The news media are today talking up Labour’s ‘peril’ because of the government’s ‘Article 50’ bill to set the clock ticking on Britain’s departure from the EU.
Much is made of the ‘quandary’ that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour faces because most Labour MPs and many Labour voters don’t want to leave the EU, while BBC News and others emphasise Corbyn’s decision to impose a ‘3-line whip’, meaning that all MPs are expected to vote in line with the official party position and the fact that some MPs are planning to rebel against that whip.
The basic facts are true, but just as the Chinese character for ‘crisis’ is supposedly a blend of the characters for danger and opportunity, the government’s panicked and poorly thought-out actions – combined, crucially, with the fact that the majority of the anti-democratic MPs who oppose Corbyn are among the most vehement opponents of Brexit – have placed in Corbyn’s lap an enormous opportunity.
According to the Parliament website,
The SKWAWKBOX has been advocating for some time that Corbyn should ‘withdraw the whip’ from saboteur MPs, up to and including deputy leader Tom Watson. The decision to withdraw the whip is the leader’s prerogative; essentially, Corbyn could do this simply because he chooses to – the only reason technically required is ‘the leader’s displeasure’ and, heaven knows, there are many Labour MPs who have given Corbyn ample cause to be displeased.
However, to do so unilaterally would be portrayed by the media as authoritarian and undemocratic. It’s likely that Corbyn, who has a deeply-ingrained respect for democracy, would wish to avoid that.
In contrast, the penalty of a withdrawn whip for refusing a three-line whip is entirely normal parliamentary practice and nobody could credibly argue that Corbyn was exceeding his rights in doing so.
Any ‘chicken coup’ MP that decides to vote against the whip is basically baring his or her neck to Corbyn’s axe, should he choose to use it – and has no excuse if he does. He will be simply be acting in accordance with established precedent.
Jeremy Corbyn is not lacking clarity on Brexit. He recognises the political reality that, for all the lies and nonsense used to achieve the referendum result, there’s no going back. MPs – Labour or LibDem – who talk about undoing the vote are not interested in getting elected. They are positioning themselves for other purposes, whatever those may be.
But ‘rebel’ Labour MPs – MPs who have never accepted Corbyn’s victory and have been determined to undermine him since his first win in 2015 – have been collaborating with media and right-wing interests by constantly muddying the waters, contradicting or questioning him constantly, while the media spins it as a lack of vision or policy.
Risk and reward
Now, by trailing that they are going to rebel against his whip, they have given him an opportunity to kill at least five birds with one stone:
- show strong leadership that will be clear to the public as such, even if the media tries to spin it otherwise
- remove some of the worst Labour MPs that have dedicated themselves to undermining Corbyn and demoralising those who support his vision for Labour and for society
- send a message to those he chooses not to punish that they will ignore at their peril
- show decisive leadership that can only contrast favourably with the dithering and cravenness of Theresa May and her government
- remove or neutralise some/many of those preventing his vision – on Brexit and more widely – reaching the electorate
In addition, Corbyn may well have the opportunity to replace retardant right-wing MPs and even to bring a desperately-needed rebalancing to the NEC (National Executive Committee).
MPs effectively ‘expelled’ for this rebellion will be under pressure to go back to their electorate for a renewed mandate, whichever way their constituency voted in the referendum. With the whip withdrawn, they would not be entitled to stand as Labour MPs and their local Labour party would be perfectly entitled to stand better candidates against them.
It may well be that many would cling to their seats as independents, rather than ‘do the decent thing’ and turn to their electorate – but that would render them lame ducks and put their political career on a countdown to oblivion. Some, at least, may feel obliged to resign and either leave or stand as independents and Labour victories in those seats.
If any MPs on the NEC had the whip withdrawn, they would lose the right to be on the NEC, meaning that those on the Committee who respect the wishes of the vast majority of members could more easily ensure good left-wing candidates were selected for any by-elections. If Watson had the whip withdrawn, it would trigger a new contest for his deputy-leadership position and no candidate like him would stand a chance against the members’ anger.
Of course, it’s possible that some good MPs would feel obliged to vote against the whip as well. There have been rumours that the excellent Clive Lewis may do so – but he has said he will not vote against the article 50 bill, but will consider his vote on the terms of Brexit when he knows what those will be.
It doesn’t matter. Withdrawing the whip is entirely the leader’s decision. He can punish some and not others, sending an eloquent message to those who have spent the last year and a half trying to undermine Labour’s leader and most of its members.
If Corbyn has set up this situation, it’s a piece of bold political brilliance. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s played such a blinder. Or it might simply be chance. Either way, he has the opportunity.
Make no mistake, none of this would easy and there would be risk as well as reward – it would amount to a declaration of war. But it would be far better than the war of attrition that the Labour right will not stop conducting until they’re forced to – and Corbyn has a chance to force the issue.
He must take it, for the sake of his supporters, his vision and the people of this country desperately in need of a Labour government.
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