Musketeers: 3 Behavioral Models for a Parliamentary Insurgency

Respectable public opinion holds that Labour has already lost the next General Election in the United Kingdom– maybe the next couple. Notwithstanding the unrestrained solipsism and unprofessionalism emanating from certain members of the frontbench, the increasingly divided cabinet, or the somewhat chilly public response to the prime minister’s choice of grammar schools (of all things) as a policy overture, it is generally held among the media elite that Labour’s wounds are too deep, its leadership too fractured, and its brand too tarnished to have any hope of changing its fate in the near future. This analysis may be broadly correct, or it may be completely wrong. Either way, it misses the bigger picture: fundamental change within a party is not determined by election victories or defeats as much as it is by shifts in the composition of the party’s human capital – for instance, its parliamentary delegation. And in this regard, swift change is unavoidable for Labour.

Even if Labour didn’t win a single additional seat in the next election, or even if it lost a few – a somewhat difficult feat given its current numbers – there would still be a not insignificant number of new Labour MPs elected – new members to the benches vacated by retirees or created by new constituencies from boundary change. Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs), the local bodies made up of all party members and supporters in a given constituency, will therefore get to choose new MPs; and given the leftward tilt of most CLPs of late, thanks to the influx of left-leaning supporters over the last two leadership contests, it seems likely that some of the fresh faces they select will hold similar views. So, even if Labour does lose the next election – even if it loses it by margins reminiscent of the period after the SDP split from Labour in 1981  – a new crop of relatively left-oriented MPs will inevitably make their way into the ranks of the parliamentary party. In terms of internal party dynamics, this could be enormously impactful – but it all depends upon how these new MPs act once they arrive at Westminster Palace.

So, then, how are such MPs likely to act? Or, more generally, how do legislative representatives from a minority faction within a party interact with their party’s dominant strains in senate halls and assembly chambers? In the case of Labour, though Corbyn is leader, a cursory analysis will show that in parliament, his faction is far from dominant – Indeed, it remains  an outnumbered and beleaguered insurgency. How will these new MPs, then, act in throwing their lot in with the insurgency?

Even if Labour does lose the next election – even if it loses it by margins reminiscent of the period after the SDP split from Labour in 1981  – a new crop of relatively left-oriented MPs will inevitably make their way into the ranks of the parliamentary party

A drizzle comes before the rain: The 2015 election brought in a small but noticeable crop of left-wing Labor MPs – not Campaign Group types per se, but nevertheless unabashed partisans for the Left in Labour’s current climate. By examining the behavior of three members of this micro-crop in particular, we can draw interesting conclusions about the how insurgent legislators relate to their co-partisans in name. The choice of the three particular MPs discussed here is not to place them above others, either in efficacy or in noteworthiness; many others are deserving of mention.However, three specific MPs from this 2015 cohort present three distinct behavioral models of the insurgent partisan, behavioral models which will be of use in unpacking the insurgent legislator as a concept: Richard Burgon, representing Leeds East, Cat Smith, representing Lancaster and Fleetwood, and Clive Lewis, representing Norwich South.

Richard Burgon exudes a love for internecine warfare, preferably conducted with blunt instruments. A former barrister, he comes across as an Alan Grayson-type figure without the crassness and personal braggadocio. He has consistently presented himself as a loyal lieutenant to Corbyn and top aides like McDonnell and Milne, slamming the anti-Corbyn strategizing undertaken by the Kinnocks, Eagles, and Smiths of the world as undemocratic and absurd. He has sought to use Dennis Skinner, the Labour left’s octogenarian idol, as a prop to endear himself to the grassroots membership, inviting Skinner to his campaign launch event and repeatedly posting videos of himself “interviewing” Skinner, in which the two discuss topics upon which they entirely agree. He unambiguously criticizes co-partisans with whom he disagrees, is prone to flashy public gestures (prefacing his mandatory parliamentary oath with a statement of his republicanism, for example), and above all, prioritizes intra-labour dispute. He believes passionately in reclaiming the party for the Left and in being a loyal factional member, and devotes most of his energy, media appearances, and Facebook wall to these aims.

Scan Cat Smith’s Facebook wall, on the other hand, and you would have no idea that her politics are, on most things, roughly identical to Burgon’s. Instead, you would see a lot of pictures of her smiling with schoolchildren, attending to constituency surgeries, posing with local pensioners, or raising awareness of some local issue of great importance to the people of Lancashire and no importance to anyone else. . While Burgon supported Corbyn early and aggressively as the leadership re-battle began, Smith tends to be taciturn on ideological questions in public, preferring to keep a low profile. Though she does indeed support the Labour left – and as such has been discussed by the Corbyn team as a future prospect for higher-profile positions – she’s opted for the ‘constituency-MP’ model. all legislators, regardless of their membership or lack thereof in an insurgency, could follow such a model. However, having a strong connection with local constituents is uniquely advantageous for the insurgent MP, who is by definition always a hounded and controversial figure, for it can serve as a buffer against the ever-present specter of organized intraparty opposition.

