Fireworks in the Parliamentary Labour Party

In a move that resembles the kind of intra-institutional power playing that takes place inside the Chinese Communist Party or the Vatican City, moderate Labour MPs have pulled off quite a coup today.

The hitherto little known and largely moribund ‘Departmental Committees’ of the Parliamentary Labour Party are actually, technically, very powerful. The announcement that high profile opponents of Jeremy Corbyn have had a clean sweep in the elections for Committee Chairs, some of which were uncontested – such is the obscurity of the positions – has led political commentators to start looking up dusty old copies of the PLP Standing Orders.

This is the first time in recent memory that MPs have organised themselves onto a slate of people who directly disagree with the politics of the Leader. Most of the new Chairs are on record as being against Jeremy Corbyn’s policy, many in the policy areas of the committees they now chair. John Woodcock becoming chair of the Defence Committee is a direct attempt to persuade Labour to retain its policy on renewing Trident, despite Corbyn’s own view and his campaign to get the party to change their mind and the result of the vote at Scottish Labour Conference this weekend.

Unlike the Conservatives’ 1922 committee, the PLP is the grouping of all Labour MPs – frontbench and backbench. If Jeremy Corbyn is really serious about strengthening and respecting party democracy – will he welcome these new Chairs as a democratic way forward for making policy in Westminster, rather than working solely with unelected Shadow Ministers? However they choose to conduct themselves over the coming months, expect to see these new chairs popping up on a TV near you soon.

One particular aspect of the news that has raised eyebrows this afternoon amongst the commentariat – witness the exchange between Gavin Shuker MP and Labour List Editor Conor Pope – is the right of Departmental Committee Chairs to speak for Labour from the Dispatch Box. There is huge potential for chaos and confusion here. If both a Shadow Minister and a PLP Departmental Committee Chair speak at the Dispatch Box, who is speaking for the Labour Party? The November 5th timing may be a coincidence, but today’s announcement is certain to cause fireworks.

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