UK Politics

Labour leadership challenge, 30s-style

Ramsay MacDonald Image copyright Getty Images

If Jeremy Corbyn needs cheering up after the vote of confidence in which only 40 out of 229 Labour MPs backed him, he should remember that he's still not quite the most unpopular leader among MPs in his party's history.

Ramsay Macdonald was backed by just 14 out of 287 of his parliamentary colleagues, and he was prime minister; but that was August 1931, and Macdonald had just agreed to form a National Government with Conservatives and Liberals, after his cabinet failed to agree on public spending cuts.

Historical analogy doesn't take you very far when considering the crisis paralysing the Labour Party today, but it does point out the very real risk division poses. In the general election which followed, Labour was left with just 46 MPs.

Labour leadership

The pacifist and principled former leader almost destroyed the party he'd helped to found, and was never forgiven for it. As David Marquand observes in his hefty biography,

"In the offices of the London Labour Party, Herbert Morrison [a former colleague] turned MacDonald's picture to the wall; in miners' cottages in Aberavon, men and women who had once followed him as a 'Messiah' did the same."

Of course, it may not only be the leader who gets punished if Labour goes into the next election still divided. One Labour MP, denouncing Jeremy Corbyn as an "extremist", told me he would tell his own constituents they could safely vote for him because the party couldn't win the election in such circumstances and there was no risk of Mr Corbyn becoming prime minister. He and colleagues would, if necessary, fight their campaigns as 'local' Labour.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Jeremy Corbyn has defied calls to quit from Labour MPs

It's worth noting, though, that even among MPs who are not supporters of Corbyn, there's irritation over the party rebellion. One who's been in the Commons for more than 20 years told me some colleagues should spend more time talking to their party members.

"They don't like getting their hands dirty," he said, suggesting Labour's electoral problems are more deep seated than who is leader.

Now that Angela Eagle appears to be preparing a challenge to Mr Corbyn's leadership, there are two potential problems weighing on the minds of his opponents.

First, he appears still to have support from the party members and registered and affiliated supporters who voted for him. Last summer, he won with almost 60% of the vote. He's unlikely to do so well this time - MPs report cases of 'buyer's remorse' in their local parties among some who voted for him then - but he would still start as favourite.

This week, a Labour peer showed me #savinglabour, a social media group which is trying to get sympathisers to register as supporters so they can take part in the leadership vote. It mirrors the tactic of Jeremy Corbyn's allies a year ago who encouraged people on the left who weren't in the Labour Party to become supporters.

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Image caption SDP founder and former Labour cabinet minister Lord Owen said he voted in Labour's last leadership election

Last year, David Owen, one of those who split from Labour and founded the SDP, told me he too had registered as a supporter and voted in the election; though I think I'd put money on it not having been a vote for Jeremy Corbyn. Those opposed to the current leader need more David Owens, although I doubt they'd put it quite like that.

There's another problem for the Westminster rebels: the law. First, as has been widely reported, there's conflicting legal opinion about the rules for a leadership contest: is Corbyn, as incumbent leader, automatically entitled to be on the ballot paper; or must he be re-nominated by MPs?

Last year, he was only able to enter the contest because a number of MPs who had no intention of voting for him nominated him anyway in order to ensure a broad debate; without them he wouldn't have had the numbers. I've been told that when the party's ruling body the NEC makes a decision to resolve this ambiguity on nominations, whichever side loses is bound to apply for a judicial review.

Second, there's the Electoral Commission. It polices descriptions used by election candidates. This is designed to stop voters being misled (remember the Literal Democrat who peeled off votes from a Lib Dem?).

So if Mr Corbyn is still leader come the general election, MPs opposed to him would probably find it difficult if they wanted to use labels like independent Labour, anti-Corbyn Labour, or Trumpton Labour.

Jeremy Corbyn isn't Labour's only leader at Westminster. Baroness Smith, the party's canny leader in the House of Lords, and Lord Bassam, the chief whip, are elected by their fellow peers (a group even less sympathetic to Mr Corbyn than his MPs); hence, why they've boycotted meetings of the shadow cabinet without facing the sack.

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Image caption Many Labour members and supporters are angry at what they see as a plot to oust Mr Corbyn

In the Lords, it's business as usual for the party. Labour peers feel they've had a good few months, forcing the government, for example, to back down on changes to union finances that could have cost their party millions in lost funding, and inflicting the key defeat which forced George Osborne to abandon his plans to reduce tax credits.

One frontbencher grumbles that, throughout the battle to defend a subsidy which helps the working poor, nothing was heard from Mr Corbyn.

Despite the unprecedented number of resignations among his team in the Commons, Jeremy Corbyn has managed to fill his shadow cabinet. Yet he'd be unwise to believe that all of those colleagues are supporters. Some have only agreed to serve because they think they have an obligation to the country, their constituents and party members, to oppose the government, not just each other.

Back to where I began. After Ramsay MacDonald took what he believed to be the honourable course of staying in office despite what most of his parliamentary colleagues wanted, he increasingly became a hostage to people who didn't share his politics (Churchill called him "the boneless wonder"). When, after his retirement, friends organised a party,

"… to the great embarrassment of everyone present, Macdonald wound up the occasion with a speech insisting that he was still a socialist and always had been…" (Marquand, Ramsay Macdonald, Cape, 1977)

Might something similar be the fate of Jeremy Corbyn? Or the fate of those who oppose him?

Shaun Ley is a presenter of The World This Weekend and The World At One on BBC Radio 4.