The Labour Representation Zebra

PLP: Anti-Corbyn

The greatest frustrations of both pro and anti-Corbyn camps stem from their beliefs about the importance of representation.

The perception of the Blair leadership as having a top-down approach left many Labour members frustrated over not being able to contribute to policy.

(The amount of input individuals should expect in any organisation, especially one the size of Labour, is, of course, Political Theory 101. Should MPs be representatives or delegates? Should they be that for their constituents or for their local party members? Should there be a party whip? The problem of excessive demands for the dominance of the individual over the organisation is flippantly parodied in the 1970 film The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer where a charlatan rises to become Prime Minister and cedes every single government decision to voters. The result is predictable chaos.)

Yet, at the same time as expressing frustration with not having enough input, there was criticism of the importance placed on the focus groups that characterised Blair’s policy making. The paradoxical resentment of the larger population’s opinion being sought whilst feeling member’s opinions were ignored remains a sticking point in the current Labour leadership contest.

It is not surprising then that Corbyn, the figurehead of the frustrated group, while representing a consensus of members, does not represent a consensus among his MPs or non-member Labour supporters, let alone the general public.

In this twisted situation, is the membership as guilty of ignoring Labour-supporting non-members and the general public as they feel the PLP is of ignoring the membership?

Just as Labour members (pre-2015) may have been right to be frustrated with a leadership that refused to listen, the PLP has the right to be frustrated with a membership that won’t listen.

The vote of no confidence in Corbyn was a message to which many in the party refused to listen. Rather than being seen for what it was (a warning that Corbyn was a poor manager*), the vote was met with the accusation that the members’ decision was not being respected. This is interesting language.

It is fair to assume that the majority of pro-Corbyn Labour members have been members of a political party for less than a year. This does not in any way reduce the validity of their opinion or vote. But they are claiming that their vote in the leadership election of 2015 morally trumps their duty to listen to MPs who have invariably sacrificed years as unpaid Labour councillors and have years of experience as public communicators engaging with people from a much wider political and social spectrum than the vast majority of members, new or old.

I have heard many times from pro-Corbyn members that the MPs are there to serve the will of the party. Well, they’re trying. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t stop it drowning itself.

When it comes to make their final decision in the next few weeks, members who want to be listened to would do well to consider returning the favour.


* We can’t blame Corbyn for Labour supporters voting 70/30 against Brexit (a fairly positive result), but MPs like Eagle, Johnson et al are not criticising outcome as much as process. They say Corbyn was hopeless at communicating within the party or organising the EU campaign. Both Eagle and Johnson claim that Corbyn didn’t return their calls and when he did was very difficult to engage. On the BBC debate this week, when Corbyn tried to claim joint credit for parliamentary work done by Owen Smith, the latter declared that he had only been able to have one meeting on the matter with Corbyn in 9 months.

On the matter of competent advocacy, Corbyn actively avoids mainstream media. It is unclear whether this is because he is scared of it, doesn’t see the value in it or is trying to punish the media for their prior treatment of him. He may have found inspiration in Geoffrey Boycott’s words about the press: “They smile and then they stab – and they think the next time they come along for a comment you are going to forget the wounding things they write and obligingly talk to them.” As the leader of the opposition, and prospective Prime Minister, such thinking is beyond a luxury. Corbyn’s counter strategy is to say / hope / pretend that Labour’s “mass movement” will be a more powerful communication mechanism than TV and radio appearances. One of Geoffrey Boycott’s other quotes might be appropriate here. Take your pick.

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