Rt. Hon. Jeremy Corbyn MP has two jobs and two job titles. First, he is Leader of the Labour Party, a position to which he was elected by a majority of those eligible to vote, in every voter category (members, registered supporters, affiliates). If that were the whole story then a leadership challenge would be completely undemocratic and wrong.
However, Mr Corbyn is also Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition. This is not some ceremonial title you get when elevated to a particular position, like Lord of the Isles or Second Lord of the Treasury. Instead it is a post that fulfills a crucial rôle in our democracy, scrutinising Government actions and Bills on behalf of the entire country, including people who did not vote Labour. Just as the Prime Minister (First Lord of the Treasury, by the way) is accountable and answerable to everyone, so too is the Leader of the Opposition.
The job of Leader of the Opposition is a managerial as well as political task. They must appoint shadow ministers to challenge Government departments; chair a shadow cabinet; ensure coherent responses to policies and parliamentary divisions. The Leader of the Opposition has to look like an alternative Prime Minister and his shadow cabinet should be seen as a possible Government-in-waiting. In this manner, the British people can make a meaningful choice at election time. It legitimises our democracy and makes it better than those places were there is no effective opposition.
To perform well in this constitutionally crucial post, one must be able to command, corral and co-operate with all the opposition MPs. Every one of these people has their own independent mandate from voters, and they must act in the interests of all those voters. For any given MP to resist a policy that they think their consituents will vehemently reject (even if it is party policy) is entirely democratic and legitimate. It is a feature, not a bug, of the parliamentary system.
A Leader of the Opposition is therefore not constrained only by party members and party policy, but by the parallel (and sometimes conflicting) pressures of the wider electorate. The Leader’s job is, in no small part, to balance and mediate between the ideas of party members, and the rest of the country. It’s really difficult.
To perform the job of Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition one must be able to lead the opposition. This may appear self evident, but Jeremy Corbyn is not doing this. The Leader of the Opposition is not leading the opposition. He has turned a tautology into an oxymoron.
Eighty percent of Labour MPs have said Mr Corbyn should resign. His inability to gather a full Shadow Ministerial team is having dire consequences for how we are governed: I hear from colleagues doing parliamentary advocay on human rights issues that the Opposition in the House of Lords is now working independently of the Leaders Office, with no direction and less resources, and that important (and damaging) legislation is slipping through without proper scrutiny.
It is in many ways a shame that Mr Corbyn has failed in his job as Leader of the Opposition. I question whether the electorate as a whole would have voted for his brand of Left Wing politics, but there may have been a virtue in giving them the opportunity to do so. It may also be the case that some MPs have never given him a proper chance, and it is certainly the case that he has faced media hostility. But that is neither here nor there—For whatever reason and regardless of whose fault it is, Mr Corbyn is not and cannot lead opposition MPs. He is therefore not doing the job of Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. He needs to step down from that rôle immediately. Unfortunately, that also means he must resign as Leader of the Labour Party too.
But what next?
Of course, the door swings both ways. If Mr Corbyn is forced out in a leadership contest by Angela Eagle MP, then she will have the opposite problem! Ms Eagle may well command the respect of most Labour MPs… but how will she lead the Labour Party? If the rank-and-file are angry with her and feel that their views and policy preferences have been ignored, then they are unlikely to campaign on behalf of Ms Eagle and the other parliamentary candidates. Proper policy, arising from the ideas and experience of those in the movement, will be stunted. All this would also skew the choices on offer to the wider electorate, and damage our wider democracy. Does Ms Eagle have the clout and charisma to bring the party with her?
And what of the Tories?
This four-way interplay between Parties, MPs, Leaders and the electorate presents problems for the ruling Conservative party too. There is a real chance that Andrea Leadsom MP will be the more attractive candidate to the Tory rank-and-file. She could become leader of the party, and our next Prime Minister, while most Conservative MPs think someone else is the better choice. She will therefore find leading the Government far harder than would Teresa May. If Mrs Leadsom did prevail she would need to ‘tack to the centre’ (as the political cliché has it) in order to placate MPs and situate herself closer to where they, and the electorate, are floating.
I think this is why centrists like David Cameron and Tony Blair end up being successful—its easier to be naturally with the electorate, and to pull the party towards the centre, than it is to be naturally with the party, and have to awkwardly move towards the electorate oneself.
Now Mrs Leadsome has withdrawn from the leadership contest, saying this:
Leadsom says that with less than 25% of MPs backing her, she couldn't lead the party. So a coincidental swipe at Jeremy Corbyn there, too.
— Helen Lewis (@helenlewis) July 11, 2016