Just for the record: Corbyn can’t resign now

EdinburghEye on Ko-FiThis was first posted on Facebook on 31st December 2019, with support from my Ko-Fi network.

I’m probably going to be writing a lot of posts about looking forward in politics and campaigning in the new year.

This post is more of a backwards-looking one.

The Labour Party suffered a horrible defeat on 12th December. In consequence, not only are we going to have a Tory government in Westminster for the next five years (give or take), and Boris Johnson is Prime Minister of that Tory government (a nightmare scenario of Trumpian proportions), and that Tory government has an 80-seat majority giving Boris Johnson the power to do more or less whatever he feels like doing in government – not only all of that, but the UK is going to leave the EU on 31st January and may crash out in no-deal Brexit on 31st December 2020.

Under the circumstances, it is only human to want to find someone or some group of people to blame.

The Tory/Leave voters, when everything goes disastrously wrong, will blame immigrants, foreigners, anyone who “looks foreign”, and the EU. We can all agree this is complete cockwombling filthy tosh to be mocked, deconstructed, and rejected.

On the other side, people vary more widely in their targets for someone to blame, but the most common target is, well, Jeremy Corbyn.

When something goes disastrously wrong, unless your objective is to pin legal liability on the most-appropriate target, it is usually futile to think in terms of who to blame: it’s better, though less emotionally satisfying in the short term, to figure out “What went wrong?” – “How can we stop this from going wrong again?”

(When Elaine Bromley died in what should have been a routine sinus operation, her husband didn’t sue: he set up the Clinical Human Factors Group to try to ensure that what happened to Elaine Bromley never happened to another patient.)

So, what I am leading up to is:

I am enraged, miserable, bitterly disappointed, furious, angry, seething, and frightened about what happened on 12th December and what this means for our future.

It is appropriate for Jeremy Corbyn to resign: this is the customary fate of leaders who lose a general election, and while I think 12th December was more Boris Johnson’s victory (over truth, democracy, and the UK constitution) than Corbyn’s defeat, the Labour Party lost and it’s proper for the party leader to resign and a new leader start afresh as the Leader of the Opposition and in preparation for the 2024 (give or take) general election.

But what a lot of people seem to have missed is that Jeremy Corbyn cannot resign now.

(Well, technically, of course, he could: he could resign as leader of the Labour Party in the time it takes to draft a letter and send it, and he could resign as MP for Islington South just as soon as he can send a request to the Prime Minister to be appointed Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds.)

But it would be completely irresponsible of Corbyn to do so.

The leader of the Labour Party is the Leader of the Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition is a statutory role, not an optional one: there must be a Leader of the Opposition, this is a Parliamentary position, it must be held by a member of Parliament who is the leader of the largest single party; the Speaker does have the power to designate the Leader of the Opposition if any doubt arises.

If Corbyn resigns, the Labour Party is leaderless until a new leader is elected. Tom Watson, quite possibly foreseeing this situation, quit as Deputy Leader on 6th November. (Watson himself says his reasons were “personal not political”, however.)

The Labour Party has an extremely democratic process for electing a leader. First, each MP wanting to stand as leader has to get nominations from at least 22 Labour Party MPs or MEPs: AND to get nominated by at least 33 Constituency Labour Party organisations OR from 5% of the membership of at least one of the five major affiliate trade unions plus at least one of the 19 smaller affiliate organisations. This all takes time, and this nominations process doesn’t begin til Tuesday 7th January, the first day Parliament sits in the New Year.

The maximum possible number of Leader candidates that can be shortlisted for this process is nine. It’s possible for there also to be nine candidates for Deputy Leader.

Once the shortlist is confirmed (this took nine days in 2015, but could well take longer this time) – the membership and affiliate membership and registered memberhip of the Labour Party get to vote, one member one vote, using a single transferable vote system. The likely end-point when we find out who the new leader of the Labour Party is, won’t be til March: you have to allow several weeks for the ballots to be sent out and sent back. There are at least 485,000 voters. (In 2019, the Conservative Party leadership election, nominations opened 7th June, shortlist closed 20th June, the party sent out ballots to about 160,000 voters, result announced 22nd July.)

If Jeremy Corbyn resigns at any point before a new party leader is elected, either the Speaker designates Ian Blackford as the interim Leader of the Opposition, or else the Parliamentary Labour Party goes into a hasty huddle and appoints an acting party leader to be the Leader of the Opposition until the new leader of the Labour Party is elected.

The proper person to be so appointed would be Ian Lavery, the current Chair of the Labour Party: this could be awkward for Lavery, since it would mean he couldn’t ethically propose himself as a candidate to be elected leader, and it wouldn’t make the anti-Corbynites in the Parliamentary Labour Party at all happy either: Ian Lavery is as they see it part of the hard-left “problem”. Without a Deputy Leader, though, there is no clear line of succession: if not the party chair, who?

If Corbyn resigns while the nominations process is continuing, this kind of internal fight over who should be the acting leader will get fierce, bitter, and confused, spilling over into the process of who gets nominated in the official process of election.

If Corbyn resigns after nominations are closed and one of the 180 Labour MPs who aren’t in the race could then be nominated to be the acting leader, that might get a little less fierce and bitter, but still confused; whoever is appointed ought to be an MP of some experience, but couldn’t be a high-profile supporter of any of the candidates standing for election. Who would that be?

All of this would be bad enough if what we were looking forward to was the last few weeks before Parliament rises for the summer recess. But we are not: the same week nominations open for Labour Party leadership, Parliament is scrutinising Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill: on Friday 31st January, when nominations are likely to close, the UK leaves the EU. Between 1st February and 31st March, while the Labour Party membership are voting on the shortlist, the UK will be struggling through the first bitter months on the outside of EU-27, a third country with only a temporary transition agreement to soften the hard bed Boris Johnson has made for us to lie on.

This is not a great time for the Parliamentary Labour Party, for the official Opposition, to be riven by in-fighting, but at least there is a proper democratic process for how the next leader shall be elected. There is no current democratic process for how an acting leader should be appointed by the PLP when there is no Deputy Leader and the Chair of the Party may himself be one of the leadership candidates.

Jeremy Corbyn has got to stay on leader of the Labour Party til the end of March 2020. He has no real alternative that isn’t just running away like a David Cameron and landing his party in an even messier situation than it is already. Once a new party leader is elected, that new leader will – I hope – engage themselves in figuring out What Went Wrong In 2019, and How To Make Sure Things Never Go That Wrong Again.

But, in the mean time: whether you supported Corbyn or hated him, thought him a decent man over his head or a useless backbencher without accomplishment or ability, hold him wholly responsible for the Labour Party losing the 2019 election, dismiss him as a Leaver, or even if you believe much worse of him, at least acknowledge this:

Corbyn is staying on as leader of the Labour Party because it’s the responsible thing to do, because it’s his duty, and because if he quits, he creates an even worse mess for his party. He’s doing the right thing, the responsible thing, he’s not running away from his duty: give him credit for that.

Happy New Year. 2020 is going to be awful. I wrote this post sober, and now I’m going to have a drink.

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Filed under Brexit, Elections, GE2019

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