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Corbyn was able to see off the attempted coup of summer 2016 because his sources of power, in the membership, the unions and the movement, were greater than those of his opponents in the PLP, the party bureaucracy and the media. Any conventional politician who had won the leadership by advancing through parliament and the press would have been unable to survive. But Corbyn’s success was achieved in spite of those institutions. He was not playing by Westminster rules. In their bewilderment and exasperation at his refusal to resign, many MPs appeared not to realise this.
The issue at the heart of the coup—and indeed the whole first year of Corbyn’s leadership—concerned where power lay in the Labour Party. Was it with the PLP, as had historically been the case, or was it with the membership? And where did the unions, with the constitutional might to settle the matter one way or the other, stand?
Corbyn’s survival made this clear: power now resided with the membership. Politically, Corbyn was only able to defy the coup because of the legitimacy he took from the members—hence his frequent reminders that he had been given a huge mandate by a greatly expanded party under a one-person-one-vote system.
In contemporary Western societies, at least, individualised, one-person-one-vote democracy commands greater legitimacy than any of its alternatives. Collective arrangements, such as those that traditionally characterised the Labour Movement, are regarded as inferior, suspect, even corrupt—witness the praise lavished on the GMB union for balloting its members individually about which candidate to nominate for the Labour leadership in 2016, compared to the opprobrium heaped on Unite for making its decision in the usual way through its (elected) executive council. MPs and commentators regularly express their commitment to the ideal of individualised democracy. Yet on this standard, Corbyn’s credentials were impeccable. Consequently there followed the odd spectacle of the same MPs and commentators venting their outrage at Corbyn for sticking to democratic principles in which they openly professed to believe. They were unable to clearly articulate what he was doing wrong in refusing to resign. All they could charge him with was constitutional impropriety, arguing that it was harmful for the country to not have an opposition in which the MPs were loyal to the leader—a problem for which there was an easy fix entirely in the PLP’s hands.
Behind this confusion lay two contending conceptions of the Labour Party. The Labour establishment was correct to say, as Neil Kinnock expounded in a speech to the PLP on 4 July 2016, that the party had been founded to represent the Labour Movement in parliament. Therefore, the argument went, it was a parliamentary party above all else, and the leader had to have the confidence of the MPs. “This is our party!” Kinnock exclaimed. But when the Labour Party was first created it had no individual members. In the intervening 116 years it had transformed gradually, stutteringly, with reverses along the way, into a democratic membership organisation. Just two years before the coup, it had taken the latest step along this road in the form of the Collins Review when it decided overwhelmingly—with the fulsome backing of the PLP—that all of its members and eligible supporters would have an equal say in choosing the leader.
Labour MPs clearly did not understand the consequences of this radical democratisation of the way the party determines who leads it. Their collective culture remained dominated by what Ralph Miliband, Ed’s dad, called “parliamentarism”—a “dogmatic devotion to the parliamentary system,” the defining feature of which was rule from above. Corbyn’s more than three decades in parliament attest to his belief in the possibility of a parliamentary road to socialism. But he has always been much more interested in power from below, believing that the action in parliament represents the final stage of much bigger processes that have already occurred in society. His repeated invocation of his mandate from the members during the coup was not made solely or even primarily out of political convenience but because he genuinely believed in democracy from below. As he saw it, 172 MPs voting no confidence should not void the decision of hundreds of thousands of fellow Labour members. This perspective appeared beyond the comprehension of some of his colleagues, who resorted to unpersuasive accusations that Corbyn was refusing to go due to narcissism or ego. “It’s not about you, Jeremy,” the MP Ian Murray barked at him at the vicious PLP meeting of 27 June; Corbyn surely would have wholeheartedly agreed.
It was ironic that a rule change promoted as a solution to the split electoral college in 2010, when trade unionists secured Ed Miliband’s victory, facilitated the opening of a much wider chasm between the PLP and the membership. But in fact this was not solely a result of the new rules. Labour’s electoral reforms only took on such significance because of a political divergence between MPs and the members that was already in train before the Collins Review was adopted. In the aftermath of the 2008 crash, the membership had adapted to the new political context. Its shift left under Miliband was then greatly accentuated by the influx of new recruits during and after the 2015 leadership contest, when the party doubled in size from 200,000 to nearly 400,000 members (before rocketing to over half a million during the coup).
In contrast to the flexible, responsive membership, the parliamentary party was largely a relic from the New Labour era. The stitching up of parliamentary candidate selections over many years had resulted in a PLP that was unhitched from the wider party—exemplified by its decision, sharply at odds with the views of most Labour Party members, to abstain on the Welfare Bill in June 2015. There was no quick mechanism to alter the composition of the PLP in fast-changing times. This was a constitutional conundrum. Under first-past-the-post, where most constituencies are safe seats, many MPs can have what are effectively jobs for life if their party has no recall process in place, such as mandatory reselection. This creates a lag effect. At any one time the PLP is the product of a bygone age. This can work both ways—Corbyn’s own presence in parliament is a legacy of the strength of the left in constituency parties in the early-1980s. But the particular diligence with which New Labour controlled parliamentary selections meant that, as leader, Corbyn faced a far less politically diverse cohort of MPs than had Labour leaders of old, and certainly one less reflective of the party at large.
