How not to launch a coup
Politics. Bloody hell.
The ongoing Labour coup — or heartfelt attempt to save the party from utter destruction, depending on your point of view — is in equal parts engrossing and horrific: the Westminster equivalent of watching England v Iceland last Monday.
As the chaos of the last few days unfolded, I couldn’t help but recall my own experience participating in a political coup. Naturally the scale was of a different order of magnitude, where the amount of power up for grabs wouldn’t be enough to light a 40w bulb, but besides this some of the parallels are spooky.
Ours began with a motion of no-confidence, carefully coordinated against the chair of our organisation, similar to that tabled by the PLP against Corbyn on Tuesday. Ours was a motion supported by a majority of the elected committee, just as the anti-Corbyn rebels were in the majority on their motion.
However after that all hell broke loose. The rules on deposing a sitting Chair were ambiguous, as are the rules on challenging a sitting Labour leader. Weeks of wrangling and attempts to form a compromise ensued, including late night phone calls, extreme paranoia from members of all factions, and anguished conversations in smoke-free drinking dens (cheers, New Labour).
Coming out the other side of my own attempt (for an attempt it was, as my fellow conspirators and I failed to topple our leader) I thought it apposite to offer the PLP some advice on how not to screw up a coup:
1) Planning Makes Perfect
Our merry band of conspirators had the sketch of a plan when we launched our coup: but no intricate blueprint that allowed for all eventualities. This lack of foresight proved our downfall.
It could do for the PLP too. Don’t get me wrong, Phase 1 was impeccably planned and executed. A cascade of resignations timed like clockwork, a website and campaign — ‘Saving Labour’ — launched to coincide with the PLP’s mass assault, and a welter of TV interviews and blogs by the conspirators designed to capture the news cycle.
That was the easy part. Now we’re into Phase 2, but the plan seems non-existent. It beggars belief that the PLP hadn’t settled on a single candidate to challenge Corbyn ahead of time. That candidate’s name should have been bawled from the mouths of every disgruntled MP who took to the broadcasters this week. Instead we have confusion and inertia.
The PLP should also have agreed on how they would handle the vexing uncertainty of the Labour leadership election rules — specifically those on nominations. A common position, again proclaimed loudly from the rooftops, would have lent their interpretation of the rules credence by acclamation.
Our own coup faltered as we failed to plan our own Phase 2. We should have had in place a strategy for the hours and days following the vote of no confidence. In our case, this would have meant informing the whole membership of our organisation as to the outcome of the vote on the day it was held, instead of prevaricating among ourselves and hoping the defeated Chair would shuffle off of their own accord. It would also have meant swiftly choosing a new Chair by consensus and making it known that they were now the legitimate head of the organisation.
Instead, we rested on our laurels, believing Phase 1 was enough. It wasn’t. Be warned, PLP: there is no such thing as too much planning for an event like this. Meticulous preparations are needed for a coup to be successful.
2) Strike Hard, Strike Fast
In the middle of a coup, each minute is precious. From the moment the starting gun is fired the race is on between the opposing factions to win allies and construct an unassailable narrative as to why right is on their side.
The Shadow Cabinet’s mass resignation achieved its objective of destabilizing Corbyn, but failed to tip him over the edge. With every day that goes by with him still in place, momentum flows from the coup like a leaky bathtub.
The PLP should’ve forged ahead with a formal leadership contest, united around a single candidate, declared that Corbyn couldn’t stand without the requisite number of MP and MEP nominations, and dared the NEC to say otherwise. They would have then seized control of the narrative and forced Team Jez into playing defence.
Furthermore, instead of allowing the media to catch up with events, the PLP should’ve insisted the General Secretary hold a contest as soon as possible. Team Jez would then be the ones playing for time instead of the conspirators. Loathe as I am to admit it, the Corbynistas have a point: the no-confidence vote was on Tuesday: where is the challenger?
3) Hang the rules
Right-minded people reasonably expect that a leader who loses a no confidence vote will depart the stage gracefully, knowing their time is up.
Yet this assumes the leader accepts the premise of their opponents’ challenge. This is lunacy. We know from films like Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith that those who wield power fear losing it above all else. Seriously, if even George Lucas knew this to be true, everyone in politics should too.
All those fervently hoping Corbyn will do “the decent thing” and resign are deluding themselves. Even if Corbyn were that way inclined, his Praetorian Guard wouldn’t allow it. They’ve worked for decades to seize control of the party machine, and know that any counter-revolution would see the Hard Left eradicated from the party for a generation.
Therefore the conspirators must operate on the assumption that Team Jez will behave irrationally, and compensate accordingly. This means thinking outside the scope of the official rules of the game and fighting for a win on a battleground skewed in their favour.
For the PLP, that is the House of Commons. That’s where they hold the advantage, and that’s where they can use Parliament’s byzantine rules and regulations to outfox the Corbynistas.
The newly resigned frontbench should form their own Shadow Cabinet for ‘Real Labour’ or whatever the hell they want to call it, name a leader, and claim the rights of the Official Opposition.
It may seem unreasonable, but so is a man with the support of fewer than 20% of his MPs claiming to be a leader. Team Jez has lost all common sense. The only way to fight it is for the PLP to lose it as well. Hang Party rules. Hang convention. Move the goalposts and claim the game.
In our coup, we assumed the defeated Chair would act with common sense. Instead they launched a desperate petition of the membership to shore up their position, much like Corbyn is now speaking at emergency rallies held in his defence. They also tried to circumvent the authority of the committee by calling on higher powers — in this case, our parent organisation — to annul the results of the vote. This was against all protocol and precedent. But hey, they didn’t want to lose power — and who would?
We failed because we were trying to play by the book. In a coup, all bets are off. All rules are in flux. To win, the conspirators must twist the rules to suit their needs — or suffer defeat.
4) Trust no-one
A coup engenders the worst in all participants. It puts everyone in the same pressure-cooker, and as they swelter their true characters come to the fore.
Here’s a cast-iron guarantee: at least one of the conspirators will get cold feet. Perhaps Angela Eagle is already wavering, uncertain of her fate if she challenges Corbyn and loses. Maybe some rebel members of the Soft Left are starting to regret their choices. As the days following the coup grow in number, and Pro-Corbyn rallies start to shake the resolve of the rebels, it would be surprising if no-one broke ranks.
Then there’s Tom Watson, working maniacally to thrash out a resolution to the crisis before the whole party edifice collapses before him. Who knows which way he leans, but as Stephen Bush points out Watson never loses. I suspect that’s more to do with him knowing which side will win then forging victory after victory all on his lonesome.
With every day that passes, that winning side looks more and more like that of the Corbynites. Never underestimate the propensity of those acting out of fear to revert to the status quo under pressure (Brexit vote aside).
This means the coup ringleaders must steel themselves for turbulence within their own ranks and constantly check in with the footsoldiers to make sure they remain on-side. A coup is only as strong as its weakest member. As soon as one of the rebels throws in the towel and goes back to Team Jez, it’s over.
A little paranoia in these times is no bad thing. The coup participants will need constant reassurance that their course is just and that they will be rewarded when Corbyn is deposed, because doubts can take root and fester at ferocious speed.
Right now, the fate of the coup rests on a knife edge. It will take boldness, boldness, and more boldness for the conspirators to win the day. There will be further blood shed next week. Whether it is that of the Corbynites or the Saving Labour rebels, though, remains to be seen.