Labour’s No Confidence Vote is a Perfect Example of How Not to Do A Coup
It's confidence trick gone wrong and Jeremy Corbyn has called the rebel's bluff.
Surely the Labour leader is finally going to take the hint? 81 percent of Labour MPs have no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn to lead the Labour Party, according to a vote held on Tuesday. Perhaps now, at long last, he will take his irritating decency and kindness – virtues wholly unsuited to his role – and get back to the allotment?
And yet, Corbyn shrugs. His team, with a practiced and weary air, rattle off all the reasons why he won't be going anywhere. It's almost as if they'd been expecting this scenario for months. This vote has no constitutional legitimacy, they point out – a mere fishing expedition. It's an attempt to galvanise a situation without doing the one thing that actually has a binding status under Labour Party rules – trigger a leadership election. What are these MPs worried about?
Amazingly enough, there does indeed appear to be a reticence buried in all the cathartic raging coming from the back benches. That's because even though they have had some time to plan this coup, and it was no secret that it was coming, they lack a basic strategy.
Tactically, the putsch was carried off expertly. The staggered series of resignations, leaks, letters, and carefully calibrated statements, ensured that there was such a crescendo of chaos and condemnation that any other leader would be gone by now. These moves are all taken from the Tom Watson script, which worked to devastating effect against Tony Blair.
Nevertheless, in so many of the resignation letters, there was also a carefully pitched plea for Corbyn to "do the decent thing" and go. His refusal to comply, to the amusing exasperation of journalists and politicos alike, seems to have called their bluff. They seem to have no plan for the next steps. While those resigning claimed that Corbyn had "lost the confidence of the party," they seem determined not to test that in a leadership contest. And despite all the planning, there is no agreed alternative candidate should there be a new election. Both Tom Watson and Angela Eagle, the reputed ring-leaders of the coup, are being built up in briefings to the press as likely candidates. But so are Yvette Cooper and Lisa Nandy. Owen Smith – shadow work and pensions secretary until he quit – had already signalled his leadership ambitions while still in his job. So, when someone does finally trigger a leadership election, we could end up with a repeat of the situation in 2015, in which the anti-Corbyn wing of the party couldn't agree on a single candidate.
But their problems go deeper than that. Thus far, the critique of Corbyn is strikingly vapid. It is a meaningless and self-cancelling complaint to say that Corbyn can't unite the parliamentary party around him. All these MPs have to do is accept the mandate of the party membership, work with the elected leadership, and the complaint disappears. But that complaint is the entire substance of most of the resignation letters.
In fairness, Chris Bryant goes further. He blames Corbyn for defeat in the European Union referendum on the basis that he articulated the critical Remain stance that he was elected to lead the party on. The inadequacy of this critique and was underlined by Bryant's extraordinary resort to rumour-mongering, claiming to have evidence that Corbyn "secretly" voted to Leave – no doubt while twirling his moustache and cackling about the "fools".
There has also been no indication of any plausible alternative. There has been little discussion of actual policy. As in the 2015 leadership election, one senses that they would like to be able to oppose Corbyn on such fundamentals as his anti-austerity stance, but are perfectly well aware that their own position of "austerity lite" is not a winner. There are some signals from the Labour Right that yet another sop to anti-immigration politics is called for, but this hardly amounts to a coherent solution either for Labour's dilemmas, or for the coming economic and social crises. All it will do is cultivate ideological terrain for the far right, who will duly seize it when their time comes.
Even on the terrain in which they should have the greatest advantage, public opinion, it is not clear that they are winning: a Times poll of Labour voters suggests that 54 percent want Corbyn to stay, as opposed to 35 percent who want him to resign. Of course, this is just a snapshot of opinion in an incredibly volatile situation. But all the advantages in shaping opinion have been on the side of opposition. It is the Hillary Benns and Angela Eagles who have cultivated the best relations with political editors, and it is they who have been best able to pose as anonymous "top-level sources," fuelling hundreds of sabotage stories throughout the last ten months. And yet, they may have miscalculated, and that there is a backlash against such an obviously orchestrated crisis.
No wonder the Guardian now reports that Watson is holding back, hoping to hold out until the unlikely event that Corbyn resigns on his own account. The phrase "cold feet" was invented for moments like this. Because if they do trigger a leadership election, they face difficult questions. Why pick now, when the Conservatives are in crisis and a snap election is looming, to force the issue of the leadership? Why, when a racist backlash and economic disaster threatens Labour's constituents, make the party toothless? And why should anyone vote for the people who brought the party to its knees, with no ideas as to how to fix it?
Richard Seymour is the author of Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, which is out now on Verso.
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