Not (quite) another Labour leadership opinion piece

Adam Fereday 27 January 2020
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

It is fair to say that the primary focus of British political commentary since last year’s election has been on Labour’s internal leadership contest. In our University alone, there has been one Varsity opinion piece on the subject for each week of term so far. This is not particularly surprising: Cambridge is a Labour seat, and we are students. Nevertheless, it is disproportionate and doesn’t recognise that the 2019 general election result has fundamentally changed the dynamics of our politics. Simply put, a landslide Conservative majority means that for the next five years (at least) parliament will matter less, and so the Labour Party will be a peripheral actor regardless of who leads it.

Having reached political maturity while David Cameron and Theresa May resided in Number Ten, we generally don’t realise the extent to which their premierships bent and broke the laws of British politics. Our electoral system is designed to guarantee single-party majority government, and yet for eight of the past ten years we haven’t had that. Our parliamentary system assumes that MPs always obey the party line, and yet the parliaments of the 2010s were the most rebellious of recent times. Instead of striking bargains with cabinet ministers on issues of policy behind closed doors, Cameron and May had to publicly plead with their own backbenchers to try to secure support for their government’s policy programme. Not even John Major’s struggle with his parliamentary “Bastards” compares to the agonising experience (for all involved) of May attempting to persuade her MPs to endorse her Brexit policy.

In the turbulent context of the 2010s, Labour mattered. A not insignificant parliamentary force in its own right, the party could (and did) team up with disaffected Conservative MPs to inflict surprise defeats on the government. The Leader of the Opposition is essentially a parliamentary figure, and both Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn benefitted from the shift in the locus of bargaining away from ministers in Whitehall towards MPs in Westminster. Last year, there was a genuine possibility that Labour would be able to shape government policy from the House of Commons through negotiations with the May government over the Withdrawal Agreement. In a parliamentary system like ours, where prime ministers live and die by their ability to command a majority in the legislature, scenarios like this simply should not happen.

And now, for the foreseeable future at least, they won’t again. The prime minister has a thumping House of Commons majority for the first time in a decade and, with the excommunication of senior and more independent-minded Conservative MPs like David Gauke, Philip Hammond and Rory Stewart, a disciplined parliamentary party. There is no longer an oven-ready cross-party alliance which the next Labour leader can use to frustrate the government in the House of Commons. Frankly, parliament is going to be quite boring for the next few years. Whoever replaces Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party is going to struggle to present themselves as a prime-minister-in-waiting when they only command two hundred and two MPs, whereas Boris Johnson has one for each day of the year.

That isn’t to say that politics will be boring; only that the next five years should finally mean a return to business as usual for parliamentary government, with the important political battles being fought in government rather than in the House of Commons. When in British politics opposition parties and unruly backbenchers go missing, cabinet ministers step up to the plate. Margaret Thatcher was challenged by the Wets and brought down by her Deputy Prime Minister. Tony Blair was checked (and eventually decked) by Gordon Brown. Even now, Johnson has to make decisions on Huawei and HS2 that – whichever way he faces – will make some of his cabinet ministers very unhappy. Our future relationship with the EU remains TBD.

With so much up for grabs, one thing is certain: Labour will only play a minor role in the coming drama, regardless of who leads it.