Sunday Times | Labour rebels plot party within party

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21 August 2016

Labour rebels plot party within party

The Co-operative Party, Labour’s sister party was founded early last century

Labour MPs will set up a new rebel group in parliament to co-ordinate mass defiance of Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left policies if he wins the leadership election.

The “party within a party” is modelled on the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs of which Corbyn has been a member for 30 years. It will draw up its own policies on issues such as Brexit and national security.

Under plans drawn up by moderates supporting Owen Smith’s leadership bid, MPs are plotting to box in Corbyn by:
● Appointing their own whips to co-ordinate rebellions against Corbyn on issues where he has taken a far-left stance
● Signing up more than 100 MPs to join the Co-operative Party, Labour’s sister party, and sit as “double-hatted” MPs. If Corbyn’s hard-left allies seek to deselect moderates, the Labour-Co-op MPs could apply to John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, to be the official opposition
● Changing the rules to elect the shadow cabinet so they can “surround and smother” Corbyn on the front bench.

The rebels say the creation of a new group on Labour’s benches is their preferred alternative to an SDP-style breakaway. The moderate organisation would have policy groups to develop fresh ideas and allow MPs to stick together to fight deselections.

They believe Corbyn and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be hard pressed to criticise because the Socialist Campaign Group rebelled against various Labour leaders.

“Corbyn voted against the leadership more than 500 times,” said one rebel leader. “We’ve only done it a dozen times. We’re just getting started. There will be a new grouping within the PLP a lot like Corbyn and McDonnell had. We will stick together for mutual support. We will have our own approach on the economy and Brexit and national security.”

The source said mass deselections were the only thing that would provoke a breakaway. However, another group of MPs want to use the Co-op party as an alternative opposition-in-waiting.

Since 1927, the Co-op party has had an electoral agreement with Labour enabling them to stand joint candidates in elections. The party is the political wing of the Co-operative movement, which aims to promote businesses owned by employees and customers.

Twenty-five Labour MPs are also members of the Co-op party, including the leading moderates Stella Creasy, Jonathan Ashworth, Gareth Thomas, John Woodcock and Louise Ellman.

Bercow has made clear that if he is to recognise a different official opposition, it would have to be a separate party properly registered with the Electoral Commission.

The Co-op is recognised by the commission and if Co-op MPs could command more seats than Corbyn, they could apply to become the official opposition and receive public money.

MPs have consulted constitutional experts and lawyers. “Some MPs for the sake of their own sanity want some formal way of organising,” a Labour source said. “The Co-op is established as an official entity and could be used as a means of doing that.”

Greg Rosen, author of Serving the People, a history of the Co-op party, said: “The Co-op has always had its own party conference and its parliamentary members meet as a group every fortnight. It would not be a big step for Labour Co-op MPs to act as a distinct group if the Labour leadership forced them into a position they found unacceptable.”

Labour moderates, from left: Stella Creasy, Louise Ellman and Gareth Thomas are Co-op party members

Smith’s supporters insist he is doing better than expected in his leadership battle with Corbyn. Canvass returns among members show him ahead in many towns in the south of England with Corbyn piling up votes in Manchester, Merseyside and the northeast. The winner will be announced at Labour’s conference on September 25. “If Corbyn only wins 55%-45% there will be a sense in which it is slipping away for him,” a leading rebel said. “It will be back to what it was like in April, May and June — a rolling Corbyn disaster zone, but hopefully without the mandate and a much more organised PLP. He will have no authority to whip at all.”

If Corbyn wins, Tom Watson, the deputy leader, is planning to push for the reintroduction of elections to the shadow cabinet so moderates can return to the front bench after resigning en masse after the EU referendum.

Corbyn has barely 40 supporters in the parliamentary party, far short of what he needs to fill all frontbench posts. A source close to Watson said his goal

was “to put the band back together”. Such a change would have to be app
roved by Labour’s ruling national executive committee.

A Tory MP claimed Labour MPs who expected Corbyn to win were begging the Conservatives to call an election.

Andrew Bridgen, the MP for North West Leicestershire, said: “I’ve had very senior Labour MPs come to me and they have begged me to push for an early general election to finish Corbyn off. They say, ‘Put us out of our misery. It would be a mercy killing.’

“The Conservative Party should play politics like chess while Labour get on with their unending game of lots of snakes and no ladders.”

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