Rather Than Labour Deselecting MPs, will Labour MPs Deselect Labour?

 

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Photo courtesy of @PlatformTen

Earlier this week, I appeared on Nick Ferrari’s LBC Radio show to discuss the constitutional issues that surround the current state of the Labour Party and particularly what should happen if the Labour leadership pursued the “deselection” of all MPs. Deselection is when all current MPs would have to go through a selection procedure to remain the candidate for their constituency at the next general election which is due in 2020. Deselection clearly implies that some MPs (often described as the “moderates”) at odds with the leadership would not be selected to stand in 2020. Constitutionally, this is largely an internal issue for the Labour Party, if the electorate doesn’t like the candidates chosen by Labour they can vote for another party. I floated the possibility that MPs faced with the threat of deselection may choose to leave Labour, jumping ship before being pushed and finding another political party. The audio of the segment is below…

 

 

The whole question raises some more immediate issues that could lead to a breakaway party from Labour. If Corbyn implements a full “deselection” process, then given the radical change in the membership of the Labour Party since Corbyn’s election, many moderate MPs may have little chance of being chosen to stand in 2020. This is increasingly likely as 2020 approaches as new members continue to join, and moderate members opt to leave. Any MP likely to lose their seat, already at odds with the current leadership, will have little incentive to heed Corbyn’s calls for party unity.

It’s arguable that instead of unity, the reverse could be more likely and deselection could cause the Labour Party to split. Logically, moderate MPs denied the chance of retaining their seat in 2020, should have no interest in continuing to prop up (however lukewarmly) a leader with which they so fundamentally disagree. It would be in their interest to create a new party and provide themselves with the opportunity to stand in 2020. If moderate MPs realise that they cannot stand as a Labour candidate in 2020, then there is little to lose by leaving and forming a new party.

The gains are all the greater when you consider that the circumstances are as conducive to creating a new party as they are ever likely to be. Labour continue to perform ever more poorly in the polls, but also Corbyn is an unusual party leader in British politics because there is such a disconnect between himself and his parliamentary party. As discussed in the past few months, this could be exploited by a new group of moderate Labour MPs (the core being the deselected MPs), that could attract sufficient support to be designated as the official opposition by the Speaker, with the leader becoming the Leader of the Opposition. This would deny Corbyn would the oxygen of publicity that he currently enjoys, as the new moderate grouping would be part of the warp and weave of daily politics (i.e. membership of parliamentary committees, frequent media appearances on the usual outlets). All of this is a massive difference to the “gang of four” who left Labour to create the SDP in 1981, which despite including senior MPs and ex-cabinet ministers such as Roy Jenkins, never quite had this status.

From this platform, a new party would have a reasonable chance at the next General Election of winning seats. There would be opportunities to work with other parties such as the Liberal Democrats, possibly including an electoral pact for their mutual benefit. Of course, all of this is risky, but if deselection means that existing Labour MPs cannot stand in 2020, having a chance of contesting and winning a seat is better than none at all. I may be underplaying the emotional attachment that MPs have to their Party, but if they have such a detachment from the membership and the leadership those emotional ties must inevitably be weakened. Fundamentally, deselection will require affected MPs to resolve a clash between their principled commitment to left-of-centre politics and their (often lifetime) membership of the Labour Party.

Corbyn will need to think extremely carefully about deselection because if he proceeds, he may discover that many MPs will ‘deselect’ them and the Labour Party is reduced to a mere protest group with a rump of MPs.

PMQs: The Challenge for Corbyn

Tomorrow (Wednesday) at 12noon sees the return of a fixture that some hate to miss. It’s Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs). While to some this may appear to be people just shouting at each other, PMQs serves a useful purpose. It is one of the ways in which the Prime Minister and the government are accountable to the House of Commons. For this to happen, the Leader of the Opposition must be capable of effectively challenging the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn’s performances so far indicate that he appears incapable of performing this task. Failure to place the Prime Minister on the spot means that the government is under less scrutiny, and accountability and Parliament suffers. If the Opposition, in general, does not fulfil their role to scrutinise the government, then the government is likely to make mistakes. With Brexit, this becomes even more important.

There is no way to wrap this up; Corbyn’s performances at PMQs have been shockingly bad. David Cameron visibly found PMQs a far more comfortable experience when facing Corbyn compared to Ed Milliband, often not even needing to refer to his briefing notes. Corbyn’s questions are often little more than a ramble (Isabel Hardman at The Spectator picked up on this here), and his frequent failure to follow up on the Prime Minister’s answer makes PMQs considerably easier for them. Corbyn’s approach of asking questions sent to him can neutralise PMQs to some extent, but he needs to follow up on the answers.

Using PMQs to their full extent requires research, time and preparation. The indications from the VICE documentary on Corbyn are that his preparations are far from extensive, and it shows. Perhaps Corbyn has chosen not to take PMQs seriously, viewing it merely being pointless theatrics. But this highlights Corbyn’s fundamental constitutional misunderstanding. Despite all the rallies held up and down the country and for all the train floors he sits on, Corbyn needs to show that he is the leader of a viable alternative government. One key element of this is to perform well in the Commons, especially at PMQs, which is Corbyn’s weekly opportunity to set the terms of the debate rather than just responding to what the government has decided. Corbyn’s performances in Parliament (as well as his general performance as leader) have led to what support he had amongst the parliamentary party diminishing and ultimately to the current leadership election. Had Corbyn been consistently performing better at PMQs, more Labour MPs would have given him more of chance. Both Blair and Cameron were excellent performers at PMQs, and they both won elections. A series of poor performances leads MPs to question whether their leader is up to the job. Although she performed strongly at her first PMQs in July, there is a warning to Theresa May here as well.

Although little may change directly as a result of PMQs, in the background, PMQs matters to both party leaders. It remains their most visible shop window to the voters week in, week out. With Theresa May now answering the questions, there is a chance for Corbyn to reset how he approaches PMQs. Although in July, there was every indication that May intends to take advantage of every possible weakness Corbyn has, piling the pressure on Corbyn. Even if Corbyn does win the leadership election, he needs to take PMQs seriously as he cannot function as Leader of the Opposition without the support of his MPs in Parliament. In short, Corbyn needs to give them something to support. Otherwise, Labour’s leadership question will still lack a conclusive answer.

UPDATE
It was arguably one of Corbyn’s best PMQs (although that may not be saying too much). But he did focus on one issue, which is more powerful. Housing is a significant concern and plays well with his supporters. His questions need to be more precise, and Theresa May could handle them with ease. 

The problem is whether this was the right issue to go on as such little progress over Brexit has been made. Here it was left to the leader of the SNP, Angus Robertson to challenge May over the key issue of the day, directly asking whether May wants to retain access to the Single Market. This is a consistent theme of PMQs as Robertson routinely is more challenging with his two questions than Corbyn ever is with his six.