desparate to help financial markets, with rates near or at the zero bound, but without factoring the possible long term systemic risks to the financial markets and wider economy.

    Do you think macroeconomic thought today should have a greater and integrated focus on financial markets in addition to the usual macro stats e.g. growth, inflation, unemployment, international trade etc...?

    Great blog as always.

  4. People want Corbyn to show the supposedly missing leadership but want to remove one of the key levers that a party leader and prime minister has?

    Yes, there could be a workable compromise - a proportion of the cabinet being elected with the leader allocating either all or at least the key portfolios sounds at least feasible - but the idea of a prime minister (no smirking at the back) only being able to reshuffle posts rather than sack an incompetent hardly promotes effective leadership.

    1. «a proportion of the cabinet being elected with the leader allocating either all or at least the key portfolios sounds at least feasible»

      The election idea is a bit crazy, whether for all cabinet posts («remove one of the key levers that a party leader and prime minister has») or for a "delegation" to the PLP. Too much risk for provocative elections, like Hilary Benn or Owen Smith replacing John McDonnell and Andy Burnham. Check his recent comment «If Corbyn rejects this idea, it suggests he has no interest in working with the PLP», very cleverly mandarinesque/oxonian.

      Corbyn as we all know is a "unity" candidate, and he has already appointed once a cabinet with most people who were part of New Labour and Blue Labour.

      People keep forgetting that the biggest name of his internal opposition, his rival with the second highest voted for leader, Andy Burnham, who is a hardcore new labour bronite, was appointed his shadow home secretary, is still his shadow home secretary, and has not attacked in any way, even going as far as making on the record comments that look like sharp attacks on the others, like on 2016-06-26:

      «It is for our members to decide who leads our Party & 10 months ago they gave Jeremy Corbyn a resounding mandate. I respect that & them»

      J Corbyn has already said *many times* that he is willing to forget even the personal, nasty, attacks from Owen Smith and many others, for the sake of party unity.

      That means that J Corbyn most likely will *voluntarily* negotiate with the people who disagree with him to get them back into the cabinet. But if he has any sense he will never offer a cabinet position again to some of them. While S Wren-Lewis' proposal would allow the PLP to humiliate him and make him look like a loser by forcing him to take into his cabinet people who have have attacked him in particularly vicious ways, and who would continue to do so, making his position untenable, and nullifying his likely renewed election as leader. It is bad enough that his deputy and the party chairman and the useless leader of scottish labour are attacking him already.

  5. In the present climate that should read!"i am more than willing to be shocked"? but yes from small acorns come big trees!

  6. I was reading the "secret" Labour 2015 post mortem

    One thing that caught my eye was this comment from a women from Nuneaton-
    "Most People knew Ed Miliband wasn't even liked by his own party. How can you trust someone when the party doesn't even trust them? He needs the support of the party behind him to back him up."

    The PLP knew factious, "non-support" was a reason for Miliband looking "weak". And they used that same tactic against Corbyn. Corbyn needs to try and placate the "placatable" in the PLP but I'm afraid the damage is already done.

    Competence is, like electability, something you aren't until you are. It's not a thing. It's an illusion, performative as Chris Dillow said. If he can get people to have his back he is competent. If the PLP refuse to do so it won't matter his policies, performance, work hours, steely eyed determination, or anything. He will be called incompetent.

  7. PLP elections for the shadow cabinet could strengthen Corbyn's team by including experienced Labour MPs who would decline the role if he asked them directly. They might be reluctant to turn down the role if chosen by the PLP. He could badly use a more experienced team.

  8. You really need to wind down this obsession about Labour. The Labour party is finished as an effective political force. A sufficiently large number of voters will elect, eventually, a competent opposition and a government-in-waiting. But it won't be the Labour party.

    Please, please focus on the title of your blog. What you write under that rubric is insightful, interesting and useful. Let Labour implode and put us all out of its misery.

    1. But these posts are all about how long it takes to get back an effective opposition and alternative government. And you do not have to read them!

  9. At a rally I attended on Thursday, John McDonnell made the same points about wanting to reach out to the PLP and a willingness to discuss professionalism, and rejected a strategy of deselection. On economic policy at least, there should be scope for agreement and compromise given the number of times Smith has stated “I agree with Jeremy”, although I’m still sceptical about how much sincerity there is on this from all his backers. But let’s reach out and see.

    On the question of elections to the shadow cabinet, Corbyn has sought from the outset to form a broad-based team. Refusals and resignations have prevented this. So this looks like an attempt to give shadow cabinet members more authority to undermine the leader by claiming their own mandate. It’s not surprising that this will be opposed.

    As well as the minority of wreckers, a major issue in the way of party unity is the bad feeling generated in this campaign by the personalised attacks on Corbyn, the attempt to exclude him from the election, the disenfranchisement of new members, the slanders and slurs Corbyn’s supporters have had to endure, the spurious suspensions of members, and now the apparent ‘loss’ of 103,000 ballots with complaints being met by automated messages. These blatant attempts to rig the election have not helped.

