Oldham has firmed up the chances of a Labocalypse

Oldham has firmed up the chances of a Labocalypse


Corbyn is now safe for months

It’s been an up-and-down week for Labour. Rows, splits, mishandled Autumn Budget replies – all forgotten in one swift and decisive victory. Except that’s not true: they’ve not been forgotten and although Labour’s right has gained a new MP, tilting the PLP even further away from the leadership, it’s the left of the party that’s gained the strategic victory.

Most obviously but also most transiently, the news narrative has turned positive for Labour and for Corbyn. After a torrid few weeks, that relieves the pressure on the leader and with Christmas and the New Year approaching, a lot of the momentum his critics built up will have been lost by the time parliament reassembles in 2016. But the longer lasting effect is psychological. The left, already on a mission, will feel vindicated electorally and emboldened in their campaign and can point to Oldham to counter any bad poll results. That McMahon’s win might have been down to local factors will be beside the point.

And that mission is where the unforgotten rows and splits come in. The Syria vote had many of the aspects of the Maurice Debate and its aftermath in 1918: the bitterness, the division between the populists on one side and much of the party hierarchy on the other, and the threat of withdrawal of official support from the rebels. The one big difference – and the saving grace for the likes of Benn, Jarvis, Watson and Cooper – is that whereas Asquith’s rebellion against Lloyd George came only six months before the election campaign (not that they knew it at the time), the Syria vote is in all probability more than four years from the next one, and two to three years from when the selections for the new constituencies are made. There’s time for all sides to calm down.

Or alternatively, there’s time for both sides to get serious. Ironically, while McMahon’s election has tipped the PLP rightwards, it may have sent Labour’s NEC the other way (as he’s a councillor representative in it; a role he’ll presumably have to stand down from now). Do Momentum really intend to aim to deselect the Syria interventionists and the centrists, and if so, will they have much success? This really is a crucial question for how the parliament pans out.

As Nick Palmer said in an article here recently, MPs (of all parties) will frequently make accommodation with a new leadership even when it differs markedly from what went before. In addition to respecting their mandate, instincts of loyalty or hopes for preferment, MPs recognise that for many of them, their careers will outlast one leader and as such, while they might rebel on individual votes, they’ll stick by their party in general. The exception comes with the activists’ nuclear threat: deselection.

As yet, for all the noise on Twitter and outside a few constituency offices, it’s far too early to know whether Momentum can make good on their threats. If they do, as in 1981, that will be the moment when the risk of a breakaway party will become real, not before.

Not that an SDP2 is likely to be any more successful than the SDP1 was, for the same reasons. Without union money, without any crusading values and with no obvious prospect of government, breaking through under FPTP would be incredibly difficult. However, while such a party might not gain any great success itself, it could do a lot of damage to Labour.

On the other hand, UKIP is a very real present threat, Oldham notwithstanding (indeed, there’s a risk of the other parties underrating UKIP after this week’s result). We should remember that at this stage in the last parliament it would have seemed extraordinary to be talking of UKIP finishing a comfortable second as a disappointment. And between now and 2020, the EU referendum should provide UKIP with tremendous publicity where they can appear relatively united on a position that Labour’s working-class voters tend to support. It is true that UKIP had a poor election on Thursday and have been underperforming since May. However, they have a golden opportunity during the next two years to get themselves back into the game.

And that it the risk to Corbynites: Labocalypse. Squeezed out by the SNP in Scotland and by the Tories, UKIP and perhaps an SDP2 in England and Wales. Some will say it cannot happen and they would certainly be right to say it probably won’t happen. But then the notion that Labour would be reduced to just one Scottish MP would have been considered off with the fairies five years ago – or to pick up on the Maurice Debate example, that the (official) Liberals would be reduced to 36 seats by the end of the year having won 272 at the previous election. These are interesting times.

David Herdson

p.s. I have a mea culpa to admit. Before the Oldham polling day, I confidently stated that Labour would not increase its vote share. Indeed, so categorical was I that I said I would eat Lord Ashdown’s hat it they did. Well, no-one gets it right all the time and I was probably tempting fate quoting that foolishly dismissive reference. I trust the honourable readers of politicalbetting will permit me to consume humble pie in lieu of the Lib Dem Lord’s headwear (which in any case, he should have already eaten).

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