Corbyn leadership and Labour's long history of rebellion and betrayalMartin Farr, Newcastle University
Maomentum – itself a testament to the alacrity of social media – last week tweeted: “Every Labour leader has betrayed the party the moment he walked into Downing St”, adding: “Thank god under @jeremycorbyn this can never happen again.”
The future’s no period for a historian – and humour always a hazard – but betrayal has long been the handmaiden of parliamentary socialism in Britain. Ramsay MacDonald in 1931, Harold Wilson in 1970, James Callaghan in 1979 and Tony Blair in 2007 all left office being regarded as having failed the party – and the more electorally successful they were, the more their reputations suffered.
One of Ken Livingstone’s less contentious utterances last week was that historic “anger” with Labour’s leaders produced the anti-leader it now has. As Jeremy Corbyn contemplates yet another unprecedented circumstance, this time over Labour’s position on British involvement in Syria, he gives cause to reflect on revolts, rebellion, and betrayal.
Inequality and internationalism
Whether in or out of government, both Labour’s right and the left have rebelled, with each side usually accusing the other of being the more revolting. Those rebellions have often related to two central tenets of democratic socialism: inequality and internationalism; opposition to the former and promotion of the latter.
Inequality was the cause of the greatest of all Labour rebellions – on August 23 1931, as Ramsay MacDonald and his chancellor, Philip Snowden, attempted to cut unemployment benefit, Arthur Henderson led enough cabinet rebels for the second Labour government to be dissolved. MacDonald and Snowden continued in office in a national government with the Conservatives.
The “great betrayal” became and remained the archetype for Labour leaders, and really only death – for Hugh Gaitskell and John Smith – has spared those who followed. The exception was Clement Attlee, who became the other archetype: of what a Labour leader should be when they walked into Downing St (that this unprepossessing messiah would be far too right-wing for those who supported “Corbyn for Leader” is one of many recent curiosities).
The “Rooker-Wise amendment” of 1977, in which Labour MPs Jeff Rooker and Audrey Wise made changes to the budget against the will of the Callaghan government, was one of the more effective revolts in that it changed government policy (by index-linking income tax rates to inflation, an episode improbably, but brilliantly, depicted on stage).
Revolts were frequent throughout the Blair governments, from December 11 1997, when 47 MPs voted against cuts to benefits to single parents; on May 20 1999 65 MPs voted against a reduction in incapacity benefit. There were many others as Labour MPs increasingly recoiled against a culture of control.
Internationalism was one reason for the momentous rebellion of October 28 1971 when 69 Labour MPs defied their whip and voted with the Conservatives to take Britain into the EEC (forerunner of the EU). It cost Roy Jenkins the deputy leadership (and probably the future leadership) and created the fault line that led to the revolt of the Social Democrats ten years later. Europe endures as an inducement to insurrection.
Cause of conflict
Rebellions are reliably triggered by war. There’s no convention that military activities should be a matter for parliamentary votes: the Suez Crisis of 1956 had one, the Falklands Crisis of 1982 did not (though the mood of the House of Commons was taken). That doyen of Labour contrarians Tam Dalyell sought to establish a formal basis, moving a bill in 1999 to seek parliamentary approval (and even then therefore only indirectly that of party members) for any military action against Iraq.
It wasn’t passed, but on March 18 2003, Blair sought the support of the House of Commons in order for British forces to participate in the military action in Iraq. He gained it, but 139 Labour MPs rebelled. That most martial of Labour premiers also suffered rebellions over Iraq in 1998, Kosovo in 1999, and Afghanistan in 2001. Knowing the likely reaction of his MPs, Wilson hadn’t dared to consider even a token British involvement in the Vietnam War.
On one notable occasion, inequality and internationalism were conjoined: on April 23 1951 Wilson, Aneurin Bevan, and John Freeman resigned from Attlee’s government over NHS charges which had, in part, been imposed to help pay for Cold War rearmament. As it did for Corbyn’s, it enhanced a – frankly scheming – Wilson’s appeal as a future leader that he had rebelled. Principle had prevailed, and later that year Labour lost power and spent more than a decade in opposition, waging civil war.
Blair’s vote on Iraq created a precedent David Cameron felt it necessary to repeat over Syria, on August 29 2013, and possibly again this week. As with so many other areas, the size of a government’s majority is fundamental. Blair had enormous majorities (too large, and with them the desire for control); Cameron has only a small one (which is why Labour’s position is critical); Rooker-Wise worked because Callaghan had no majority at all in 1977. Parliament prevailed – and two years later Callaghan lost power to Margaret Thatcher and subsided into more than a decade in opposition, waging civil war.
Everyone loves a rebel
There’s something of a tradition on the left – and certainly in the Labour Party – of revering rebels. One of the intrinsic challenges of the Corbyn leadership was always going to be how an MP who publicly made light of how often he had himself rebelled – indeed thought it inherently amusing – could expect discipline from what would become his backbenchers (to say nothing his frontbenchers).
This is why it’s critical whether Corbyn exerts leadership and seeks discipline or concedes a free vote. Whether that leadership would be constituted by the leader or by the shadow cabinet is unclear, and the parliamentary isolation of leader and shadow chancellor offers at least an echo of 1931.
With his incendiary letter Corbyn, not for the first time, went over the heads of the parliamentary party and spoke to the party in the country. That was not something that was done in the past: another impulse behind the “new politics”. A free vote frees Corbyn from a rebellion, but it would still be a course that had effectively been imposed on the leader.
So the pattern repeats itself, but this time in a dual fashion: Labour support for bombing would be one betrayal; the undermining of its leader would be another. Either way, custom, at least, would have been obeyed.
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published on: 23 June 2017
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