Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 18 March 2017

Labour MPs are keeping Corbyn in power

If the title seems weird, remember that Corbyn only got onto the ballot in 2015 because some MPs felt it would be good for Labour party democracy if the left was represented. The current rule is that 15% of MPs and MEPs have to nominate you if you want to stand as Labour leader. That rule can preclude anyone from the left getting onto the ballot given the current composition of MPs and MEPs. Corbyn’s team want to turn 15% into 5%, but the great majority of MPs will do what they can to stop that happening.

It is this that is keeping Corbyn in power. A majority of Labour party members want to be able to vote for someone from the left in any future leadership election. If the 15% stands, that seems almost impossible. These members therefore want him to stay in power for as long as it takes to change the 15% rule. But Labour MPs have no intention of giving way on this, because they believe that if the rule is changed the left will have a stranglehold on the leadership, given the current composition and views of members. That is how Labour MPs are keeping Corbyn in power.

Corbyn’s popularity among the membership has changed significantly since the 2016 election. Then he won easily. Since then his popularity has decreased substantially, in part because of his poor handling of Brexit and also because it has become more difficult to claim that his unpopularity in the polls is due to Labour disunity. But MPs will not put up a challenger, because they suspect the challenger will fail. It will fail because by voting for someone who supports the 15% rule members believe they will be voting for their own disenfranchisement. This has become a power struggle between MPs and members, and Corbyn is becoming just a pawn in this game.

If that seems fanciful to you, just consider what happened last time round. In an emotional response to the referendum defeat, MPs passed a vote of no confidence in Corbyn. It was a challenge that was far too soon, giving the impression among members that Corbyn was only doing badly because Labour MPs were out to get him. The challenger that MPs chose for the subsequent election contest, Owen Smith, adopted virtually the same policy proposals as Corbyn/McDonnell, but crucially did not back changing the 15% rule. As a result, the members understandably responded by saying if you do not trust us, we do not trust you.

Owen Jones has called for a deal whereby Corbyn would step aside in return for someone from the left being on the ballot to replace him, but I cannot see MPs agreeing to that. Their strategy is to exhaust Corbyn and the membership, and preserve the 15% rule at all cost.

This is not so much a battle about policies as a battle about power. MPs intend to win it by keeping the 15% rule, and waiting for Corbyn to go through sheer exhaustion, or waiting for members to give up and hand power back to MPs. Labour members hope Corbyn can hang on long enough to change the 15% rule. Events like Brexit, Scottish independence and a general election just pass by, only mattering if they have implications for who achieves final victory in this war.

Now many in the political commentariat will assume that of course Labour members cannot be trusted, and so the strategy of Labour MPs is correct. Their pleas for Corbyn to ‘for pity’s sake go’ are just for show. But if that is also your view, consider two points.

The first point concerns MPs. The current decline of the Labour party as an effective opposition did not begin with Jeremy Corbyn. It began, as Larry Elliott clearly delineates, with the global financial crisis that happened on Labour’s watch. The unforced errors began when Ed Miliband, and the team around him, made the fatal mistake of not challenging the Tory narrative about the previous Labour government. That mistake meant that Labour was blamed for austerity, Labour were not trusted with the economy, and Miliband’s poll ratings just got steadily worse, even though many voters were experiencing an unprecedented decline in real earnings.

It was MPs reaction to the 2015 defeat, and a general belief among many of them that Labour had to move further to the right, which ensured a victory for the left in the subsequent leadership elections. Corbyn and McDonnell tried to create an opposition of all the talents (or at least those that were willing) and reach a consensus on policy. But at each turn they were met by a small group of MPs that constantly briefed against them, and other MPs that did nothing to stop this. Anyone with a clear head could see this strategy by rebel MPs was totally unproductive: Corbyn had to be seen to fail on his own account.

The most recent misjudgement by MPs was over Brexit. Again Corbyn gets all the attention, but it was the majority of MPs that decided they should focus on the challenge from UKIP and vote to give May total authority over the negotiations. I think this misjudgement epitomised almost a decade of bad decisions all of which involved an element of appeasement. John Curtice has explained why, with most Labour voters choosing Remain, voting through Article 50 was a very odd decision. As I’ve argued here, the referendum placed no obligation on MPs to vote to allow May to choose a Hard Brexit. If you are unconvinced about this, imagine the referendum had been to do nothing about climate change. Would MPs have been obliged in that case to follow the ‘will of the people’? Would it have been right to ignore a clear consensus among experts that their implementation of the vote would be disastrous? The actual EU referendum has the same ingredients as this imaginary case.