There is a further dimension to this conundrum that became apparent during the coup. MPs justified their defiance of the elected leader by emphasising their personal mandates from voters. They had a higher calling than to the party membership, they said, which was to their constituents. Again there was a historic constitutional basis to their argument. MPs were originally local landowners sent to parliament to represent the other landowners in their area. The first political parties, when they emerged towards the end of the seventeenth century, were loose groupings of these individuals, elected on their own mandate, who only banded together once at Westminster. That basic constitutional framework persists, but a fully-fledged party system has developed within it. These days, it is the party name printed on the ballot paper that most voters look for, not the name of the individual candidate. Moreover, candidates’ electoral prospects often depend considerably on the campaigning efforts and resources of their party.
Appealing to party members was one of the few means of leverage Corbyn had over MPs. He employed it effectively during the debate on whether Britain should carry out airstrikes in Syria in December 2015. By simply emailing members asking for their views, Corbyn reversed the momentum in the PLP towards military action, resulting in just 66 Labour MPs—far fewer than had been expected—supporting the government. It was an instructive moment. After the sense of empowerment many members had experienced during the 2015 leadership contest, national politics became once again more remote as the key action returned to Westminster. Corbyn’s call for involvement on Syria reactivated a membership that was desperate to participate.
A similar mobilisation was triggered by the coup. MPs’ timing and tactics provoked fury in the wider party, constituency chairs reported. Members had elected Corbyn in part because of his promise of an open, participatory politics. The PLP was explicitly attempting to veto that vision. There was little appetite for a return to a managed party, which was the most likely consequence of a successful putsch as the only means by which a triumphant PLP could have dealt with an angry membership. The lengths to which the Labour establishment was prepared to go in order to defeat Corbyn confirmed that if the left lost the leadership it would be “put in a box for 30 years or out of the party,” as one former shadow cabinet minister put it. Tom Watson’s proposal to reinstate the electoral college, made in August 2016, was a clear indication that the PLP’s first priority was to diminish the power of ordinary members.
The one institutional base of support that Corbyn did enjoy during the coup (though it fragmented slightly in the subsequent leadership election) was the trade union leadership. For the unions the coup put at risk a 10-year project to reshape the Labour Party, restore their position within it, and steer it away from Blairism. Their unexpected success in 2015 had come five years earlier than they dared hope, in circumstances they would not necessarily have chosen. Their efforts during the Miliband years to get more union-friendly MPs into parliament were made with an eye to having a leadership candidate ready to stand in 2020. But, because of the particular dynamics of the 2015 contest, they ended up supporting a winning candidate from a strand of the party with which they would not traditionally have allied, before a sufficient base of parliamentary support had been built. Nevertheless, had Corbyn been overthrown in an undemocratic coup the PLP would have been massively empowered to reverse all of the trade union gains in the party over the previous half-decade. With the unions having backed two successive leaders that a majority of MPs did not want, and with no sign of the centre of gravity in the union movement shifting right-wards, it was highly likely that a triumphant PLP would have sought their emasculation. On the other side of the coin, the ouster of Corbyn would have created immense pressure within several unions, including Unite, to disaffiliate from the Labour Party.
For Corbyn, having the unions’ public support during the coup was enormously important. It undermined the narrative being spun by the PLP that his inadequacy was self-evident to all but the Momentum “rabble.” The trade unions were widely seen as solid, realistic organisations, pillars of the Labour Party. When they insisted—as 12 unions did in a joint statement on the day after the EU referendum—that “the last thing Labour needs is a manufactured leadership row... we call upon all Labour MPs not to engage in any such indulgence,” it was hard to brush off their view as zealotry. Significantly, the signatories to that statement featured five unions that had not nominated Corbyn for leader the previous year, including the third-biggest union GMB.
In going ahead with their action anyway, MPs evidently hoped that by creating a crisis they would force a rethink. It did not happen. The unions restated their support on 29 June, urging MPs to “respect the authority of the party’s leader.” Meanwhile, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey filled the airwaves and newspapers with an unambiguous message, warning that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper would “lead to the break up of the Labour Party” and pillorying the plotters for “betraying not only the party itself but also our national interest.”
Of even greater importance than the unions’ public support was their steadfast stance behind the scenes. Their refusal to budge on the issue of Corbyn’s resignation led Watson unilaterally to break off negotiations he had opened with the unions, a move McCluskey described as “an act of sabotage.” The ultimate reason why the unions held so much sway became clear at the crunch meeting of the NEC on 12 July, when the votes of their 12 representatives spelt the difference between Corbyn being on the ballot or not. The whole gambit had been undertaken on the assumption that some unions, under the cloak of a secret vote, would swap sides. As was becoming a habit, the Labour elite had miscalculated.
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