Over breakfast a few streets away from the Palace of Westminster this week, the Labour MP had barely sipped his coffee before he launched into the issue that is preoccupying the Parliamentary Labour Party: how to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn. An hour later, he was still talking about it.
“People are thinking of nothing else. There are open conversations in the bars, tea rooms, everywhere, over dinner,” he said.
The Labour leader always faced a challenge in winning the confidence of a parliamentary party that overwhelmingly backed other candidates in September’s leadership election. Many MPs shrugged off media squalls over Corbyn’s failure to sing the national anthem at a Battle of Britain commemoration and claims that he failed to bow deeply enough at the Cenotaph.
Response to Paris attacks
But their leader’s response to the Paris attacks, when he questioned whether British police should operate a shoot-to-kill policy when confronted with armed terrorists, has persuaded many Labour MPs that Corbyn needs to go sooner rather than later. The spectacle of his close ally, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, waving a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book in the Commons chamber on Wednesday has reinforced that view.
“The problem is, if Jeremy resigns, or he goes, we have a membership that would either want Jeremy back, or an equivalent. So there is no obvious way through it,” the MP said as he ordered eggs and bacon.
“That’s the cleft stick we’re in. Whatever happens to Jeremy, it looks at the moment as though the membership are more interested in selecting somebody they agree with ideologically rather than somebody who will win an election. And that’s a very strange position to be in.”
This week’s YouGov poll of the Labour membership bears this out, showing that two out of three believe Corbyn is doing a good job. And 71 per cent of those who voted for Corbyn agree that it is better for a political party to pursue policies it really believes in, even if that prevents the party from winning an election.
Other polls suggest Labour would lose a general election under its present leader, with one survey putting the party’s support as low as 27 per cent.
“My view, for what it’s worth, is that those people who don’t support Jeremy have to find a person who is the alternative and then the new membership and the old membership has to go through the debate about whether it’s possible or not to win an election with Jeremy and what is important. And that will take time,” the MP said.
Labour's first electoral test under Corbyn's leadership comes next Thursday, at a byelection in Oldham West and Royton, caused by the death last month of veteran leftwinger Michael Meacher.
Meacher retained the seat in May with a majority of nearly 15,000 and Labour remains confident of holding it, albeit with a much smaller majority.
Labour’s candidate is Jim McMahon, the popular leader of Oldham council, and his personal standing in the constituency could make all the difference.
“The two responses I’ve had on the doorstep. One is: Jim is good for Oldham, I’m voting for Jim. And the other one is: I’m Labour but I can’t vote Labour while Corbyn’s leader,” the MP said.
Competition from Ukip In constituencies such as
Oldham, Labour faces competition from Ukip for white, working-class voters, many of whom are unhappy about immigration. This squeeze from the right is common to social democratic parties across Europe but its impact may be enhanced by Corbyn’s discomfort with traditional displays of patriotism.
Labour faces further electoral tests next May, with parliamentary elections in Scotland and Wales, a mayoral election in London and local elections in England. The MP believes that if Labour fares badly in May the trade unions could join MPs in seeking to persuade the party membership to think again about the leadership.
“If they think the Labour Party is going to be reduced to 120 or 150 MPs, which is possible, I think they might start panicking. It was the unions who helped save the Labour Party in the early 1980s. They’ve got their own internal problems and dialogues with different groups on the far left. But if they think there’s no chance of a Labour government they may well panic,” he said.
“There comes a time when it looks impossible for there to be a Labour government. A lot of my colleagues think we’ve passed that already. And that must be worrying for the trade unions.”