The second point is about membership. There is one clear Labour achievement since 2015, a huge increase in membership which numbers more than all the other parties combined. Is it really healthy that this should be regarded by most MPs as a problem? Arguments that half a million people are either Trots or under the influence of Trots are nonsense. Although it was Corbyn who inspired the increase in membership, it was not the left that wrote the rules that allowed the leader to be chosen by the membership alone. Having tried to make the leadership election more democratic, it is not plausible to then turn round and say you got the wrong half million.

There is a legitimate concern in allowing members to have almost complete control over which MP they choose as leader. It is not that they will choose a leader who is too left wing, but instead that they will underrate the importance of being able to win general elections, or at least not fully appreciate what it takes to win these elections. To this I would add that the membership may be insufficiently ruthless in getting rid of a leader who is failing to win, particularly when this failure is often very unfair (given our media, for example). But with questions like this we have also to ask whether MPs would be much better at judging success and punishing failure, and the experience with Miliband plus the constant attempts to appease the right suggest not. [1]

Elliott describes how many of the policies that Labour currently put forward - Brexit aside - are broadly popular when tested with the public. However if you attach the name Labour to these proposals, their popularity decreases sharply. Those who say Labour have become unpopular because they have ‘moved too far to the left’ misunderstand what is going on, or have more questionable motives. Elliot describes it as Labour becoming a toxic brand. Corbyn is part of that, but only part. The record indicates MPs are also responsible for the current mess.

As John Curtice explains, the question is not will the brand survive, but how and when it will recover. I can see two ways forward. The first way is for MPs to trust their membership, change the voting rules, and allow Corbyn to resign sooner rather than later. If he does not resign, the left has to bring forward a challenger. With good judgement, the new leader can lead from the left but with policies that the broad church that is Labour can live with, combined with a strategy for convincing the electorate that would make Owen Jones happy. The second way is that MPs keep the 15% rule, wait for Corbyn and the membership to give up exhausted, and then hope for a Macron type figure to emerge from among their number. The key question is which of those two do you think is more likely to give us a plausible candidate for Prime Minister?

[1] The Conservative Party shows that members can learn. They chose Cameron not because they wanted to modernise, or be green, or hug hoodies, but because (after 2 defeats) they realised the party needed to bury the image of the nasty party and they saw in Cameron a person who could achieve that.


  1. The problem with using We Miliband as an example of MPs being a poor judge of failure and insufficienly ruthless, is that under Ed it looked like we would win.

    1. It was also the members that preferred Miliband and the PLP that preferred his brother. There's certainly no evidence to suggest the membership's judgement of candidates' electability is any better than the PLP's, and an abundance to suggest it's worse, particularly given its current composition and reasons for joining.

      Similarly, the comparisons with the Conservative Party membership "learning" that a voter-friendly choice like Cameron might be an idea after a couple of defeats also ignores the fact that the Conservative party membership at the time consisted largely of longstanding party members, and not largely of people who had joined specifically to change the party's political direction like the Labour party (some of whom had joined more because of their *objections* to previous Labour governments than their identification with them). And even without that unusual context, conservatives are perhaps somewhat more likely to choose the pragmatic "won't let the other party do stuff I don't like" candidate over the ideologically pure "reflects my values" candidate than the political left.

      Besides which, even if Labour MPs' electoral judgement is worse than useless, it's still true that anyone who lacks the persuasion skills or shared values to persuade 6% of the PLP to agree they at least deserve to be on the ballot paper is going to prove to be astonishingly bad at leading them.

  2. The agenda of Corbyn, McDonnell, Fisher, Milne, Lansman etc is, and has always been, to transform the Labour movement. It is nothing whatsoever to do with winning a general election. On there own terms they have been tremendously successful. The evidence for this is overwhelming.

    I think you are in denial about this because of your personal role in providing them with cover.

    Under this agenda, the current policies of Labour are irrelevant. The 15% rule is vitally important.

    Labour MPs cannot allow the amendment of the 15% rule. If they do, the actual fight is lost.

    As for

    "The unforced errors began when Ed Miliband, and the team around him, made the fatal mistake of not challenging the Tory narrative about the previous Labour government."

    Yes they did. Labour speakers said over and over again that the deficit was caused by the global financial crisis, And, to be fair, the failure of bank regulation did happen under Labour (though there is no evidence that any alternative Tory policy would have been any better, there is a moral difference between someone who punches you on the nose and another person who would have done if the first had not.)

