If Corbyn stays, Labour still needs a strategy

Last week I wrote a post suggesting that Keir Starmer leading Labour could deliver a stable coalition capable of defeating Johnson’s Tories. I tried (and perhaps failed) to clarify that the plan would need Corbyn’s blessing to be workable, and that a key goal was to implement Labour’s economic vision.

The post rather predictably went down like a ton of bricks with Corbynites, who bluntly perceived it as a direct attack on Corbyn himself and Labour’s left-wing agenda more generally. Some went so far as to say that if Labour lose the next general election the blame will lie with people like me for undermining Corbyn.

Of the more intelligent comments I received was that Labour should call the Lib Dems’ bluff: faced with the choice of forming a coalition with no-deal Tories or collaborating with a Labour party committed to a second EU referendum (even if under Corbyn), it’s obvious they would choose the latter.

This may be true if the election result delivers a Commons majority for a potential non-Tory coalition, but it doesn’t address the risk of the progressive vote being split and letting the Tories win outright. That’s why a pre-election progressive alliance (as suggested by Paul Mason) makes sense rather than relying on non-Tory voters to make their own call about who to vote for based on the marginal dynamics in their constituency.

As we near September, distinct Brexit/election scenarios are now coming into focus, with the unelected Dominic Cummings relishing the prospect of pushing through no deal after losing a no confidence vote. Labour of course needs to plan for the subsequent election, but risks doing this at the expense of finalising a viable plan for the immediate aftermath of the vote.

McDonnell has said that following a successful no confidence vote, Labour would attempt to form a minority caretaker government rather than a cross-party one of national unity. This approach would require a majority of MPs (including therefore at least two from the current Tory/DUP government) to install Corbyn as PM as the price of avoiding no deal.

Corbyn has shown zero appetite to build dialogue with the Tories he needs to vote with him under this scenario. He can’t even share a room with Chuka Umana and so there’s not much hope of him executing a sensitive political negotiation with the likes of Dominic Grieve.

Given how hopelessly unrealistic this scenario is, there needs to be another way of preventing no deal. Some detailed options were recently clearly laid out by Joe Moor on Radio 4’s World At One (the full interview is worth a listen). Hopefully the Labour leadership is carefully strategising how to take control of the Commons order paper in this way, but it unfortunately seems unlikely.

Notwithstanding the outcome of Corbyn asking the head of the civil service to clarify the “purdah” rules in relation to no deal, it may be that he intends to hold tight and ride out the next few months in the hope of winning the subsequent general election. This risky strategy would take the UK out of the EU with no deal (at least temporarily) but avoids the uncomfortable work of Corbyn and his allies collaborating with opponents in the House of Commons.

It may of course be that there simply is no strategy in place. Corbyn is so isolated by Seamus Milne and Len McCluskey that a simplistic bunker mentality often seems to prevail, and the important questions go unanswered. Despite this, with Corbyn writing to Sedwill and making some recent media appearances, there are signs that the situation may be improving. Let’s hope this is the start of a new phase in which a broader spectrum of voices are consulted.

As it stands, key Labour voices like Paul Mason (with his ideas for a progressive alliance) and Laura Parker (as head of Momentum, another key pro-EU voice) are effectively sidelined, in a spirit that runs directly counter to the open, inclusive dialogue in which Corbyn was elected by the membership. Even McDonnell may be frustrated at the lack of political manoeuvring required to give Labour a chance of forming a government, despite what he says publicly.

Many on the left would love to see Labour finally come out in support of proportional representation to help end the poisonous tribalism at the heart of UK politics. Given the electoral map and high likelihood of more coalition governments in future, it seems deeply incongruous that the progressive voices at the heart of Labour are not driving this debate.

All this is not to say that there aren’t opportunities. Perhaps the economic chaos of a (minority or otherwise) Labour government taking power after a no deal Brexit is exactly the conditions that are required to launch an ambitious Green New Deal. We shouldn’t be afraid to have that discussion.

But right now the basic oppositional nature of the pro-Corbyn vs anti-Corbyn discourse — and the conspicuous absence of political strategising from Corbyn supporters — doesn’t inspire the confidence the left needs at this critical moment.

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