Saturday, 21 January 2017

The by-election boom is a flashing red light for Labour

Coming hot on the heels of that of Jamie Reed, the resignation of Tristram Hunt may not be a huge surprise to many. A decent and politically-sensible member of the House, if not the obvious next leader he was sometimes billed as. In the end, it is perhaps inevitably those who least see politics as their true vocation, who soonest see more attractive things on the horizon.

But there’s an important take-away here. It’s simply not normal to have three MPs resign their seats in a month. Unless they are pushed, seriously ill or are going for another political job*, it’s really, really unusual for them to “just resign”.

The fact that three by-elections have been caused in the last month through MPs “just resigning” – two Labour, one Tory – is not just unusual, it’s unprecedented in recent political history.

First let’s deal with the Tory MP, Stephen Philips. His party is certainly in turmoil; over Europe, as it always is. The marginalisation of pro-Europe Tory MPs within their own party is a phenomenon which has gradually been developing over more than twenty years, since the days of John Major’s Cabinet “bastards” and before.

Even so: Brexit, let’s face it, is not exactly politics as usual. Philips was a man at his limit: a man who, as the saying goes, was mad as hell and decided he wasn’t going to take it any more. But it took a tumultuous, once-in-a-generation event to make it happen, and the current state of Labour makes Tory frictions look like a Conservative garden fĂȘte.

No, checking back through by-elections since Labour left office in 2010, there are very few and largely exceptional instances. David Miliband was a pretty unusual situation (how many political fratricides can most of us remember?). David Cameron had to resign as PM. And, well, La Mensch is La Mensch. And in theprevious two parliaments there were zero. Nada. Zip.

But why is it so unusual? Particularly in Labour, the party of fraternal solidarity, “just resigning” is taboo for three reasons.

One. Not just your local members, who are inconvenienced and may feel cheated, but the whole party machine looks on you disapprovingly for causing a by-election. It’s considered to be selfish and non team-player. No, you decide to stand down mid-term in good time and make way for someone else to stand in a general election, that’s the way it’s done. You don’t mobilise a bunch of people to knock on doors for you one May, only to let them down a matter of months later.

Two. You leave a sour taste in your constituents’ mouth. They voted you in in good faith for a five-year stint and you welched. Whether or not this is fair – and in the end it’s not so simple, MPs are human beings with their own lives and responsibilities – it’s the way people often feel.

Three. Most politicians are the type of people who see it is a vocation, not a job for a few years. And image and reputation are important in politics. Corollary: you are essentially winding up your political career: no-one will offer you a seat again after that.

In short: unless they are moving on to something bigger, most MPs only leave mid-term in (a) disgrace or (b) a coffin.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of their reasons, these MPs “just resigning” have essentially decided they don’t care about the third point; that politics is going so badly wrong for them that they see no future in it for them as things stand, are leaving it forever and can’t even be bothered to wait three more years.

The meaning for Labour is this: it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some of the more far-sighted members of the PLP are simply seeing the party’s decline as irretrievable and are leaving while they are still employable. They may be right or wrong, but If there is not some radical change of Labour’s circumstances over the coming months, what is sure is that more will follow.

If there is one terribly damaging image for a political party to project, it is surely that of rats and sinking ships. With this, the relaunch of the party leader that collapsed the same day, and its corresponding collapse in the polls, Labour must wake up to the fact that it is giving a convincing impression of being in free fall.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

*this category might occasionally include, like Zac Goldsmith, Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, reapplying for one’s own job.

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