So who owns a political party? The members who join for a few pounds a year with hardly any checks on their past conduct or opinions, Members of Parliament elected by their constituents under their party’s banner, or the leadership of the party, partly elected by the members and MPs and partly selected by the elected leader?
All this is coming into focus as we witness the slow motion car crash that has enveloped the Labour Party. Political commentators are fond of writing about splits in political parties – wets versus dries under Margaret Thatcher’s reign in the Tory Party; modernisers versus traditionalists under David Cameron; Brownites versus Blairites in Labour ranks.
But Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is not split. It is disintegrating.
The heart of the battle is not, as is usual, being fought out at a parliamentary level. This is not fundamentally a division among Labour MPs. It is far more fundamental than that. This is a war between the Parliamentary Labour Party, numbering 231 MPs, and the membership numbering 400,000. And, unlike Labour leaders before him such as Blair and Kinnock, the bearded Trot supposedly in charge has decided to side with the members.
The ostensible issue may be whether or not Parliament backs air strikes against the so-called Islamic State in Syria, with a vote expected this week. But the real issue is who decides the policy of Her Majesty’s Opposition. Or, indeed, does this Opposition – under the British constitution a government in waiting – have a policy?
As things stand, Labour does not have a policy, though clearly Corbyn is trying to reach over the heads of his MPs and appeal to the members to pressurise Parliamentarians into following his anti-bombing line. The Shadow Cabinet, normally the policy-making body of the party, is in limbo. Most of its members favour air-strikes, the Leader does not, so no decision has yet been arrived at. The Shadow Cabinet is due to resume its deliberations today.
If, as expected, the Shadow Cabinet and Corbyn agree to differ and allow Labour MPs a free vote, the party will have effectively opted out of its constitutional duty to provide a coherent alternative to the government of the day – or indeed endorse a proposal to go to war against Islamic State in Syria. If Corbyn imposes a three–line whip, as he would like to do in line with the wishes of his membership, then there will be mass resignations from the frontbench and outright chaos in Labour ranks.
It is self-evident that under Corbyn, Labour is unelectable. His 1970s’ agit-prop views on just about everything – the economy, national security and the fight against terrorism, and foreign policy, where he is deeply at odds with the West’s view of the world – mean that he could never win a UK general election. Insurrection in the streets is his only plausible path to power, as he is likely to be reminded this week by the voters in the Oldham by-election.
But the real problem of Corbyn’s illegitimacy as Labour Leader goes much deeper. He enjoys the active support of only about a tenth of his MPs. It is impossible for him to lead the Labour Party when he is in a state of perpetual warfare with his own parliamentary party – because it is Parliament, not the branch meetings of a handful of loopy Labour activists nor on Stop the War demos, where the future of the country is decided.
To come back to the question of ownership. Labour MPs, who enjoy a mandate from 9 million people, not Corbyn’s ragtag army of hard-left misfits, “own” the Labour Party. And it is about time they lived up to this responsibility.
Already there is talk of a parliamentary coup against the Labour Leader. MPs could pass a motion of no confidence in him and press for his resignation, electing in his place someone, perhaps Hilary Benn, with a more credible claim to represent the views of Labour voters and – by extension – the public at large. The membership would have to be cut out of the contest. Legal battles would almost certainly ensue. But with Labour hijacked by the hard left, power has to be wrested away from the membership of the party.
Alternatively, Labour MPs could form a breakaway group at Westminster, with their own leader and shadow cabinet, sideline Corbyn and his few supporters in Parliament, and fight to reclaim their party.
In a parliamentary democracy, it is plainly undemocratic for power to reside among 400,000 activists, many of whom are about as in touch with modern Britain as the planet Zog, and not the 9 million people who elected the 231 MPs currently flying the Labour flag in the Commons.
Nor should the Conservatives be too smug. Their system of electing a Leader, while giving MPs the power to narrow the field to just two candidates with party members making the final choice, is also open to producing a fissiparous result in which the party Leader does not command the confidence of the vast majority of his parliamentary colleagues.
All eyes will be on the Syria vote this week, assuming Cameron calls it. But an even more momentous tussle takes place in Oldham on Thursday where Ukip is making big inroads into a 15,000 majority in a Labour heartland seat. If that falls or the Labour majority is slashed to a couple of thousand, Labour MPs will really have to do some serious thinking.