  3. I'm sure I won't be the only one to say this, but: Labour MPs (and the Labour Party apparat) are keeping Corbyn in office, while systematically denying him the opportunity to exercise power. It's the worst of both worlds, and it's their doing. Sadly I'm not at all convinced that another, more personable but equally Left-wing, leader would be enough to break the stalemate.

  4. I've disagreed with you in the past about LP politics but, while I might quibble with a few details, this is actually pretty good.

  5. If you look at Cameron's win in 2010, he achieved that through no political change of the Tory Party at all; rather he took advantage of Labour's neoliberal leadership not being prepared to launch an attack on the financial industry (and its funding of the Tory Party) which had caused the 2008 crisis.

    As such, the 2010 election was the turning point which did not turn; instead of getting rid of neoliberalism the country voted for a Con-Lib pact that ended up enacting Tory state-shrinking policies under the veil of a bogus government debt crisis.

  6. The answer to your final question, is the second way. Someone unencumbered by tribal history/loyalties, and who the electorate can envisage as PM is the only possible solution. As you say, the Labour brand has been allowed to be tainted, and any leader emerging from the so-called Left would find it hard, fairly or unfairly, not to be considered part of that brand. Labour cannot risk this.
    I agree with a lot of what you say here, but it is a mistake to speak of 'the membership' as though we are a homogeneous group. Corbyn has only ever had the support of just over 50% of the membership, and it has been reported in many places that an awful lot of the new members are quite happy to click and tweet in support of someone they see - as John McD put it - as a once in a lifetime chance for socialism, but do not put much real energy into working for Labour's success in parliamentary terms. This section of the membershop would quite likely fade away is Corbyn were not leader. One can set too much store by the numerical size of the Party. The myth that it is 'the members' against the PLP has been allowed to continue unchallenged for too long.

    1. The supposed inactivity of the new recruits really is a canard. To make it stand up you'd have to show, not that X% of post-2015 members are inactive, but that X is greater than Y, where Y% is the inactive proportion of the pre-2015 membership. My local party (in Manchester) has had to change meeting rooms twice to accommodate the numbers who come to routine monthly meetings; when I went canvassing in Stoke I shared a route with people who'd come up from Middlesex and Bristol, most of whom were either new or returning members. The new membership's support for Corbyn - or somebody else doing what Corbyn set out to do - is solid, and I can't see it changing any time soon.

    2. Though in Richmond Park the Labour candidate got just 1,200 votes, less than the 1,500 members they had in the constituency. That would suggest to me that Labour's members and supporters in Richmond Park are less than enthusiastic about the current leadership.

  7. The membership will not give up exhausted and by 2020 they will have gained experience of political activism. That isn't necessarily a good thing for any leader: the membership is learning things for itself and will not be bossed. In some branches and constituencies it is practically a different party.

  8. excellent and thoughtful analysis!

  9. Who though might be a suitable replacement for Corbyn? I was a fan of Lisa Nandy when she was in Corbyn's Cabinet on Energy policy but I wouldn't trust her to choose a Chancellor who'd have the policy stance of John McDonnell and that is vital IMO. I'm impressed by Angela Rayner but it isn't obvious to me that she would face less of a headwind than Corbyn. A lot of it depends on the MPs having a leader THEY support though. That makes me wary of moving from the 15% to a 5% rule. Perhaps we need a leader selected mainly by the MPs but also be much more brutal about deselecting MPs who don't represent the membership's politics.

  10. You're forgetting that on Article 50 the government has an in-built majority. It wouldn't have mattered if all of the PLP voted against it, it was still going to go through because none of the Remainers on the government side - bar Ken Clarke - had the moral courage to vote against it or amend it.

    Labour's position is stronger than you think. When it comes to the negotiations and terms of Brexit, the government will have to come back to the House with its "deal". When it does, all Labour need to do is vote against the terms reached by May. Assuming she does what she says and opts to leave the single market and the customs union, this won't be difficult as WTO is the worst of all possible worlds. At this stage some on the government benches might view being in the WTO wilderness as a price too high. It would, however, put Labour in a good position because ratifying a deal which is demonstrably bad for the country doesn't make any economic or political sense (it never did). The government, on the other hand, will have sealed its own fate and have the track record to prove it (a ref. on a simple majority with undeliverable or pernicious implications; attempting to undermine the sovereignty of Parliament; no amendments to the legislation; and opting for WTO not for sound economic reasons but in order to placate it own members and stymie UKIP). This bodes ill for the Tories. Who wants to go down in history as the party or leader who destroyed the Union, took Britain out of its largest market and impoverished the place to-boot. This story isn't played out by any means.

