Wednesday, 13 January 2016

What happened to the Labour party?

There have probably been thousands of well-informed words written by those in the know (and millions of ill-informed ones by those who wish they were) about the latest apparent slow-motion suicide of the parliamentary Labour party and I suspect there is little I can add to the sum of human knowledge in that regard. However that has never stopped me in the past and I have my own angle on the current situation born of my personal experience, that may be worth sharing.

Briefly, for anyone who is not aware, the narrative over the last few months has been (or the version promulgated by the UK media at least has been) one of open warfare between Jeremy Corbyn and his 'team' (the corbynistas) and large and vocal sections of his party's Westminster MPs. There have been off-the-record and even live on-air complaints by Labour MPs of everything from bumbling inefficiency to Stalinist ruthlessness and a steadily simmering air of dissent, dissatisfaction and dislike. The person most often absent from all this has been Jezza himself, whose pronouncements (such as they have been) have generally sounded reasonable (non-contentious even), conciliatory and non-aggressive. At least they have sounded like that until deconstructed and spun by a range of commentators inside and outside the PLP, seeking to interpret them as confrontational and/or naive.

So what the hell is it all about and why are the PLP behaving like this? There is no realistic prospect of them ousting Corbyn and having him replaced by a leader more to their liking, nor is there any possibility that this sort of internecine strife will do anything but damage the Labour party's chances of electoral success (on which their future careers depend). So why?

Perhaps it is less to do with political and ideological differences (does anyone actually, really, want to see billions and billions of pounds spent on a missile system designed to ensure that if the world is destroyed in a nuclear holocaust at least plucky Britain will have got to play its part?) and more to do with the nature of institutions and the relationship between staff and their bosses. Labour MPs may be the democratically elected representatives of their constituents, but they are also members of a small to medium-sized enterprise operating out of dilapidated premises in SW1 and as in all such institutions the relationship between staff and boss is a complex one.

Very rarely a charismatic boss (and one who is in the right place at the right time) can transform an institution, or at least be the figurehead who catches a process of transformation and makes it his or her own. In a political context Tony Blair pulled that trick, and before him Maggie Thatcher. True, in both cases the party they became leader of was ripe (desperate even) for change but arguably without them that change would never have come to fruition.

Much more often though, it is the institution that transforms the boss, much as the boss may believe otherwise. So David Cameron, shallow, plausible, untroubled by detail and human cost and able to articulate a vague vision of a 'stronger Britain' that covers a multitude of sins is the perfect leader for a Tory party that wants to dismantle the state and not feel guilty about it. Gordon Brown and Ed Milliband on the other hand were both troubled, ineffectively sincere, occasionally prone to impotent petulance and overshadowed by more successful and charismatic mirrors of themselves. They were the leaders the PLP expected and in a masochistic sense wanted because they gave MPs an excuse to
feel sorry for themselves.

Jeremy Corbyn doesn't fit that mold though. Habituated for so long to being on the losing side of any given argument he is no longer phased by voicing anti-populist sentiments. Unlike Brown and Milliband, both of whom appeared to have lived Labour party internal politics for so long that it had replaced the blood in their veins Corbyn seems endearingly out of touch with the complex shenanigans that clearly occupy most labour insiders' every waking moment. The bottom line (which is an ironic one in the situation) is that the PLP has evolved into an archetypally political (with a small as well as a big P) organisation and its new boss does not appear to be a political operator in that institutional sense.

So what happens when an institution acquires a boss who does not appear to be singing from the unwritten hymn sheets the staff have all memorised over years? Well, that is where my personal experience comes in. As head teacher I inherited a school that was obsessed with its own internal politics and I am simply not very good at (or very interested in, come to that) that sort of politics. And it seems that when an institution acquires a boss who does not fit its expectations then the reaction is confusion and (for some) something like hatred. It doesn't really matter what the boss does or says, or whether the staff involved agree with or even like him or her. It is more that they aren't playing the game by the rules the staff have internalised and made their own.

Some of my staff, I am convinced, never forgave me for not fitting the image they had of a 'proper' head. They might have complained about my predecessors- called them dictatorial bullies- but at least they knew where they were with them. I disorientated them. I asked them what they thought and believed in and told them that I didn't have magic top-down solutions for every situation and some of them hated me for it.

Of course I am not comparing myself with Jeremy Corbyn. I was head teacher of a secondary school, not potential Prime Minister of the UK, but in a sense I can empathise with him. And perhaps what he is doing is the right thing: rising above the vitriol and simply doing his best to keep a clear head (its is what I did in a similar situation).

However quite possibly it isn't. If I had my time again I wouldn't have been so high-minded about internal politics. Labour MPs (like my staff) are human beings who have dedicated a significant portion of their best years to serving in an institution that they may hate, but also identify with and have made their home. A leader who tells themselves they are above their staff's petty vindictiveness and squabbles is no sort of leader in fact. And if Jeremy Corbyn is to transform the Labour party then he has to engage with it. All of it. And that includes the MPs who are currently running him and themselves into the quagmire.


  1. This is a terrific piece, and rather better than virtually all of the comment pieces I have read (and I've read a few). Articulates what I was feeling about JC.