I adopt the mantle of brand manager and speculate about whether 'Labour' can be saved
The 2016 Labour leadership election result will be announced (presumably in Liverpool) on 24 September – Declaration Day. Whoever wins must be assured of the support of all sections of party. No ifs, no buts. All of which should go without saying. That's how it should have been last year. So what can be learned from the last eleven months?
In the first instance, the new leadership election rules (agreed by Conference while Ed Miliband was in charge) radically altered the balance of power between the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and members, registered supporters and affiliates. Such was and is the disconnect between the PLP and members in Branch (BLPs) and Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) that when nominations opened in 2015 no one expected a left-wing candidate to get on the ballot paper. But in the interests of political balance enough members of the PLP 'loaned' Corbyn their support to give members a wider choice. As it happened Corbyn triggered an explosion of interest in Labour Party membership and registered support, doubling membership a year ago to just under 400,000. This is unprecedented in the annals of mainstream political parties. He reawakened interest in Labour's founding values, and not unimportantly lifted Party income. To borrow from business speak – Corbyn boosted the Labour brand. And he remains unique in that capacity at the moment.
In the last six weeks the actions of the PLP and the National Executive Committee (NEC) have arguably trashed the brand. Despite that another 300,000 people have signed up as members or registered supporters. Some have even paid an extra £25 to secure a vote in the 2016 leadership election, because the NEC as I set out in my last blog disenfranchised maybe as many as 175,000 people who joined between 12 January (the freeze date) and 14 July (the date when an incentive to join - voting rights in a leadership election - was explicitly removed from the Party's website. A case concerning that mis-selling will be opened in the High Court on Thursday 4 August. If the Court finds against the Labour Party that should increase the number of members entitled to vote, and make those who had joined and paid an extra £25 eligible for a refund.
In the meantime, the leadership election with its hustings and rallies rumbles on. Corbyn to his credit continues to refuse to trade insults. But it is now screamingly obvious that his manner of leadership and the advice he has been getting is woefully inadequate for the task of a prime minister in waiting.
So the choice in the 2016 leadership election for members, registered supporters and affiliates is limited to rewarding alleged 'bad behaviour' on the part of the PLP and voting for Owen Smith, or alleged 'bad behaviour' on the part of the Corbynites and voting for Jeremy Corbyn.
As a member, I see the boost to the Labour Party brand brought by Corbyn as particularly precious – re-engaging people in political dialogue, increasing party funds and adding to activism to counter the mainstream media (MSM). On the otherhand, I see the behaviour of certain members of the PLP as unacceptable in a voluntary association, bring the Labour Party into disrepute and requiring corrective action, however painful. No member of the PLP should have been allowed to refuse to serve in Corbyn's shadow cabinet last year. Complaints about Corbyn's 'disloyalty' under Blair are not relevant to today's circumstances. Policy is made differently. Or is it? I was shocked to discover in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum that Corbyn had taken a page out of the Blairite playbook and was making policy decisions without debate in Shadow Cabinet. Apparently, that had been going on ever since he became leader. 'Corbyn – the last of the Blairites?' – a ridiculous but apparently entirely plausible idea. Interestingly, it is one which leading left-wing journalist Owen Jones doesn't list in his recent blog 'Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer'.
But it goes to the heart of whether the 'Labour Party is a democratic socialist Party' as set out on all our Party membership cards. Corbyn needs to face-up now to what led to the highly damaging vote of no confidence in the PLP. We know it followed his lamentable oversight in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum. There should have been a collegiate Labour Shadow Cabinet response. There wasn't.
The allegations made against Corbyn that he is unelectable are opinions. As are the claims that his current oppenent is 'more electable'. What is certain is that the recent trashing of the Labour brand by both the PLP and the NEC has seriously damaged Labour's electability. So let's stop fooling ourselves. The question of whether Labour could hope to secure a majority of seats at the next general election was in doubt anyway as a result of events in Scotland and the proposed reduction of seats in the House of Commons. All the PLP and NEC have done is made winning a more distant prospect whoever the Leader.
Corbyn in these circumstances has an opportunity to demonstrate true leadership. He needs to be putting in place steps to unite the party and take on the Tories as part of his current campaign. Re-engaging with party members to shape policy, and declining to make it up on the hoof would be a start. Adopting a more open approach to the MSM, while continuing to harness support and understanding for established policy through social media would help too. Rather than waiting for Conference to announce the shutting down of Your Britain, why not herald the relaunch of policy.labour – highlighting the key policy areas that members' views are needed now to erode public confidence in the Conservatives. Appealing to his supporters to get active in their BLPs and CLPs is important now too. To succeed with potential Labour voters on the doorstep members need new online tools. Time is up for the clumsy, paper-based, time-consuming, method of collecting voter identification data and doorstep intelligence. If a Doorstep Application is in design, let's hear about it now. Instead of allowing complaining about the lack of welcome for new members and supporters, tackle it head-on. Just because the NEC has banned party meetings except in special circumstances, there is no reason why Corbyn shouldn't be calling for informal BLP/CLP gatherings to offer encouragement to newcomers to get active.
Now the really tricky bit, how to finesse the PLP, marginalise the plotters and welcome back the reluctant resigners? Once upon a time, when in opposition, the PLP held Shadow Cabinet elections. A pool of senior Labour MPs from whom the Party leader could choose to fill key posts to take on the opposition. It used to be an annual event – an opportunity for Labour MPs to decide who was doing a good job, and who wasn't. Such as Tony Blair's contempt for collective decision making that he cancelled Shadow Cabinet meeting six months before the 1997 general election, and the rest is history as vividly highlighted in the Chilcott Report into the 2003 Second Iraq War. Ed Miliband when elected Leader in 2010 refused to reinstate Shadow Cabinet elections. As did Corbyn when elected last year. It was a missed political opportunity to test the true loyalties of the Blairites. Ditto the way in which Corbyn has run Shadow Cabinet meetings ever since he was elected. Trust, albeit fragile, between Corbyn and a majority of the PLP has to be restored pdq.
Corbyn in the words of one of his closets confidants had 'a lucky escape getting in the ballot'. But unless he learns from his mistakes 'it is over', I was told. Key people in this suggested Operation: Sweetness and Light are Deputy Leader Tom Watson, General Secretary Iain McNicol and PLP chair, John Cryer. Like Corbyn they are all tainted by recent events. Each has a responsibility to help shape that unity that is essential from the moment the Leadership election result is declared (or the challenger Owen Smith MP admits he is not the answer and withdraws).
The only way Labour's electability can be restored is through unity and comradeship. To achieve that the planning has to start now throughout the Party.