Vox Populi, Vox Mandy?

Why a coup against Jeremy Corbyn might not work.

Ben Margulies
9 September 2015
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Flickr/ Garry Knight.Some rights reserved.

Over the past four or five weeks, it has become increasingly clear that the Labour selectorate will make Jeremy Corbyn the party’s leader. His rivals’ defeat at the polls, under the new regulations established by former leader Ed Miliband last year, seems all but certain.

Now, as anyone on the left knows, when establishments want to keep the status quo afloat, the electoral rules are often the first ballast over the side. Sometimes, this can take rather drastic forms. The ghost of Salvador Allende isn’t haunting the Labour Party, but its establishment candidates and figures frequently hint that they will question the legitimacy of Corbyn’s election, or even attempt to circumvent his election entirely. These unusual or extraordinary measures are justified, they say, by the “mortal danger” (Lord Mandelson) that Corbyn represents, which might lead to the party’s “annihilation” (Tony Blair). It is far from unusual for those in power – whether they are of the political right or the left - to try to change the rules of the game when there is a risk that the game might go against them, even in well-established democracies. François Mitterrand completely overhauled the French electoral system for the 1986 parliamentary elections in order to head off or at least attenuate an expected right-wing landslide. In Labour’s case, the challenge to the rules of the game is much easier; the regulations were only changed a year ago, and at the instance of a leader who subsequently lost a general election. It helps that many of Miliband’s critics also dislike Corbyn.

This assault on the Miliband electoral system, and the legitimacy of the result it looks likely to produce, is assuming several forms and degrees of opposition. Take the recent decision by Labour’s procedures committee to break down the election results by the three main categories of voter: party members; union affiliates, who can participate in the election if they so choose through their labour union; and registered supporter, who can obtain a vote through a £3 payment and an affirmation of support for the Labour Party. Though a disinterested political scientist might applaud this commitment to detail, political scientists weren’t the ones petitioning for the change in reporting rules. Rather, it was Corbyn’s opponents – Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall – who had called for the results to be published in this way. Why? Most likely, so that when Corbyn wins, they can claim that he owes his election to the registered supporters’ group, the newcomers admitted by the unlamented Mr. Miliband. Appealing to Labour’s “tribalism” and its memories of the traumatic fights with Militant Tendency in the ‘80s, they may claim that Corbyn was elected by outsiders or, worse, “entryists.”

Other Labour figures are mounting much more aggressive challenges to the process and to its leading beneficiary. Some seek to deny the leader-elect the ability to exercise his mandate. A few Labour MPs have suggested removing Corbyn from office almost as soon as he is elected – Simon Danczuk in The Independent, for example, and John McTernan in The Spectator.  A number of senior figures in Labour have ruled out serving in any Corbyn shadow cabinet, including interim shadow chancellor Chris Leslie and two of his three opponents. (By contrast, three of Ed Miliband’s four opponents served in shadow ministerial positions, including Corbyn ally Diane Abbott – his brother was the exception)  

Lord Mandelson, allegedly, went further, asking Cooper, Kendall and Burnham to withdraw from the election in a bid to force the party to suspend the whole process. This particular bid – which most closely resembles election boycotts in semi-authoritarian states – was foiled in part because the Labour Party informed Mandelson that it would simply acclaim Corbyn as the winner in that case.

What sort of thinking underlies this strategy? And would it work? Partly, I think the sense of panic reflects people in leadership positions who fear for this status and are overreacting. But I also think there is a darker, more neoliberal logic here. We live in an age of neoliberal consensus, one which, in legend and to an extent in fact, banished and defeated Corbyn’s social democratic philosophy long ago. Neoliberalism, as many observers have noted, is a rather monist and bloody-minded philosophy. It shows no tolerance for collectivism or redistribution. And, perhaps crucially, advocates of neoliberalism stress economic over political freedom; there is a long history of neoliberals championing authoritarian governments with the right economic policies, conferring upon them a sort of “output legitimacy.”

