A hugely significant but largely unremarked upon aspect of last Thursday’s election result is the fact that the parliamentary left has grown, not just as an overall number but also as a proportion of Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).
To be clear, this took many of us by surprise. Those of us monitoring the expedited seat selection process overseen by the NEC were quickly dismayed, if not surprised, by the apparent domination of moderate candidates. Successes such as the selection of Dan Carden in Liverpool Wavertree and Laura Pidcock in North West Durham were overshadowed by the selection of a number of candidates openly hostile to Corbyn and Corbynism in safe seats vacated by MPs standing down. Concerns grew that the PLP would, following the election, be even less reflective of the membership.
What we (and the party machinery?) had missed however was the number of solidly pro-Corbyn and left candidates selected in what we then thought were unwinnable seats.
The Selection Process
The opaque, centralised selection process undertaken for the snap election was the source of great frustration for many members and potential candidates. It must not be repeated. However, given the obviously precarious nature of Theresa May’s nascent ‘Coalition of Chaos’ with the DUP, we should anticipate and prepare for another election within a year and possibly even before year’s end. This compels Labour to learn one electoral lesson from the Liberal Democrats: picking candidates early and embedding them in their seats.
Those candidates that ran the Tories incredibly close last week, often despite scant allocation of central resources — such as in Chingford and Woodford Green (as explored in an interview for the NS yesterday) — will of course have a good claim to stand again. Either way, local party members must be involved in the selection process. As Aaron Bastani astutely observed in April, the direct involvement of the membership in selections not only confers legitimacy upon the successful candidate, it engages members and increases the likelihood that they will actually get out and campaign regardless of whether the candidate shares their politics.
The New Left Intake
For all its glaring deficiencies the 2017 process would go on to provide the left and pro-Corbyn candidates that delivered some of the more remarkable wins of the night, including Marsha de Cordova in Battersea and the very last result to be declared, Emma Dent Coad’s spectacular win in Kensington.
It is significant that a number of these new MPs are very young by common parliamentary standards. Putting the personal popularity of the leadership team to one side, it is obviously imperative that the party can better reflect its increasingly youthful membership and electoral base. These new MPs, if supported by the party, the older generation of MPs and the membership, can play a huge part in that.
The new left intake also includes some old hands in the form of two ‘returnees’: David Drew in Stroud (MP from 1997-2010), a Campaign Group member who nominated John McDonnell for the leadership in 2007 and the strongly pro-Corbyn Chris Williamson in Derby North (2010-2015).
The newly-elected MPs will take up their seats alongside a number of incumbent left MPs who were thought to be at risk of losing their seats, such as Margaret Greenwood in Wirral West, Clive Lewis in Norwich South and Cat Smith in Lancaster and Fleetwood. All were returned with greatly increased majorities.
Further, none of the five seats sadly lost to the Tories were held in the last Parliament by pro-Corbyn MPs, although Tom Blenkinsop’s replacement as a candidate in Middlesbrough South and Cleveland, Tracy Harvey, was an enthusiastic Corbyn supporter.
There are other talented new members such as MEP Anneliese Dodds in Oxford East and NUT official Emma Hardy in Alan Johnson’s old seat Hull West and Hessle, who might reasonably be described as being on the ‘left of the soft left’. Another returnee, John Grogan, could comfortably be placed in this category. The positioning of these new MPs and the soft left in general in relation to the leadership in coming weeks will be worth watching closely.
The McDonnell Amendment
Pre-election discussions around whether a hypothetical Corbyn successor would reach the current nomination of threshold of 15% of the PLP have been rendered moot — in the short term at least. Corbyn’s leadership position is now as strong as Theresa May’s is weak. Prominent Labour MPs who spent much of the general election campaign gearing up for a leadership challenge must now stoop to lobbying in the media for Corbyn’s preferment in his imminent reshuffle.
Stephen Bush (of the lesser NS) has speculated that the enlarged left now exceeds the nomination threshold. Our initial analysis, to be published at a later date, suggests that this might be a slightly optimistic reading. EIther way, this does not mean that the so-called ‘McDonnell amendment’ — seeking to lower the nomination threshold for leadership contests from 15% of the PLP to 5% — should not be pursued. Indeed, we reiterated its importance in our post-election editorial and will work to see it passed at this year’s conference in Brighton. If Corbyn’s leadership has taught us one thing it’s that the PLP must not be allowed to limit the membership’s choice to a meagre field of barely indistinguishable technocrats.
The embittered, increasingly marginalised Progress wing of the party, while implacably opposed to the amendment now, will thank us in the future when the lower nomination threshold enables their unreconstructed Blairite of choice to scrape onto the ballot, to poll under 5% again.
The Immediate Role of the Parliamentary Left
A reshuffle is imminent, which at the very least will be used to plug the handful of gaps left by those who stood down before June. This is also an opportunity to elevate those who had strong campaigns, to bring talented MPs who resigned over Article 50 back into the fold and possibly give some of the newly elected left MPs junior shadow or PPS roles.
