by John McAllion, former Labour MP and MSP, now in the SSP • Most voters do not pay close attention to the detail of day to day parliamentary politics. The extent to which they understand the dynamics of the so-called mother of parliaments comes through the filter of the written and broadcast media.
It is a given that such a filter is overwhelmingly biased against the political Left. However, that is the reality within which the Left must operate.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is currently being crucified by that reality. To most voters it must appear that the Parliamentary Labour Party is now in a state of permanent rebellion against its leadership.
The latest revolt saw three front benchers resign and three whips defy a three line whip they were supposed to be enforcing in support of Article 50 to tale the UK out of the European Union.
The subsequent headlines, even in the pro-Labour Guardian, were deeply damaging—“A fifth of Labour MPs defy Corbyn as Brexit bill passes.”
In one vote, the PLP manged to alienate Leave voters by the substantial rebellion against Brexit; and the Remain voters by a three line whip in favour of Brexit.
An even bigger rebellion is likely when the “European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill reaches its final Commons stages next week.
To make matters worse, there was the further embarrassment of a key Corbyn ally, Diane Abbot, being accused by other Labour MPs of throwing a sickie to avoid having to vote at all.
Under pressure from thousands of her own London constituents to vote against Article 50, but conscious that a vote against would cause her to lose her front bench job as Shadow Home Secretary, Abbot suddenly developed a migraine that allowed her to miss the vote.
Whatever the truth about her migraine, many voters will rush to a judgement that will not be helpful to the Labour cause.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Labour Party will also have to take a position on Article 50 when the issue comes before the Scottish Parliament. Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale is pro-European and keen to support the Scottish Government in opposing Article 50.
Left MSPs within her group would interpret a vote with the SNP on this issue as a direct snub to Jeremy Corbyn and the line he is trying to hold in Westminster.
Other MSPs worry about voting with the Tories for Brexit in a country that voted overwhelmingly for Remain. One Scottish Labour insider described his party as “all over the place” on the issue.
These divisions over Europe are, of course, replicated in other parties. The problem for Labour is that they reinforce an already existing narrative in the press and media about an extremist leadership at war with its moderate parliamentary party.
In this narrative, the leader is feckless, incompetent and incapable of providing effective opposition to the Tory government; as well as being manipulated by the hard-line leftists who surround him in the Shadow Cabinet and in the grassroots Momentum movement. News coverage of the past week’s events will ensure that this narrative is reinforced in the public mind.
Meanwhile, in the background, the clock is ticking toward two crucial by-elections in Copeland and Stoke caused by the resignations of two moderate MPs, both of whom gave up on political careers and on the Corbyn-led parliamentary party.
Both seats are normally safe Labour strongholds but now look vulnerable in these extraordinary times with bookies shortening odds on the party losing both seats. If either seat was to fall to the Tories, it would the first time in 35 years that a government party has taken a seat from the official opposition in a by-election.
Given the strength of Corbyn’s position inside the party in the country, the loss of one or both seats would not necessarily be fatal for his leadership. The moderate parliamentarians simply lack the grassroots strength to move against him for a third time.
However, the damage to Labour’s prospects of winning the next general election will be substantial. The Labour leader’s enemies in both print and broadcast media will pile on the pressure and reinforce their narrative of practical incompetence wrapped up in political extremism.
Activists will see through their lies. Many middle of the road voters will not.
Ultimately, the Left Labour project founders on this obsession with the parliamentary road to socialism. The idea that socialism can be won simply through controlling the Labour Party and its parliamentary wing inside the Westminster state is and always has been flawed.
A system of constitutional monarchy that is only partly elected and that is buttressed by reactionary elements in the legal establishment, state bureaucracy, armed forces and mass media can never be a vehicle for carrying through a socialist transformation of society. Dismantling that system is a prerequisite for any kind of socialist advance.