And that, I think, is what justifies some of the more outlandish attempts – like Mandelson’s – to stop Corbyn. Because his policies are outside the neoliberal consensus, they and he are already illegitimate to a degree without a vote even being cast. If I were to guess as to how they imagine such a coup would play out, I think they expect that Corbyn’s departure will allow Labour to elect a “mainstream” leader, whose espousal of “credible” policies will confer upon Labour the same “output legitimacy.” Voters will thus forgive the new leader’s questionable electoral legitimacy, as if Labour had accidentally elected a schizophrenic and subsequently annulled the elections on grounds of mental incompetence. In other words, they expect the question of legitimacy won’t matter to “aspirational” Labour voters.

Perhaps they are not incorrect in believing this. In November 1975, Gough Whitlam, the Labor prime minister of Australia and one of its most radical social democrats, was unilaterally removed from office by the governor general. As the governor general’s official secretary announced the dissolution, Whitlam famously remarked, “Well may we say "God save the Queen", because nothing will save the Governor-General!” But Whitlam went on to lose the ensuing election in a landslide; he never returned to executive office. More recently, the European Union exerted pressure that helped topple the elected governments of Italy and Greece in late 2011. Nevertheless, both nations accepted the technocratic interim governments that followed, and voted for Europhile parties in the next general elections (in 2012 in Greece, and 2013 in Italy).

But in Labour’s case, there’s good reason to think that a coup against Corbyn would be counterproductive, if not for the reasons some think. Some have suggested that Corbyn would simply win the re-run election.  Most likely, the Parliamentary Labour Party, which controls the nominating process, would keep any hard-left figures off the ballot this time (a candidate needs the support of 15 percent of the PLP to stand). Labour probably could ensure the election of a more moderate leader. But no organization can run two leadership elections in the space of a few months without looking divided or feckless. Labour will spend months embroiled in infighting, leaving the Conservatives to shape the political narrative unimpeded. The Tory-leaning, centrist voters that Labour hopes to appeal to by sidelining Corbyn may be impressed by Labour’s ruthlessness, just as they were by Tony Blair’s successful battle against Clause Four. Or they might simply assume that the party is hopelessly divided and incompetent, just as they thought the Tories were in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Whatever Labour gains on its right in a coup may be lost on its left. Although Labour’s core has always been the working-class voter, it has also long attracted left-wing, middle-class voters. In many cases, this was because these were what political scientists called “post-materialist voters,” specifically “left-libertarians” who tend to concern themselves with non-economic issues like the environment, equal rights – and democratic participation. These are the sorts of middle-class voters who would have flocked to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1960s, or the gay rights movement, or supported the Dagenham strikers – all causes championed by the Labour Party. And Labour, as Jon Trickett pointed out, still has quite a lot of middle-class voters; it has averaged about 27 percent of the AB social classes in the last three general elections.

These are the sorts of voters Labour lost to the Liberal Democrats after the Iraq War. They are also the voters Labour has in many cases lost to the Greens – 5 percent of their 2010 total – and to the SNP (Scottish nationalists often cite the Iraq War as a charge against Labour and the Union more generally). These voters are the sort of middle-class voters who care deeply about democratic process, accountability and rights, and they will not easily forgive a Labour Party that tramples so cavalierly over its own electoral procedures because they inconvenience its serving parliamentarians. Nor will the young voters flocking to the Corbyn campaign. Admittedly, toppling Labour may appeal to the 10 percent of 2010 Labour voters who picked the Tories in 2015, but the party risks losing hundreds of thousands of votes to its left, and will only alienate Scottish voters further – and no Labour leader is going anywhere near 10 Downing Street without Scotland.

And yes, pressure from neoliberal elites or conservative elements in the political system did topple Whitlam, Berlusconi and Papandreou, creating a sense of crisis which delegitimized their parties. But Whitlam’s opponents were threatening to deny the government supply, giving the governor general a reason to call new elections. And the EU had real leverage over the Berlusconi and Papandreou; Greece and Italy were fiscally dependent upon the EU and the European Central Bank. Labour’s grandees have no such leverage over Corbyn, short of seceding en masse from the Labour Party, which would doom both wings. They can hardly form a new Social Democratic Party, as Gabriel Neil points out, not least because of the utter collapse of the SDP’s old ally. You count mount a coup unless you’ve got a monopoly on the tanks (this doesn’t count).

Corbyn may prove unable to manage the Labour Party; he has little executive experience and will have a hard time enforcing a whip when he was so quick in the past to defy it. But the Labour establishment will have to wait for him to self-destruct. The alternative might blow up Labour instead.

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