UK Politics

Unseasonal gloom among Labour MPs

Jeremy Corbyn Image copyright NASA

"I am not going to this year's Labour conference. The idea that I would stand there and applaud the man that stuffed my party is nonsense."

So spoke one senior Labour figure who had helped Ed Miliband to the party leadership in 2010 - and who hasn't been impressed by his successor.

After being away from Westminster for a few weeks, I thought I'd catch up with Labour MPs who had also been away from SW1 and were gathering again - not just in formal meetings but at social events - just two weeks before the ballot in the party's leadership election closes.

Their views were perhaps not entirely surprising - before the summer recess, 80% of them had voted against Jeremy Corbyn in a confidence vote on his leadership.

But let's just say their collective mood didn't reflect the late summer sunshine.

They tended to regard Jeremy Corbyn's leadership as a big black cloud that was hanging over the party - and none of them expected it to be dispelled when the results of the leadership election are announced on 24 September.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption In contrast to Westminster, Corbyn's support among party members remains strong

MPs had voted this week to elect shadow cabinet members - reducing Jeremy Corbyn's powers of patronage - so you might expect them to feel a little more upbeat.

But they didn't. One former frontbencher said to me "even if we fill the shadow cabinet with the most talented people we have and really oppose the government he (Jeremy Corbyn) will still be there and he's the problem. We will still lose the next election".

And it is by no means clear that MPs alone will elect the shadow cabinet.

One politician bemoaned the fact that the proposal was going to Labour's National Executive - its governing body - rather than being agreed by the MPs as a change to their own standing orders.

But another said that Corbyn supporters would put an emergency motion to the annual conference at the end of this month, opening up the shadow cabinet election to all party members. So it would be sensible for the NEC to adjudicate.

As I understand it, there are NEC members who are trying to convince the party leader's office that shadow cabinet elections are the best way of 'co-habiting' with his MPs and ensuring there is a functioning frontbench.

The office is being reassured that Blairite MPs wouldn't stand; that the leader would still decide the portfolios and he could 'top up' the shadow cabinet with some of his own supporters.

There now seems to be a widespread recognition that Jeremy Corbyn will be ousted only as the result of a general election and some MPs are willing and hoping Theresa May will go early.

Election drubbing

"Only after he is removed can we rebuild, but he is not our only problem," one MP said.

Another thought - that whenever the election comes it would be disastrous for Labour - and for "those poor buggers who depend on a Labour government".

He gave the lowest estimate yet of how many seats Labour would retain - 70 to 80 - adding "we will become the new Lib Dems".

This wasn't some cruel fantasy figure he had plucked from the air, he insisted, but based on a mixture of conversations with former Labour voters who will not back the party under the current leader and defectors to UKIP and a new hostility to the party in some areas which had heavily backed Brexit.

Some other MPs have talked about retaining 150 seats, or "losing about 100".

But between now and the election there is despair about what's perceived as a failure to hold the government to account.

One former minister said that the prime minister was "getting away with murder" on Brexit because of a toxic mix of "incompetence" and not making any effort on the part of the Labour leader.

Despite the gloom, there seems little appetite for a new party.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Lord Owen cautioned Labour MPs against forming an anti-Corbyn breakaway party

At the launch of Ed Balls's memoir this week, Lord Owen - founder member of the SDP - was heard cautioning Labour MPs against forming a breakaway.

He judged that his party, set up in 1981, had almost broken the mould of British politics but hadn't succeeded.

It wasn't seen as a successor to Labour, or as the true custodian of Labour's values and traditions, as the party drifted leftwards in the 1980s.

Although he did indeed want it to be a European-style social democratic party it was difficult to gain definition - it was "flotsam" which could be blown around in the prevailing political wind.

And he was living proof of the difficulty of splitting from a main party under the current electoral system, he said.

Naked ambition

Irrespective of this advice, one Labour MP you could almost bet would be interested in setting up a non-Corbyn or anti-Corbyn breakaway group insisted he wasn't.

"I will stay and fight - this is my party so I will fight and very probably die for it," he said.

But when the facts change, people can change their opinions.

With new parliamentary boundaries in the offing and the prospect of Labour MPs having to compete to keep their seat, some expected to be deselected by Jeremy Corbyn's supporters.

"They say we are careerists but some of them are very ambitious - not hard-working but ambitious. One of them certainly has his eye on my seat and I probably won't be able to stop him."

If this deselection is widespread, the option for some MPs of staying and fighting will close off.

And one current frontbencher says it is the fear of deselection - and not simply ideological differences - that will make it very difficult for Jeremy Corbyn to fill the junior shadow posts if he is re-elected: "Who the hell will want to deal with a bunch of statutory instruments when they need to be in their constituency fighting for their seat?

"I mean a shadow post is fine if you are on the brink of government - but currently everyone knows it's futile."

Image copyright AP
Image caption The result of Owen Smith's challenge to Jeremy Corbyn will be revealed on September 24

And for the first time there are murmurings about Owen Smith's campaign - from supporters of Owen Smith.

Was he right to try to persuade the members that only age and competence, and not ideology, separated him from Jeremy Corbyn?

Should he have told members more home truths earlier in the campaign?

Few will denounce him for making a fight of it but there is a realisation that he is unlikely to triumph, and the only hope is that he reduces the margin of Jeremy Corbyn's victory.

Now there are many people in the Labour Party who are far more sympathetic towards Jeremy Corbyn than the vast majority of his MPs, but his re-election won't solve the spit between parliament and the wider party.

As one senior MP put it: "On 24 September we will be right back to where we started a year ago. And that's not a good place to be."

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