James Reed: Why Labour’s MPs are looking closer to home

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his home in north London following a humiliating blow dealt to the party by the Conservatives after snatching Copeland in a historic by-election victory.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his home in north London following a humiliating blow dealt to the party by the Conservatives after snatching Copeland in a historic by-election victory.
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YORKSHIRE has a lot of Labour MPs working particularly hard in their constituencies at the moment.

There’s nothing revelatory about this – other than the fact they would, in normal times, be balancing these duties with national responsibilities as ministers or shadow ministers.

However, since the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader last year, many MPs have decided the best way to spend their time is to focus ruthlessly on their own constituencies.

Despite being home to many of the party’s heavyweights, few Yorkshire Labour MPs currently find themselves in front bench roles because they have resigned, been sacked by Mr Corbyn, declined to serve a leader in which they have no faith or have simply not been asked.

Mr Corbyn’s overwhelming re-election has also convinced many that, irrespective of the Parliamentary party’s misgivings about his leadership, the continued level of support among the wider membership means that efforts to remove him in the short term are doomed to fail.

With no prospect of shaping the party’s policies or changing its direction, what else to do but throw all your energies into the daily concerns raised by constituents?

The prospect of boundary changes that could significantly alter the electoral make-up of some Yorkshire constituencies and moves by Corbyn supporters to unseat MPs considered disloyal to the leader – seen most visibly in the Leeds Central seat of Hilary Benn – have given some Labour MPs even greater reason to pay extra attention to what is happening in their own backyards.

There is a strong recognition too that, paradoxically, in voicing their concerns about Mr Corbyn’s leadership they only appear to strengthen his position. Every criticism of Corbyn is framed by his supporters as an act of division and disloyalty responsible for undermining the party’s credibility in the eyes of voters.

It was a tactic on show again as shadow chancellor John McDonnell blamed Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson for speaking so publicly in the week before the two by-elections in part for the Copeland result.

The relative quiet of Labour moderates in recent months has not been the sign of a wholesale conversion to the Corbyn cause since last summer’s revolt.

All that has changed is that the anger which fuelled the leadership challenge of Owen Smith has evolved into despair that the only course of action open is to stay quiet and wait for the Corbyn experiment to collapse under the weight of its own failings.

Understanding the mindset that many Labour MPs have now adopted is the key to understanding why their reaction to the party’s performance in this week’s by-elections is more muted, in public at least, than might be expected.

And why the leader of an opposition party which is haemorrhaging support will stay in his job, but a man who masterminded the most unlikely triumph in modern football is now looking for a new one.

Yesterday’s results have not told Corbyn critics, who make up the majority of Labour MPs, anything that they did not already know. Quite the opposite.

They have seen poll after poll forecasting a comprehensive, perhaps unprecedented, defeat at the next election. The fact that Labour’s victories in Stoke Central and Copeland was even in doubt was a damning enough verdict on the party’s current fortunes even before the results were known.

The loss of Copeland with the biggest swing to a governing party, in terms of share of the vote, since Harold Wilson promised Hull the Humber Bridge to help secure a by-election win in 1966 is only the bitter icing on a particularly unpalatable cake.

Another election on the horizon offers what may be the last remaining opportunity for moderate voices in Labour that a change could yet be made.

The ballot opens next month in the race for the leadership of Unite and moderates hopes are invested in West Midlands regional organiser Gerard Coyne to unseat Corbyn-supporting Len McCluskey. A change at the top of Britain’s biggest union, which also happens to be one of Labour’s biggest financial backers, would remove one of the pillars propping up the Corbyn project.

But the signs are that Mr McCluskey will cling on – and so will Jeremy Corbyn unless he finally confronts his own failings and takes the decision to stand down. Even that unlikely prospect would not guarantee the change many in the Parliamentary party want to see.

Labour’s membership remains skewed by the influx of thousands who joined purely to back Mr Corbyn’s leadership bid in 2015. It is unlikely that with their man gone they would suddenly decide to back a Hilary Benn, a Rachel Reeves or a Dan Jarvis – someone who might effectively hold Theresa May to account as Britain approaches its most profound period of change in the post-war era.

In reality, Mr Corbyn’s more likely replacements are figures like Clive Lewis and Rebecca Long-Bailey. The face would change, but the message would broadly stay the same.

For now, all that is left to do for Labour moderates is to work hard for their constituencies and contemplate whether or not they have the appetite to run again in 2020.