Labour MPs Prove They Can Get Mad - But Can They Get Even?

Corbyn’s rough ride from the PLP suggests trouble ahead if they don't get leader they want.

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“Well, that was brutal.” As she left the PLP meeting on Tuesday night, the verdict of one newly elected Labour MP to a fellow rookie backbencher just about summed it up.‌

Jeremy Corbyn had faced what one person present told me was “a monstering”, as the anger from last week’s general election rout finally boiled over in Committee Room 14 in the Commons.

Apart from some notable exceptions such as Ian Lavery and new MP Claudia Webbe, Corbyn faced a series of withering assessments of his leadership and strategy. And it was the cold anger of those on the mainstream centre left (none of whom could be called ‘Blairites’) that was most telling.

There was the forensic description of the “shambolic” campaign by backbenchers such as Yvonne Fovargue, the raw fury of the usually mild-mannered Clive Efford (of the Tribune group) and the outrage from Tonia Antoniazzi that low-paid party staff were to lose their jobs while fat cat Corbyn chiefs kept theirs.‌

Part of the emotion stemmed from the lack of any personal apology from Corbyn in the immediate wake of the defeat. All those defeated MPs in the Labour ‘red wall’, smashed by Boris Johnson’s ‘blue wave’ tsunami, were not just colleagues but friends.

And enough in the PLP remember that when Gordon Brown lost in 2010 he sent handwritten apologies to losing candidates. Mary Creagh’s attack on Corbyn’s “preening narcissism” in the wake of the defeat was brutal indeed.‌

Rachel Reeves, who has kept her counsel during the last few years as she focused on her business select committee chair role, was the most direct in the end, telling Corbyn “the biggest drag on our vote was you”.

Several MPs also warned against any attempt to “rig” the next election to succeed him as leader, with many suspecting that Corbyn’s allies want a short, sharp contest to favour Rebecca Long-Bailey (who stayed silent during the meeting).

The big fear among Corbyn’s opponents is that starting the race on January 7 will give little time to mobilise enough non-Left members of the public to become registered supporters. And while the PLP can vent its frustration all it likes, it is actually the ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) that will decide that timetable. “That was cathartic,” one MP said after the PLP. But ‘don’t just get mad, get even’ - that’s the message from some older hands.

Many MPs know they are impotent on this score but are hoping that some big trade unions like Unison and the GMB will finally show their independence and refuse to go along with a coronation for a ‘Continuity Corbyn’ candidate. With the NEC losing Nav Mishra and Claudia Webbe and Sarah Owen (all elected as MPs), its pro-Corbyn majority is weaker but only if non-Unite unions decide to put their foot down.

Long-Bailey’s opponents have already given her the ‘Continuity Corbyn’ tagline, knowing it’s difficult for her to reject it without upsetting the Corbyn supporters who still dominate many local parties. There is also muttering (that is bound to become more public) that her conduct on the NEC - wanting to allow a vote to abolish Tom Watson’s post, whether she stood up on anti-Semitism - will come under scrutiny.

Allies point to the simple fact that she’s the only likely candidate who voted against Tory welfare cuts in the summer of 2015, rather than abstaining in line with the Harriet Harman whip (Corbyn voted against, Burnham, Cooper and Kendall abstained, the rest is leadership election history).

Long-Bailey’s supporters also argue there’s more than a whiff of sexism about assumptions that she will be John McDonnell’s or Len McCluskey’s “puppet”, but she will need to show how she has challenged anything the leadership or NEC did in recent years. All candidates would do well to read former Ed Miliband aide Stewart Wood’s top tips for an election post-mortem (see below).‌

On a day when Labour’s internal woes were the main story in town (or rather the village that is SW1), Lisa Nandy’s speech proposing Speaker Lindsay Hoyle was a pretty unabashed attempt to remind everyone of her own leadership agenda. Nandy paid tribute to Laura Pidcock and Dennis Skinner, attacked Westminster ‘privilege’ and repeated her narrative that small towns are the key to Labour’s revival.

And tonight Keir Starmer is finally showing more ankle, with a Guardian interview in which he called for a broad party that praised Momentum as well as “people who might self-identity as Blairites”. Note too the YouGov poll this summer which suggested that 68% of Labour members felt Starmer would be a good leader (to 34% for Long-Bailey), figures Robert Peston says were repeated in another YouGov poll recently. Meanwhile, some MPs think Jess Phillips is the only real break with the past. “We can bumble along for another five years or we can do something really bold,” said one.

As Margaret Beckett reminded the PLP, it was John Smith who in 1992 realised it was time to focus on what the public wanted, rather than just what the party wanted. This is not just about policies. It’s often forgotten that William Hague’s policies were actually polling well in 2001 before he lost to a second Blair landslide. Instead, it’s credibility to govern that really matters most.‌

Which leadership candidate will the public, not the party, like most? Polling will surely arrive in coming days on that, though it’s unclear if any of it will sway party members.

Whoever gets the top job, tonight’s PLP meeting showed just how difficult it will be for any pro-Corbyn contender to keep order in a shattered party in parliament. Many are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it any more. But if they don’t get the leader they want, just what will they do?

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Tuesday Cheat Sheet

Lindsay Hoyle was reelected as Speaker of the Commons by acclamation, as MPs began the two-day process of ‘swearing in’.

Boris Johnson banned ministers from attending the Davos summit in January. “Our focus is on delivering for the people, not champagne with billionaires,” one source said.

The new Cabinet met for the first time, and discussed the return of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) this Friday and the Queen’s Speech on Thursday. The PM misspoke by saying “unemployment is up again!” He meant down (the rate is its lowest since 1974).

Nusrat Ghani was appointed junior transport minister as the mini-reshuffle continued. Speculation continued that Zac Goldsmith would get a peerage and retain his environment minister job. Trudy Harrison, Copeland MP, was made PPS to the PM.

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said that Brussels would do “the maximum” it could to get a trade deal by the end of 2020. “ What you call a cliff edge will never be the choice of the EU, never,” he told EuroNews.

Tory MP Andrew Bridgen wrote to the PM asking for Nigel Farage to be given a knighthood.

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