Jeremy Corbyn has been leader of the Labour Party for less than three months but already the Party is in total chaos and this week could be the most critical so far. There is already talk of Labour MPs wanting rid of him and that could grow this week.
Today he finally succumbed to demands from his own Shadow Cabinet for Labour MPs to be given a free vote – that is to be allowed to make up their own minds rather than have to vote the way the leader tells them to – on the question of whether or not the UK should bomb the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Prime Minister David Cameron has called a vote in the UK parliament for Wednesday. It was clear that Corbyn would not be able to make his MPs toe the line and that a big number would vote against their leader. To stop the party from falling apart he had to allow the free vote.
To my mind Corbyn is right to oppose air strikes – which will not defeat IS will only kill/injure innocent people and make the UK even more of a terror target – but he was wrong not to allow a free vote. This is an issue of individual conscience. MPs should be able to make up their minds on this serious issue without having to toe a party line (this should also apply to Conservative MPs). But at least David Cameron has taken a position and stuck to it. Not only has Corbyn taken the wrong position he did not even stick to it – making him both wrong and weak – a fatal combination.
But it sums up the whole problem of Corbyn’s leadership – the vast majority of Labour MPs NEVER wanted him as their leader. And their fears have been confirmed. The problem with Corbyn is not his domestic policy – there is a chance that his anti austerity policies could be accepted by the time of the 2020 UK General Election – but two other factors. His defence and foreign policies will not be accepted by the UK public who already perceive him as being utterly incapable of defending the country or responding to a crisis. It does not help that he put a nuclear disarmer Ken Livingstone in co charge of the review of Labour’s defence policy – over the head of defence spokesperson Maria Eagle – which looks to critics like Corbyn is prejudging the review and has alarmed the majority of his MPs.
But the main problem with Corbyn is not his left wing policies but the fact that the man is totally out of his depth and has been promoted way beyond his ability. In 32 years as an MP he was never more than an obscure backbencher. No one cared what he did. Whether he sung the National Anthem or bowed to the UK Queen didn’t matter but when you become leader of one of the UK’s two big parties – and thus a candidate for Prime Minister – everything you do is scrutinised and you get attacked to trivial things. Former Opposition leaders Michael Foot and William Hague got ridiculed for wearing a donkey jacket and a baseball cap respectively. Unfair? Yes. But that is the UK Press for you. Plus the fact that Corbyn rebelled against Labour leaders over 500 times and therefore can hardly force his authority on his rebellious MPs.
And he is not popular with the public. The latest polls give him a satisfaction rating of minus 12. Usually new leaders get a honeymoon period with the UK public but this has not happened here. And Corbyn’s first electoral test is on Thursday with a by-election in Oldham West and Royton which should be a walk in the park for Labour. Firstly it has a majority of 14,738 or 34.17 per cent. Secondly the late MP Michael Meacher was a Corbyn supporter which suggests that this constituency should accept Corbyn’s views. Yet Labour insiders reckon at best they will win this seat narrowly and at worst suffer a humiliating loss to UKIP. In a seat like this defeat would be a disaster and shivers would go down the spines of Labour MPs.
Perhaps a humiliating loss to UKIP might be the best thing that could happen to Labour as it would make them realise that Corbyn is toxic and has no chance in 2020. But not only would they need to overthrow Corbyn but they would have to bypass their own members. For unbelievably Labour members who elected Corbyn still think he is doing a good job. So they would need to nominate one candidate who could then be elected unopposed – as Conservative MPs did in 2003 after they overthrew Iain Duncan Smith. Dan Jarvis – who has only been an MP since 2011 and is thus untainted by the Blair/Brown Governments – would be a good candidate.
This matters because the UK needs an electable Opposition which we don’t have. It is important because if there is not a good Opposition the Government gets complacent. The Conservative Government has its problems just now. A threatened strike by junior doctors(now suspended), Chancellor George Osborne’s humiliating defeat and subsequent U-turn on tax credit cuts and a bullying story involving former Party Chairman Grant Shapps.
Plenty for a competent Opposition to get their teeth into. But we don’t have a competent Opposition. For the sake of the country – and even the Conservative Party – we need one. And soon.