‘People are at breaking point’: the fractious relationship between Corbyn and the PLP
The relationship between Labour MPs and the Leader’s office has dominated much of Jeremy Corbyn’s time in charge of the party. With the left-winger securing a stranglehold on the party machinery, and membership soaring to more than half a million, can the PLP stick together? Emilio Casalicchio and Liz Bates report
As Jeremy Corbyn prepares for his fourth Labour conference as leader, some of his MPs are pondering whether it will be their last. Talk of a potential split has reached fever pitch in Westminster and as the party decamps to Liverpool, so-called moderates are considering their political future. And while some marginalised MPs are determined to stay on and fight, others are more uncertain. According to one backbencher: “People are at breaking point.”
“It’s not that they are choosing to leave,” the MP explains. “It’s that they are being pushed out and would probably be unable in all conscience to retain the Labour whip, because they don’t feel that their integrity allows them to.”
Long-standing tensions have this summer been compounded by a self-inflicted anti-Semitism row, deselection threats and wranglings over the party’s Brexit stance. Meanwhile, the left-wing leadership has tightened its grip on the infrastructure. An ongoing Democracy Review is set to see power shifted away from the PLP towards Corbyn’s base – members and the trade unions.
A handful of MPs have already left the fold for a variety of reasons. Veteran MP Frank Field was the latest to break ranks and resign the whip, citing the anti-Semitism scandal and claiming that a “culture of nastiness, bullying and intimidation” had been allowed to develop. Field is among those publicly at odds with the leader who have faced votes of no confidence brought by local activists demanding they fall in line. Many more are privately disillusioned, with some admitting they will stay away from this year’s conference fearing the hostility they could face.
But if they were hoping for reassurance from Labour’s top team they may be disappointed. Asked recently about the deselection threats, Corbyn indicated that he would not be intervening in the party’s democratic processes.
Since his shock victory in 2015 Corbyn’s relationship with some of his own backbenchers has deteriorated dramatically, occasionally producing bitter public battles. The cause of the current discord can be traced back to a few pivotal moments during his tenure and to the attitudes and personalities of some of his more influential allies.
Since the lifelong socialist took the reins, there has been a keen interest in the people Corbyn welcomed into his inner circle. His director of communications Seumas Milne and his chief-of-staff Karie Murphy are seen as dominant figures in the team and dictate how the leader of the opposition’s office (Loto) operates. One source compares the pair to former No10 chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, noting “they protect each other”, while another describes them as Corbyn’s “left and right hands”.
They are said to be the source of some of the major battles with the PLP – with Milne apparently choosing to keep loyal MPs close rather than open up the frontbench in the wake of the 2017 general election. Murphy is thought to have spearheaded the recent disciplinary cases against Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin – although Loto denies it has anything to do with the complaints procedure.
Those who have seen the dynamic between the chiefs and critical MPs up close suggest they are a barrier to smoothing relations, with one insider joking: “If Tony Blair can achieve peace in Northern Ireland then maybe one day peace between Karie and the PLP can be achieved – but I’m not going to hold my breath.”
Another figure insiders quickly became wary of is Katy Clark – a passionately left-leaning former MP who lost her seat in 2015 and was later drafted into Loto as Corbyn’s political secretary. Labour sources say her arrival coincided with a further freezing of relations with the PLP – just as others in the senior team were doing their best to reach out to MPs who were at first considered hostile to the project, with drinks parties in the leadership office and open-door sessions with the man himself. “When you have a glass of wine and something nice to eat in your hand it’s hard to be a dick to people,” a former attendee explains. “And it would humanise us and show them that we weren’t scary and show them that we were all on the same page, pushing for the same endeavour.
“But when Katy came in she had a completely different approach. She wanted to get the core group of left-wing MPs coalesced around Jeremy and work out from there. So no more parties, and the open doors kind of fell by the wayside.”
Other sources however insist there was no concerted effort to end the social events, and argue the leadership office reaches out to backbenchers far more than past administrations.
