Disclaimer: I write the below as a Conservative, but perhaps a little extrospection is precisely what the Labour Party needs right now.
Since the day he was elected leader, commentators have been predicting impending coups against Jeremy Corbyn. First there was the Syria vote, then the ‘revenge’ reshuffle, the anti-Semitism row and the mediocre local election performance. Yet still the moderates have not pounced. Instead, they are laying the foundations to open a new front in their quest to return to the Labour Party a shred of electability. They are realising that not only is the Westminster Labour clique not the way forward for politics in the UK, but neither is Westminster politics in general. A plethora of Labour Councillors is now being buttressed by the big names of Sadiq Khan, Andy Burnham, and probably more in an attempt to create alternative power bases to the flailing leadership of Mr Corbyn.
As one shadow cabinet source commented recently, Labour is in the ‘Miliband’ zone: too crap to actually win, but not crap enough to make a dethronement possible. Recent polling of Labour members affirms that Mr Corbyn would likely win with an even bigger mandate if a leadership election were triggered. Some, like Matthew Parris of The Times, have encouraged Labour moderates (by which I mean anyone to the right of the Corbynistas) to try to depose Mr Corbyn anyway, and resign en masse should they fail, in order to trigger tens of by-elections in which they would stand as ‘Real Labour’. Tribalist attachment to the party, troublesome memories of the 1981 ‘Gang of Four’ split and perhaps a speck of self-preservationism make this unlikely. Instead, non-Corbynite Labour MPs are searching for other ways to extricate themselves from their excruciating incarceration inside the shadow cabinet and the parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).
Strangely, it is chancellor George Osborne who is providing the means to such an escape. His ‘Northern Powerhouse’ plans (and promotion of devolution in general) have been widely mocked and dismissed by the Left as a cynical attempt to shift the blame for austerity onto local councils. It is not hard to see why this sort of conspiratorialism emerges where any proposal of Mr Osborne, the most political of chancellors, is concerned. Yet it is telling that business groups and local politicians alike are broadly welcoming of the proposals, which should give greater decision-making accountability and responsibility to localities, and make policy more compatible to the area in which it is being implemented. Nonetheless, it is the macro political implications of this devolution project which are of greatest interest here.
Whilst the national party has been tying itself in knots over what approach to take to public spending, Labour councillors have been adopting a far more pragmatic position. Faced with significant reductions to central government grants and limited powers to raise revenues independently, local councils have had to become imaginative. Councils have been forced to economise, cut bureaucracy and tap the vast equity held in local government property. The Economist commented on the pragmatic centrism of Jim McMahon in his role as Labour leader of Oldham council, and the lessons of gaining and utilising power Labour could learn; Mr McMahon is now an MP. It is hard, though, for council leaders to gain real national recognition. They are, after all, chosen from within their own ranks and rarely involved in nationwide campaigning. Mr Osborne’s elected mayors, however, offer something different: the chance for Labour ‘big beasts’ to stand on individual platforms, win personal mandates and govern autonomously from the central party leadership.
Mr Khan was at pains to distinguish himself from Mr Corbyn during the London mayoral contest. He stressed his pro-business credentials in an effort to occult the fact he nominated Mr Corbyn for the leadership. A review of Mr Khan’s political career may indicate that he is a little more left-wing than his campaign let on, but he is hardly about to start rounding up the bankers to send them off to Siberia. With more powers probably on the way to City Hall, Mr Khan will have further opportunities to demonstrate Labour can govern responsibly. It is in this vein that other Labour heavyweights are considering running for the various new mayoralties being contested in 2017: Greater Manchester, Merseyside, West Midlands and the North East are among the largest areas to be given additional powers in exchange for electing a region-wide mayor. Already, shadow home secretary Mr Burnham and shadow mental health minister Luciana Berger have put their names forward. Mr Burnham, ironically, voiced opposition to the plans before the last general election, but now spies an opportunity to establish a new power base following his failed leadership bid last year.
These mayoral power bases will, arguably, be far more influential in terms of actual policymaking than Mr Corbyn and his shadow cabinet. Significant purse power is to be devolved, from health to housing to infrastructure. Mr Burnham’s leadership campaign strategy was essentially to emphasise his ‘northern-ness’; now he can compete for a role in which he would have real influence for the north. Because while Labour councils are seeing more power flowing their way, Labour MPs are seeing theirs drain away. Not only is the leader more entrenched than ever, but the debility of the PLP is becoming ever more stark. In spite of some futile comments from Labour MPs, the recent (and numerically impressive) catalogue of government U-turns have come about because of pressure from within the Tory tribe: policies on forced academisation, child refugees, disability benefits, tax credits, Sunday trading and pension tax relief were all reversed because of disquiet on the government benches. The government only changed tack on trade union reforms because some major trade unions were threatening to remove their support for remaining in the EU. The contributions of Mr Corbyn to parliamentary debate and the legislative process are negligible at best, totally irrelevant at worst.
On top of this, the discomfort of Labour’s professional politicians as the politburo bumbles around waving Mao’s little red book and indulging anti-Semites is clear to see. It is not difficult to understand why the likes of Mr Khan and Mr Burnham want to get out while they can. This tactic of clandestinity may lack the heroism of fighting loudly and publicly against the vote-repelling leadership of Mr Corbyn, but it may instead represent a kind of asymmetric warfare. Rather than waging valiant but doomed battles in the halls of Westminster, Labour moderates might be shrewd to grab these new reins of power elsewhere, and render the Corbyn show unimportant.