    As for the opinion polls, forget 'em. By 2020, the whole scene will be markedly different from now.

  11. Agree with most of this. Disagree about:-

    a) Impact of Labour MP's disunity- there's no way of proving the impact but I believe the relationship between the disloyal MP's and the anti-Corbyn elements has a terrible synergy that's underestimated.
    b) I believe Corbyn was right to respect the result of the referendum.

  12. Endtime for soap box economists
    Comment on Simon Wren-Lewis on ‘Labour MPs are keeping Corbyn in power’

    Most people have no proper understanding of what economics is all about. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to distinguish between political and theoretical economics. The main differences are: (i) The goal of political economics is to successfully push an agenda, the goal of theoretical economics is to successfully explain how the actual economy works. (ii) In political economics anything goes; in theoretical economics the scientific standards of material and formal consistency are observed.

    Theoretical economics has to be judged according to the criteria true/false and NOTHING else. A closer look at the history of economic thought shows that theoretical economics had been hijacked from the very beginning by the agenda pushers of political economics. Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, Marx, Keynes, Hayek, Friedman, Krugman, Lucas, Wren-Lewis and almost everybody in-between falls into the category of political economist or fake scientist.

    Political economics has produced NOTHING of scientific value in the last 200+ years. The four main approaches ― Walrasianism, Keynesianism, Marxianism, Austrianism ― are mutually contradictory, axiomatically false, materially/formally inconsistent, and all got the pivotal concept of the subject matter, i.e. profit, wrong. Economics is a failed science.

    Economists cannot be taken seriously with regard to their own subject matter, much less so with regard to politics. From economists knowledge about how the market system works is expected and NOT a journalistic opinion piece about Trump or Corbyn or May or the internal problems of the Labour Party or the GOP or whatever the current political issue may be.

    It is NOT decisive what the political agenda is, ALL of political economics is what Feynman called cargo cult science or what we call today fake science. In order that economics finally become a science, soap box economists have to be thrown out.

    Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

  13. Although I didn't agree with everything, I thought there was an awful lot of sense in this - even if my answer to the last question is probably different to the author's! One quite important thing wrong, though, and (sorry to be such a typical academic) it's with the footnote. Tories realised they had to mount a convincing claim to have changed after three defeats - 97, 2001 and 2005 - not two. How many defeats parties need (and whether defeat is a sufficient and/or necessary condition) for such realisation is of course a bit of an obsession of mine!

  14. It all comes down to how important to the Labour Party you think parliament is. For Corbyn I think "not very". The 15% rule is there to ensure a degree of support from within the parliamentary party, which should be a paramount element of the job description, especially given Clause 1 of the party constitution that Labour exists as a representative body in our democratic institutions. Changing to 5% also gets the left off the hook from having to do the hard yards of changing the composition of the PLP.

  15. 1. Labour MPs and Article 50. I argued in an earlier comment on one of your posts for precisely what has happened. I am (still) a remainer. Whatever Labour supporters feel, the country has decided to leave. Our next best option therefore is to negotiate the best deal we can with the EU. And in my view, and I suspect in that of more than a few Labour MPs, giving Theresa May an unencumbered mandate to negotiate, and making it clear that if the EU produces an unacceptable deal, then hard Brexit is the only option, gives her and us the best chance of getting a good deal. Had there been any evidence of havering in Parliament, the EU would rightly have seen that as a sign of weakness, and even of the possibility that we would change our mind.
    2. Re/de/Selection of Labour MPs. I voted twice for Corbyn, am a supporter of Momentum, not a Trot, and was disgusted by the response of Labour MPs to Corbyn's election. Many Labour MPs claimed that they had a better mandate than Corbyn, because they represented their electorate and constituencies, not the mad lefty activists who joined the party and voted for Corbyn. I doubt many MPs of any stripe really have a personal mandate, they are in Parliament mostly because of the party they represent. I think Labour MPs should be challenged, but in open primaries, not merely by the membership.

  16. I am now well over seventy and so far as I can see the financial proposals are very similar to the ones that were very successful after WW2 and gaveus stability and prosperity that tha Tory party has abused and wasted.


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