Some Labour MPs had concluded that Corbyn would be a disaster as leader before he had taken on the job. Former MP Jamie Reed quit the frontbench midway through his acceptance speech on 12 September 2015. Many other MPs were hostile in the media and weekly PLP meetings became increasingly fractious. “The ones I was at, for a long time, were just awful,” one source recalls. “The atmosphere was MPs barracking and shouting and Jeremy refusing to answer questions – just getting up there and reading out his diary.”
The vote on bombing ISIS targets in Syria exposed the deep schism within the party. Corbyn was opposed but his shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn was in favour and gave a rousing speech in the House setting out his position, which won applause from colleagues and prompted a significant rebellion in which 66 Labour MPs voted against the leadership.
The episode left “a lot of wounds that never went away,” one source says. “What came out of that was the massive mistrust of Hilary Benn. And it essentially led from there to the Shadow Cabinet resigning over Brexit.”
A string of resignations came soon after the EU referendum in protest at Corbyn’s efforts during the campaign, followed by an overwhelming vote of no confidence in the Labour leader among Labour MPs. The subsequent doomed leadership challenge was dubbed the ‘chicken coup’ by his supporters.
“The way the challenge in 2016 happened was aggressive, it was cack-handed and it strengthened Jeremy,” one former Labour staffer says. “The membership at that point was starting to drop off. People who had paid their money for a year’s membership were all leaving the party. But the effect of the coup was to electrify the supporters again. It brought them all back in and it brought them back around Jeremy.”
The botched bid to replace Corbyn led to a period of despondence among his strongest opponents, but within the mainstream of the party a renewed determination to get on with the day job emerged. Many of those middle-ground MPs are part of the Tribune Group, often described as a movement representing the ‘soft left’.
Its chair Clive Efford says: “We felt there was a very big body of MPs who didn’t have a voice in that process and were sort of bounced along and we didn’t want that to happen again. We are very much saying the party has made up its mind. The party has settled on the leadership issue and we have got to get on with the job.”
He adds: “We are not oppositionists – the vast majority of the Tribune Group is on the front bench. We are very much trying to play our role in developing coherent policies that make the party ready for government.”
The 2017 general election was a second flashpoint, with many Labour MPs preparing themselves for an electoral disaster that never came. Corbyn supporters hailed the surprise result as a victory against the odds and any hopes harboured by his critics of another leadership contest were resoundingly dashed.
A Loto source describes the general election fallout as exposing “two categories of Corbyn-sceptic” – those who doubted his electability but were left “quite elated” after the vote, and those who fundamentally disagree with his political ideology and will never be won round. “The second grouping is hugely smaller than the first,” the source says, adding that the atmosphere has improved significantly since that time.
“You can see it in PMQs. PMQs is perhaps not the best spectacle but the MPs do a lot of cheering and yah booing and yelling and all the rest of it and since the election our side have done that much more for Jeremy than before. It’s been more co-operative.”
However, others take a different view. One Labour backbencher – who is committed to remaining in the party – describes the current relationship as non-existent, “slightly sulky and petulant”.
Another disillusioned MP adds: “There is a hard-edged, hostile ideology that is hustling people out from what was hitherto a broad church – but the broad church is narrowing rapidly.”
While the general election may have dampened dissent in some quarters, this summer brought a fresh anti-Semitism row that reignited internal tensions. A decision by the leadership to alter a widely accepted international definition of anti-Semitism left it at odds with many vocal backbenchers, culminating in angry confrontations that left Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin facing disciplinary action – although the probe against Hodge was later dropped.
While Loto has done its best to play down the row, one ex-Labour staffer who worked closely with the leadership believes the episode has taken the party to a “very dangerous” place. “MPs are more concerned – and I’m more concerned – by the relationship between the leader’s office and the PLP than they ever have been, even at the height of the coup.”
Labour has now adopted the IHRA definition in full, but with the its annual conference just days away there is a sense among some that the dispute will rage on. “You are bound to get some loon from one of the CLPs standing up and denouncing Israel and calling it a Nazi state and all of this stuff,” a source says. “So we’ll have another bout of it at conference, which means conference will all be about anti-Semitism.”
Another issue that could bring Loto and PLP friction to a head is the controversial Democracy Review. It proposes Labour rule changes that would weaken the power of MPs in nominating leadership candidates and in having their say on election manifestos. The new initiative – led by Clark – is seen by critics as a way to tighten the left’s hold over the party. The plans don’t currently include mandatory reselection contests for all MPs who want to stand again – but the grassroots Momentum group is pushing for the feared reform and the debate, which just this week was prolonged, will no doubt bring the possibility a step closer.
