How a True Labour splinter party could succeed

How a True Labour splinter party could succeed

Labour MPs Face a Crucial Decision: Stick with Corbyn or Forge a New Path

Party MPs

LABOUR is in the midst of a roller-coaster leadership election. Today, a court ruled that the 130,000 people who have joined the party since January (most of them supporters of Jeremy Corbyn) will not be able to vote. That is a blow to the party’s far-left leader, but he will probably still win. So it remains incumbent on Labour’s MPs—who with their surgeries and door-knocking have a much better grip on political reality than their leader and his well-heeled base—to contemplate a future without him.

The Analysis: A Flawed Assumption

Regular readers of this blog and my print column will know that I have long called on Labour’s MPs to contemplate ditching their leader. Yet even before today’s ruling, an overwhelming majority of them strongly disagreed. Their objections go something like this: “Under First Past the Post, splitting the party’s vote would give the Tories and UKIP a clear run at 100+ Labour seats. And why should those of us who have been Labour all our lives be forced to abandon it? The far left has been defeated before and it will be again. Just look at the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which by splitting off from Labour in 1981 helped keep it out of power for another 16 years; without much electoral success to show for its efforts.”

A More Nuanced Perspective

The objections put forth by the MPs exude reason and decency. However, they are also wrong. Firstly, the assumption that the SDP held Labour back is unconvincing. In practice, as is often forgotten, the splinter party took more votes from the Tories than it did from Labour. Moreover, it also exerted the sort of external pressure on the party’s right flank that helped the likes of Neil Kinnock make the case for change from within. It incubated the party’s moderate tradition, with figures like Roy Jenkins becoming mentors to future leaders like Tony Blair.

Secondly, the political landscape today is substantially grimmer for Labour than it was in 1981. The rise of social media has made it much easier for the hard left to organise and consolidate their support. Momentum, the driving force behind Corbyn’s campaign, is Militant with a Facebook account and a sympathetic media eco-system. In this context, moderate assumptions that the reconquista (as it were) can be as quick and successful as that of Kinnock, Smith, and Blair, look wildly optimistic.

Thirdly, the chances of a new party succeeding are better than they were in 1981. Britain is a much less deferential and rigid country than it was then. Voters are more fickle, as evidenced by UKIP’s rise. The electorate’s willingness to break from established parties means that a new Labour breakaway need not crumble on contact with voters’ fixed loyalties as the SDP did.

A Possible Path Forward

The degree of alienation of Labour’s MPs from its leadership today is almost incomparably greater than it was in the 1980s. Most of Mr Corbyn’s shadow cabinet has resigned. If he wins the leadership contest, he has no chance of reconstituting a full shadow ministerial line up. Unlike Michael Foot, who faced a less severe challenge, Corbyn has suffered a vote of no confidence endorsed by over three-quarters of his MPs.

Enough MPs despair of Mr Corbyn to split off, refound the party, and annihilate its remaining far-left rump. The problem is that the vast majority also seethe about the SDP splitters in the 1980s, perceive Labour as family, and adore its history and tradition. However, is it really truer to the party’s founding mission—to provide representation for working people—to look on as Labour systematically alienates those it was meant to serve?

The most optimistic projection among the anti-splitting MPs is that, perhaps, over a decade or so, Labour can be made electable once more. This is a dismal prospect. A more pessimistic projection, which is probably more realistic, suggests that the party will simply spin off into irrelevance. This would leave Britain with a battle between liberals, conservatives, and populists, similar to the political landscape in Poland.

An Alternative Future

But the alternative need not be as grim as those MPs imagine. If as many of them as despair about their leader quit, “Labour” will become a rump of administratively incapable hard-liners. Meanwhile, True Labour (as we might call it) would inherit almost all of the party’s political talent. A defection on this scale would not work in the same way that the puny 28-MP SDP did a third of a century ago.

A battle would follow over whether “Labour” or True Labour actually owned Labour’s pragmatic, social democratic heritage, national voice, local branches, and brand. If the 172 MPs who declared no confidence in Mr Corbyn in June sided with True Labour, this new party would automatically inherit significant components of the original party. True Labour’s role would then be to marginalize or, ideally, destroy Corbyn’s “Labour” by appropriating the Labour mantle through sheer weight, dynamism, and persuasiveness. There are few reasons to believe that such a party would lack the talent, prominence, funding potential, and organizational ability to succeed in this endeavor.

Just imagine:

On September 24, 2016, Jeremy Corbyn wins reelection. Within hours, he moves to consolidate his control of the party. One-by-one, MPs start declaring their independence from their reelected leader; eventually, over 150 have done so. Local Labour Parties begin to split along leader-rebel lines. Staffers in Labour’s headquarters formally disregard Mr Corbyn. A True Labour declaration of independence and social democratic principles is promoted by leading MPs and Labour grandees like Mr Kinnock. A majority of Labour MPs rally around it and appoint a True Labour interim leader and shadow cabinet sporting the best of the party’s parliamentary talent.

True Labour obtains recognition from John Bercow as the official opposition. Donors are sought, and local branches are established. These absorb the moderate segments of Constituency Labour Parties and welcome a flood of new center-left and centrist members, including many previously unaligned voters politicized by the Brexit vote. The new opposition leader, Angela Eagle, discards Corbyn’s unelectable stances and puts real pressure on Theresa May. Conservative splits over Europe start to fracture the government. True Labour becomes more confident and prominent as “Labour”, despite its many loyalists, sinks into chaotic infighting and—unrestrained by moderates— alights on even more looney policies. Come the 2020 election, True Labour is a competitive force, while “Labour” looks like a pressure group posing as a political party and, with few locally active door-knockers and a dysfunctional leadership, sinks into irrelevance.

A Critical Decision for Labour MPs

As things stand, this is not a realistic scenario. But only because Labour MPs are too afraid to make it a reality. Most recognize its desirability but are hidebound by their tribal commitment to the “party” currently run by Jeremy Corbyn. They struggle to accept that Labour is more than its institutional carapace and that reestablishing it as a formidable electoral force is not to abandon it, but to save it and the best of its tradition.

If Mr Corbyn wins the current leadership election, Labour MPs must make a crucial choice: decades of infighting that may or may not generate an electable social democratic force, or a painful but effective break that would immediately generate an electable social democratic force. The future is in their hands.