    1. "So this looks like an attempt to give shadow cabinet members more authority to undermine the leader by claiming their own mandate." That sentence makes no sense at all. If Corbyn rejects this idea, it suggests he has no interest in working with the PLP, and McDonnell's words are just for show.

    2. The sentence makes perfect sense. You know quite well that Corbyn reached out in 2015. He will do so again. Ask yourself why this is being proposed.

    3. «If Corbyn rejects this idea, it suggests he has no interest in working with the PLP,»

      But he did appoint a lot of right-wingers to the cabinet before they resigned attacked him relentlessly as unfit to lead the party, including by you.

      What kind of demonstration would you suggest the majority of the PLP should give to show they are prepared to work with the membership, the unions, and the elected leader?

      These arguments remind me of a sarcastic parable here:

    4. Well, it has become clear what the intent of shadow cabinet elections is:
      «Tom Watson ... package of reforms would also restore shadow cabinet elections, stripping further power from the hands of Mr Corbyn.»

      Looks pretty close to «undermine the leader by claiming their own mandate»

  10. At last, an article that shows how we might rebuild a nearly united opposition. If Corbyn and his team did not have to spend the majority of their time fighting off internal opponents then they could start improving their competence and capability in fighting the divided Government.
    And if the full timers in the party machine would turn their attention to organising the base and campaigning externally then we would have a chance of cutting the Conservatives lead. After all Mrs May has done nothing yet except prevaricate and dither over making decisions on Brexit, nuclear power stations, Runways. Her rhetoric about attacking privilege, making life better for women and attacking poverty will prove to be just that.

  11. "What team Corbyn should be doing now ... is working with Watson ..."

    But does Watson want to work with them, considering his attitude so far?

  12. Well played Simon. As a frustrated Corbyn skeptic, this is the first commentary I have read that is genuinely positive and even handed about a Labour future - calming even. (The notion that the PLP would be "allowed" a "representative" however, is extraordinarily condescending.)

  13. The problem, I guess, for some Corbyn supporters with the reintroduction of PLP elections for shadow cabinet members is the action of those 10 or so high profile M.P.s who at strategically key moments openly spoke against Corbyn. The thought of these people being put into the cabinet by M.P#s must fill party members and leader with despair. However, if those so elected could take on the duties and obligations that go with being in the cabinet then, as you state, it could have numerous benefits for the Labour Party. Personally, I think things have gone too far for cool heads and reason to prevail; though, trust and respect must inform reason. Let's hope the silent majority in the Labour Party, including the PLP, can forcefully assert themselves. Even if it's only to get both sides to take a long deep breath before taking any action against their opponents. AS Britain needs a united Labour Party more than at anytime since, say, World War II.

  14. As to competence I found today reading "The end of parliamentary socialism" by Panitch and Leys a delightful quote about the 1983 election campaign:

    «It was related to the general sense, felt very strongly by the Labour new left activists themselves, that the election campaign had shown that there was, as newly elected Labour new left MP, Jeremy Corbyn, put it, "great incompetence in the party machine".»

    Which is and was understandable: in some sreas of Labour vote near-monopoly the party machine atrophied (and often became corrupt), and at the national level the leaders campaigned more through the Murdoch papers read by the "conservatory-building classes" than through the party machine.

  15. There is some "good" news in that only 18% of members said they would quit Labour and join a SDP 2.0 if Corbyn wins this leadership election:

    Of course the question is how many votes and seats they would get.

  16. On the question of whether the majority of the PLP is out to get Corbyn or only a rump of Progress types, I think the evidence can be read both ways. Helen Lewis's flawed but interesting article on Corbyn's support drew attention to two large groups of Labour MPs:

    the “he has to fail in his own time” group; Labour MPs who thought the whole project was doomed from the start but believed that it needed to be given a chance to do so, without its demise being blamed on them
    the “just make it work” faction, to which many of those who agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet belonged

    It's true that both of those groups will have kept quiet and appeared at least superficially loyal until the coup attempt - supporting the 'vociferous minority' reading. But once the coup attempt was under way the terrain shifted. The "let it fail in its own time" group were off the hook as soon as Benn had resigned - the collapse had begun and it wasn't their fault. The position of the "just make it work" group isn't that different; many of them can argue now that Corbyn's leadership can't be made to work - all the more easily now that some significant figures in the party apparatus have put their cards on the table (Watson, Iain McNicol, Conor McGinn in the Whips' office).

    I think at the end of the day a majority of Labour MPs have come out against Corbyn, whether by opposing him openly, by standing by and waiting for him to fail or even by working with him half-heartedly ("just make it work - if it can be made to work, which I doubt"). If he wins a second election his position in the party will be effectively unchallengeable, and those people's attitude is going to have to change. My worry is that, rather than accept this, many will double down and try one more heave to get rid of him. Witness the reports that Tom Watson is manoeuvring against Corbyn. This really has to stop - but I'm afraid they will only stop doing it when they're forced to stop.

  17. "Privately, however, critics of Corbyn say that if they do not succeed in removing him in the current contest, they will attempt to trigger another contest some time next year."

    Toby Helm in the Obs yesterday.


Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.