Perhaps most interesting of the three models is the model followed by Clive Lewis. Like Burgon, Lewis has spent a lot of his time talking about national political issues and is widely considered  a key Corbyn ally among the 2015 class of MPs. Unlike Burgon, however, he hasn’t taken  a straightforward  line on everything – for example, as shadow defense minister he’s de-emphasized his support  for  not renewing the Trident missile program, a position which others in the Labour left tend to use very publicly as a shibboleth of their values. He’s tried to define a rhetorical niche for himself, talking about paradigm shifts such as electoral reform, something on which Corbyn is fairly ambivalent, and a potential cross-progressive alliance of Labourites, greens, liberals, and so on–although the latter idea is almost certainly unworkable for the near future, for reasons both ideological (see the rabid Europhilia and lingering Orange Book sensibilities of Farron’s Lib Dems) and strategic (the Greens, in particular, are likely to fear being co-opted and losing ideological coherence in such a marriage). Lewis has won acclaim for his occasional measured criticism of Corbyn’s leadership or members of Corbyn’s team combined with his unique rhetoric and policy positions.

Is any one of these models optimal for a member of a parliamentary  insurgency? Well, no. Each model provides unique value to the insurgency: Sledgehammers are necessary, in moderation, to rally the base, connect with the grassroots, and hold opposing factions accountable. If nothing else, the constant barrage intraparty insurgencies find themselves under necessitate a response in kind to balance out the public perception of one-sided controversy, and force the insurgency’s enemies to spend valuable time and capital responding to the attacks rather than mounting their own. Constituency MPs are necessary in that they anchor insurgent movements in demographics outside of their core constituencies, “normalize” such movements, and can build up reservoirs of voter trust. Moreover, such approaches are necessary if insurgencies seek to expand their geographic base. In East Leeds or South Norwich, the sole determinant of General Election victory is a red rosette; in 2015 both Burgon and Lewis won handily while Labour as a whole was struggling. The same could not be said for Smith; Lancaster and Fleetwood is to some degree a marginal constituency, including a significant Tory-learning rural middle-class. Smith picked up her seat on a margin that was not terribly secure. insofar as an insurgency seeks to have more supporters in a given parliament by expanding geographically beyond its heartlands, it must have such constituency MPs who  are able to gain individualized trust in these areas.

As for Lewis, his model’s usefulness is rather intuitive: inspiring people, being an effective communicator, floating policy which otherwise wouldn’t get a hearing, attracting positive media attention, and perhaps even waiting in the wings to replace the insurgency’s current leaders when/should that become necessary.

Thus, we have three models of the insurgency MPs, all of which are necessary, and all of which function in different ways. As Labour is sure to take in some new left-wing MPs come the next election, the question is – how many of each will the Corbynites get; and how many of each do they need? The latter question is easier to answer. Ideally, a parliamentary insurgency should have the greatest number of constituency MPs; a solid bloc of election-time footsoldiers who can , build up local trust and confidence in the movement. A high concentration of such MPs will also prevent the faction from becoming too internally balkanized (insofar as they are less likely to engage in internecine squabbling).A parliamentary insurgency should have the second-greatest number of sledgehammers, though too many brawlers will suck up all of the political oxygen and harm the movement’s public reputation, something approaching a critical mass of such MPs is necessary to fight back against the constant barrage of external media attacks. A parliamentary insurgency only needs a few visionaries – too many will dilute each one’s individual impact and cause power struggles, while a handful of prominent rising stars are sufficient to drive positive political and media forces.

The former question – how many of each will Labour get – is as of now fairly unanswerable. But baking the cake of parliamentary insurgency requires that the ingredients be in correct proportion – a  reality  which makes having a sophisticated and well-executed candidate recruitment plan, already critical for any parliamentary force, a life-or-death issue for parliamentary insurgents.



One comment

    Less than 24 hours after this piece was published, Clive Lewis defied the leadership’s three-line whip on the bill to trigger Article 50, voting against, and subsequently resigned the shadow cabinet (where, in a slight correction to the piece, he had been serving since October as Shadow Secretary for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, having been moved from Defense to this portfolio). That neither of these issues is reflected in the piece is a function of the high turnaround-time on this one, most of which I actually wrote several months ago. However, I think this actually strengthens the argument. If anything, Lewis’ disagreement with Corbyn on Article 50 highlights his willingness to express key differences and stand somewhat further outside the leader’s ambit, a key part of my proposed trichotomy. Though he left the shadow cabinet, it seems that he left more because defying the three-line whip made this necessary than because he is actually leaving the Corbynite “faction” (though time will tell). In any event, Lewis is intended as an example rather than as proof of concept, so even if the example was discredited (which I don’t think it is) by recent developments, the general concept is still tenable.

    ~ Sandy

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