Despite his firm stance, Jeremy Corbyn has lost a parliamentary vote on military intervention in Syria, in no small part thanks to members of his own party voting with the government – and the chaos of Corbyn’s leadership so far seemingly leaves open the question of whether he might resign or be overthrown.
Although a sizeable number of Labour MPs voted with the government over Syria, it has become clear that the wider party is behind Corbyn. If moderates in the party thought this vote might help them get rid of Corbyn as leader, they were very much mistaken. In fact, their options look quite limited.
Labour has no formal mechanism for a confidence vote on a sitting leader. Any move against Corbyn by MPs would need to be a direct leadership challenge. Labour’s constitution makes provision for annual leadership contests when the party is in opposition, but these are scheduled for the annual conference – and the next one isn’t until September 2016. Some anti-Corbynites might regard that as better than nothing and could bide their time until then. Yet that raises more problems.
There has been a clear shift to the left within Labour’s membership. Any restaged leadership contest in which Corbyn or one of his allies stood would in all likelihood result in another overwhelming victory for the left. A recent poll found that Corbyn had high approval ratings among party members.
Some have suggested that in the event of a leadership challenge Corbyn could be excluded altogether. Labour’s constitution states:
Where there is no vacancy, nominations shall be sought each year prior to the annual session of party conference. In this case any nomination must be supported by 20% of Commons members of the PLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.
Corbyn struggled to secure 15% of MPs in June (the lower threshold for vacancies), and managed it only because some MPs “lent” him their nominations. They would be less likely to do so again. And, in any case, there is not a “vacancy”.
In any case, the wording of Labour’s rules is loose and ambiguous: at least one barrister has suggested that the 20% rule applies only to challengers and not to the incumbent.
Changing the rules?
Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) has reportedly discussed changing the rules to make it clear that the incumbent does not require re-nominating in the event of a challenge. Such a change would have to wait till next year’s party conference.
So, what would happen if there were a challenge next summer in time for the party conference? Presumably, the NEC would make its own ruling – and that body has a pro-Corbyn majority. The last recourse of opponents would be to take it to court. By then, the rules may have changed.
In contrast, if Corbyn resigns, he would leave a vacancy. All candidates would need to be nominated by 15% of MPs to secure a place on the ballot. A left-wing candidate might struggle to do that. It would offer the easiest way back to power for the moderates, which is why Corbyn’s left-wing allies would urge him to remain in post, no matter how much he is attacked.
The left has invested too much in this struggle for the soul of the Labour Party to throw it away now. It needs Corbyn to stay put at least until it has changed the rules on leadership elections – including, perhaps, reducing the nomination threshold for vacancies.
A changed party
One final option would be for shadow ministers to withdraw their support from the leader en masse. The belief has long been that party leaders need the support of their senior colleagues and without it they lose their authority, ending in resignation or ejection.
But Corbyn never had any authority among MPs to lose in the first place. He sees himself as a delegate of the grassroots, the personification of intra-party democracy, the head of a great movement. From his perspective, it is the MPs who are out of touch.
Indeed, the debate about procedures and putsches somewhat misses the point. Labour is a very different party from what it was just seven months ago. The left has become dominant in every section of the party outside of the PLP, including the unions, the NEC and the individual membership.
Corbyn increasingly looks to the members in his internal battles. He frequently cites the mandate they gave him to shift the party to the left. He went over the MPs’ heads to consult with members over military action in Syria. There have also been suggestions that he might call a membership plebiscite on Trident. Corbyn’s support remains minimal in the PLP, but the latter is increasingly adrift from the party outside parliament.
Conceding a free vote on Syria may have been a tactical retreat to avoid the embarrassment of front-bench resignations, but Corbyn will claim it as vindication and depict those who backed airstrikes as an out-of-touch minority. Labour’s moderate MPs are looking horribly exposed.
It has become a common refrain to say that things cannot continue as they are in the Labour Party. And if Labour loses the Oldham West & Royton by-election – which the left would blame on division and disloyalty within the PLP – we will hear it again. But the presumption that unity will soon return through compromise, or that the left will be dispatched back into the wilderness no longer looks sound. It may instead be Labour’s moderates who are a step closer to defeat.