Everything you need to know about Labour’s rolling crisis


SOMETHING remarkable is happening in British politics. In September the Labour Party elected Jeremy Corbyn, one of its most far-left and rebellious MPs, to its leadership after a campaign in which tens of thousands joined the party as members or registered supporters to vote for him. After an already-rocky start to his tenure, in the past weeks the party has descended into a rolling crisis. Here is my account of what is happening, why and what might come next.

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It says something about the lurid drama of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour that, with a parliamentary vote due on British air strikes against Islamic State in Syria just a day away, today’s newspaper headlines concentrate more on the latest chapter in Labour’s meltdown. Why? The vote was always going to be relatively tight and the government is determined to avoid a repeat of 2013, when it proposed action against Bashar al-Assad only to suffer a humiliating defeat in the Commons. With a small majority, and with some of his own MPs opposed, David Cameron has spent the past months waiting for it to become clear that he would have the support of the perhaps 30 or more opposition MPs needed to make up the numbers comfortably. After the attacks in Paris it was immediately deduced in Downing Street that the mood was shifting—in the country as well as in Westminster—and that preparations for a possible vote should go ahead, pending some support from the Labour benches. So as cabinet ministers have been making their case in Parliament and in the television studios, all eyes have been on events in Labour.

And what events. The period between the Paris attacks and today has been the party’s most painful, self-destructive fortnight in decades, perhaps ever. Had excitable television scriptwriters suggested that any of this was plausible a few months ago, they would have been laughed out of the room. Consider what has happened:

November 16th: In the wake of attacks on November 13th, Mr Corbyn declares himself sceptical about the use of shoot-to-kill; he is later savaged by MPs at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP)

November 17th: Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, says he supports shoot-to-kill and that he cannot speak for his party leader; Mr Corbyn later reverses his position on the matter; Labour MPs attack him for his links to Stop the War, a protest group that blamed the Paris attacks on the West

November 18th: Mr Corbyn appoints Ken Livingstone, the left-wing former mayor of London, to a major defence role; following criticisms from Labour MPs Mr Livingstone advises one with mental health problems to get psychiatric help, then spends most of the rest of the day ignoring Mr Corbyn’s request that he apologise

November 19th: John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, denies having endorsed a statement calling for MI5 to be abolished and the police to be disarmed; it later transpires that he did support it

November 20th: Labour MPs demand a free vote on air strikes

November 21st: Mr Corbyn declares he is opposed to air strikes; Ed Miliband, Labour’s former leader, is reported to have told an MP: “I bet you didn’t think things would actually get worse”

November 22nd: A YouGov poll reveals that two-thirds of Labour members think Mr Corbyn is doing well while the general public overwhelmingly disapproves of him

November 23rd: Mr Corbyn is criticised by shadow ministers after giving a rambling and vague response to the government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review

November 24th: 14 Labour MPs defy Mr Corbyn and vote in support of renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent

November 25th: Responding to the autumn statement, Mr McDonnell brandishes Mao’s little red book; tabloids and Tories hoot as Labour MPs cringe

November 26th: In a shadow cabinet meeting most of Mr Corbyn’s front bench tell him they support military action in Syria; then without so much as telling Mr Benn, Mr Corbyn writes to MPs informing them he opposes it; in a televised discussion Mr Livingstone blames Tony Blair for the terrorist attacks in London in 2005 and claims the perpetrators “gave their lives” for their cause

November 27th: Labour MPs are bombarded with messages from members of Momentum urging them to oppose military action

November 28th: Mr Livingstone calls British troops “discredited”; several MPs say Mr Corbyn should step down; The Times reports that some have consulted lawyers about means of forcing him out

November 29th: Mr Corbyn tells Andrew Marr he is not going anywhere and claims that the Labour leader, not its front bench, decides the party’s position on matters like Syria; shadow cabinet ministers including Tom Watson, the deputy leader, and Mr Benn inform him they intend to support air strikes; Mr Corbyn publishes a methodologically dubious internal poll of Labour members suggesting that 75% are opposed and turns to the National Executive Committee for support

November 30th: After a shadow cabinet meeting in which he is reportedly yelled at by his own front benchers, Mr Corbyn relents and offers a free vote against an anti-strikes party policy; furious shadow ministers, wary of retaliatory deselection bids, force him to drop this formal policy; at a PLP meeting MPs attack Mr Corbyn and Mr Livingstone

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