The outcome of recent reshuffle was to strengthen Jeremy Corbyn’s authority within the Shadow Cabinet, including through making it clear it would not be tolerated that members of Labour’s front bench publicly attack the party leadership.
The reaction of Labour’s right was swift: if Shadow Cabinet members are not to be able to use their positions to attack Corbyn then MPs should withdraw from the front bench.
A spate of resignation announcements was then staged with the aim of sabotaging the leadership’s attempt to move on from the reshuffle and turn the Party outwards against the Tories. Catherine McKinnell stepped down as Shadow Attorney General. Jonathan Reynolds, Kevan Jones and Stephen Doughty quit junior front bench positions and Progress Chair Alison McGovern withdrew from a policy review.
These resignations were clearly a coordinated tactic. The Financial Times for example, spelt it out in a leader. The 8 January Financial Times editorial, headed ‘Labour moderates should not serve Corbyn’, argued: ‘Those who refused to serve him from the start judged wisely… Labour moderates should not aid and abet the most immoderate leader in their history. They should withdraw their labour.’
Meanwhile the BBC directly coordinated the planning of one of the resignation announcements to happen on air.
The right and the media are now encouraging further front bench resignations over the issue of Trident renewal.
Such multiple resignations are aimed at increasing political instability and creating a sense of ongoing crisis in the Labour Party. Such tactics are tried and tested. For example, in a situation of a much higher level of class struggle, the coup in Chile in 1973 was preceded by a wave of cabinet resignations that fed an atmosphere of crisis surrounding the Allende government. However, not only is the class struggle not so advanced here as in Chile in 1973, but so far the right’s coordinated resignations of a series of unknowns have been a distraction and an irritation, not a successful destabilisation tactic.
Nonetheless, these recent resignations directly feed into the on-going machinations of the right aimed at ousting Corbyn. They are already discussing who would be their leadership challenger if a new contest can be forced through that excludes Corbyn, or that the right thinks it can win against him.
The Blairites and others on the right are still focused on exploiting the lack of clarity in Labour’s rulebook over the conduct of a leadership election forced upon an incumbent who does not wish to stand down. The aim is a leadership contest later this year that only has right wing candidates on the ballot paper.
While there are constant attempts to destabilise the Corbyn leadership and create an opportunity for a strike against it, the eyes of the right are mainly fixed on the situation after the elections in May.
The May elections – to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, for the London Mayor and Assembly (and other directly elected Mayors) and in some English local councils – are being flagged as a test for the Corbyn leadership. This is a set-up. Labour support fell significantly in most of these areas long before Corbyn became Leader and the new leadership will only have been in office a short period when May arrives. The new leadership’s policies cannot be expected to instantly turn around the situation.
The elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies were last held in 2011. This was before the recent surge for the SNP and collapse of Labour support in Scotland. The contests for London Mayor and local authority seats were last fought in 2012.
Throughout 2011 and 2012 Labour consistently polled above 39% , and into the mid 40s. It was only subsequently that support fell through 2013 to the general election level of 30.4%.
Labour is bound to lose seats in this election, certainly in Scotland, but very probably elsewhere.
So the right is seeking to build up unrealistic expectations for Labour gains in these elections in order to be able to claim that the Corbyn leadership has failed. The Labour right’s true disloyalty is reflected in the fact that their position is that they would rather see the Tories do well in order to bring down the Corbyn leadership than see Labour succeed under Corbyn’s policies. They are not actually ‘closet Tories’, but in preferring Tory policies to those of the left, the right is prepared to tactically aid the Tories to defeat Corbyn.
These arguments all need to be rehearsed in the run-up to the May elections, while making the priority to turn the fire on the Tories, exposing the disloyalty of the right if they fail to do that. But absolutely crucially, the rules for a leadership contest against an incumbent Leader must be urgently clarified to prevent an undemocratic right-wing coup against Corbyn.