By refusing to stand down, Jeremy Corbyn is risking the very basis of the Labour Party itself

By Nick Tyrone

In regards to what is happening inside of Labour at present, there is no precedent. In the past, even large minorities of MPs in any party calling for the leader to step down would be met with acquiescence. It is part of the unwritten rules of British politics.

Corbyn has decided to ignore this history, citing the supremacy of the membership. In order to understand why he is wrong about this, it is important to look at what the basis of the Labour Party is and why that foundation has managed to keep Labour as one of the two mainstays of the two-party system, despite numerous crises that have threatened that position over the last seventy years.

The Labour Party is essentially a pact between the Parliamentary Labour Party, the trade unions, and the party membership. Each, in theory, are equally important. This was the logic around the way Labour used to elect its leaders: by thirds, with each of the constituencies I’ve just outlined having an equal say in the matter.

But Labour didn’t always elect its leader by thirds pre-Miliband reforms – for most of its history, the Labour leader was selected directly by the parliamentary party only. In other words, the PLP chose its own leader directly and the leader of the party was the head of the PLP first and foremost. From the 1922 election (the first) until it was changed for the 1983 leadership contest, this was the case. This initial system made a lot of sense – clause one of the Labour party manifesto is about maintaining a parliamentary Labour party, so it is vital that the leader in the Commons commands the full throated support of the PLP. Otherwise, it is essentially useless from a legislative perspective.

When the leadership contest rules were changed in 1983, it was felt that the process needed to be more inclusive of all of the elements of the Labour movement. And besides, would there really be that much of a disconnect between the constituent elements?

Miliband’s reforms in the last parliament did signpost the idea that the party was in essence the members forthwith, whether that was intentional or not. So Corbyn hasn’t gone mad – in this regard he has a point. However, the historic idea of what the Labour Party in fact is revolves around the synthesis between its elements being strong and working as one unit. By insisting that the PLP is voiceless, Corbyn has destroyed this – possibly temporarily, possibly forever. And in destroying this, he has destroyed the Labour Party – again, possibly temporarily, possibly forever.

Beyond Labour Party history and inner-workings, no party can function in a Westminster-style democracy if the MPs of that party do not recognise the legitimacy of the leader of it. This recognition cannot be faked or forced either – in a democracy, the feeling of leadership must be genuine. Momentum think they can wait it out and simply replace most of the PLP wholesale via deselections. This, again, will be the undoing of the Labour Party, at least as it has been historically constructed. They should think careful about whether that is something they wish to do or not.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. dylan says

    Many would counter that if Corbyn wins the opposite is true and he will return Labour to its working class roots and end the pandering to Capital over Labour

  2. Lisa Gooch-Knowles says

    Corbyn was voted in by an unprecedented rush, by students, to vote him in, mainly just to show that they could, not for any burning desire to see him as our leader.
    He should now realise that his party doesn’t support him, and that he can’t offer any sort of opposition to the tories or UKIP, on his own. We need a strong opposition to fight for our causes. He is not a strong leader. He is putting his own agenda before that of the party. It’s unfortunate, and unforgivable

  3. says

    That analysis is all well and good, but it ignores how the politics of the PLP has been corrupted over the years of Blairite influence (ideological diktat). The PLP have backed themselves into a corner. None of them have popular support, beyond their mostly modest election numbers. Corby meanwhile, has massive support – recently boosted to at least half a million. This cannot be ignored. The PLP have rushed headlong into a misguided attempt to unseat Corbyn rather than follow the democratic process. The resulting mess is wholly their responsibility and Corbyn and his support are right to stand their ground. If this means a fundamental reshaping of the Labour Party, so be it.

  4. Alec Brady says

    The Party Constitution says that there has to be a leader and deputy leader, elected by the members, and that they are _ex officio_ the leader and deputy leader of the PLP. So this result is clearly no accident, it’s not a mistake, it was meant. The majority in the PLP are basing their arguments on the opposite idea, that they should choose a leader who will be _ex officio_ the leader of the Party in the country.

    OK, I can see that the current wording of the rule might be seen to have been a bad choice. Well, there’s a National Conference coming up. If people want to change the wording of the rules, that’s the place to do it. But we can’t go around saying that, because we think the rules have bad effects, we should just be able to ignore them. There’s a process here, guys. Use it.

    By the way, a side effect of the rules has been to turn Labour into the biggest political party in Europe, and to generate real political conversation between ordinary people. I call that a win.

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