The proposed changes will undoubtedly inflame growing concerns among moderates that they could be forced out. “It’s a real dilution of their influence and their power in the party,” a former staffer at Labour HQ says. “It’s effectively making them less powerful than councillors.”
But proponents of the plans insist they have “strong support”, although they admit that they won’t “please everybody”. A Loto source says: “The idea that this is all about taking power away from MPs is an absolutely blinkered view that comes from SW1 not from the rest of the country. It’s about empowering higher levels of activism, more efficient campaigning and more effective representation. It’s not about dry rule changes so more people in Westminster are more powerful than other people in Westminster.”
But whatever the motivation, events over the summer have added fuel to rumours of an imminent split, as those on the fringes reportedly discuss how and when to make their move.
“The most dangerous time for a political party that is weak is post-conference to Christmas,” a Labour insider says. “Things start to fester. As you get closer to Christmas people start to drink more, nights get darker, it gets nasty towards the end of Christmas and everyone gets ratty and wants to go home. And that’s when crises really happen – and I would think if they manage to hold things together through conference that’s when there will be a real explosion.
“I could see the split coming over October/November.”
But even the most disenchanted MPs seem to be struggling to imagine life after Labour.
One backbencher says: “That would be a massive retrograde step if we were to go in that direction…
“I don’t think anything is going to happen before Brexit. It would look incredibly self-indulgent to be doing this kind of thing while parliament is going into an absolute shit storm over the next few months. It’s just ridiculous to think you can spend that time creating a new party.”
Efford also dismisses the idea as “storm in a teacup stuff”. “I don’t think a split will happen. This all seems to have come from a dinner hosted by Peter Mandelson and anyone who’s going to think about setting up a breakaway party with Peter Mandelson is going to end up in a very small party indeed.”
But a more pessimistic colleague argues that despite there being no obvious way forward, the necessity to withdraw support is becoming morally imperative.
“We have a responsibility to the country to step back and ask if we are really happy with letting the public think they are electing a Labour administration because they think it says Labour on the tin but in fact when the tin is opened out pops something completely alien to the public’s expectations,” they say.
A central stumbling block to this though is how those seeking a new political home could realistically leave behind the party’s long-established brand, electoral base and infrastructure, not to mention the emotional attachment many MPs and staff have to Labour.
“The tribal loyalty is always there,” an ex-Labour staffer explains. “You’re born into it. It’s your social network, it’s your home, it’s a visceral part of your life and you can’t just walk away from it that easily.
“In the current electoral system, I still think you have to start with a rump of 50 or more MPs. You have to have more than the SNP to give yourself the exposure in parliament.”
It would end up being an “SDP-like flash in the pan” that “would appear and then very quickly – within a couple of parliaments – disappear again,” they conclude.
Would-be splitters also raised concerns about leaving primarily to pursue a different Brexit stance, with one insider warning that “any new party that coalesces around one issue will die with that issue”. Others whose hopes are pinned on a second EU referendum are faced with a contradiction: the aggressively pro-Corbyn wing is also the group most likely to achieve a shift in the party’s position, with Momentum-dominated local parties passing motions across the country for a change of tack. Those MPs pursuing a fresh vote will have pause for thought as the grassroots clamour grows.
On whether Loto is appealing to those in the PLP considering a split, a source close to Corbyn says: “That’s a matter for them.
“Of course, we say all the time come on board with what we are doing – we want as many people as possible going forwards so that we can transform the country in the interests of the many not the few.
“Labour MPs have an absolutely huge role to play in that transformation – whether they are on the front bench or the back bench. It’s not like Labour MPs are these hostile forces that are in Westminster. They can be, and most of them are fantastic campaigners on issues, local organisers in their constituencies, in their communities, helping and working with people, promoting the Labour cause and the Labour message – that’s what the overwhelming majority of MPs are doing all the time.
“The idea that most MPs are sitting around trying to work out how to snipe at the leadership is very unfair and isn’t true at all.”