Early indications are that Corbyn will resist the calls to reappoint the square pegs of media designated “big beasts” such as Yvette Cooper (or media constructions such as “Dan Jarvis”) into the round holes of his shadow cabinet. This, if proven to be true, is welcome. Amid some hysterical calls for “party unity”, the basic fact that MPs who plainly do not support the direction the party has taken under Corbyn simply cannot be trusted should not be forgotten.
He will reportedly favour those who, regardless of their personal politics, demonstrated loyalty in the execution of their shadow ministerial responsibilities over the last few crucial months. This is welcome and will provide a riposte to those who weaponise the notion of Labour as a “broad church” in a transparent attempt to promote their narrow sectional interests and their attendant foot soldiers within the PLP. One possible exception to this is Ed Miliband, who supported Owen Smith’s candidacy last summer, but has been notably less hostile than many others and was reportedly impressed with the radicalism of Corbyn’s manifesto, when compared against his 2015 effort.
A number of the newly elected MPs, and not just those on the left, bring to Westminster significant prior expertise and ideas. There are several whose immediate elevation into shadow roles would not be unwelcome. Could Emma Dent Coad’s experience as a councillor and housing campaigner in inner London be brought to bear to reinforce Labour’s position on the construction of new social housing? Might Marsha de Cordova's work as a disability activist inform our shadow work and pensions team and build upon Labour’s promising, if partial, manifesto with and for disabled people? Could Hugh Gaffney, who evoked Keir Hardie by wearing his Parcelforce shirt as he arrived at Parliament for his first day as an MP, be deployed to front Labour’s calls for the renationalisation of Royal Mail?
Those not brought into the fold at this early stage will have plenty of other opportunities to make an impact as they establish their offices and the normal course of Parliament resumes. Parliament, while institutionally weighted toward the executive (including minority or fragile coalition governments), provides a number of ‘policy venues’ for even the most inexperienced and unknown of opposition backbenchers to frustrate, scrutinise and expose the government.
Once the government’s legislative programme is revealed MPs will set to work in bill committees and in the chamber to dilute, amend or destroy bills. The membership of influential departmental select committees will be determined shortly. It would be desirable, for example, to see a Labour MP who firmly supports rail renationalisation elected as chair of the Transport Select Committee. All-party parliamentary groups (APPGs), while frequently used as naked promotional vehicle for trade lobbies or foreign governments, are often also established in conjunction with campaign groups and charities and give backbenchers another mechanism to promote important causes and lead to changes to legislation.
NS and Mainstream Political Journalism
That the parliamentary busy work described above goes largely unnoticed does not negate its importance. If Corbynism is to deliver on its promise then it obviously will be realised in part through parliamentary action, both in opposition and in government.
The arcane nature of Parliament does not lend itself to popular discussion. This is exacerbated by a class of political journalists who are immune to the impact of the policies that emanate from our political institutions and use their access to present politics through the narrow frames of strategy and personality.
The example of Corbyn perfectly demonstrates this. Scores of journalists, disinclined to treat the Corbyn phenomena with the critical perspective it always deserved, transformed themselves into unthinking vessels for the transmission of anonymous smears and insults by its opponents. Many journalists on the nominal left, for reasons now outlined in torturous mea culpas, took to parroting the same attacks put forward by Corbyn’s opponents. What is now obvious is that regardless of how they saw themselves politically these journalists had cohered around a single incredibly narrow perspective. This encompassed the aforementioned fixation with personality (“Corbyn is weak and unelectable”) and a sort of half-baked Blairite electoralism (an obsession with polling, a misplaced belief in the political power of their own dying medium, a complete lack of faith in the voting public and an emphasis on appealing to an imagined “Middle England” above all else).
While the appalling pre-election predictions and think pieces put out by these commentators certainly deserve our ridicule, their true failure lies not in failing to accurately predict the result — few did — but in refusing to examine and understand the appeal of Corbyn and Corbynism. Their journalism, in as far as it can be described as such, is coloured by disdain and a frankly staggering lack of intellectual curiosity. The book eaters and UKIP-shills of British political science, as Jonathan Dean correctly identified last year, suffer from much the same problem and have incurred significant reputational damage as a result.
That our media is (with a few glimmering exceptions) utterly moribund; that there is a need and a space for just plain better coverage of Westminster and our politics more generally should, by now, be self-evident.
NS will be reporting on the first contributions of the new left MPs and inviting them to contribute where possible. We have compiled a Twitter list of the new MPs understood to be on the left. We encourage our readers to follow and engage with them.
Our statement of intent in regard to Westminster coverage commits us to “highlight and celebrate the contribution of left parliamentarians”. We are pleased that this task, given their increased number, might prove more difficult than we had anticipated.
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