It’s war within Labour and one side must lose
To have publicly lost the confidence of three-quarters of your MPs would normally be regarded as a resigning matter. In 1995, John Major set himself the private target in his party’s leadership election of 65% of his MPs, aware that without a substantial lead his authority would be terminally damaged. Indeed, the Tory leadership election rules at the time required a 15% lead in the first round in order to ensure that no other candidate with substantial support was passed over without at least a second thought.
Such practical considerations are clearly not of concern to Jeremy Corbyn. In defiance of all the usual principles of parliamentary party democracy, his argument is that MPs should respect the independent mandate their party handed him; that MPs cannot override or veto the decision of the Labour electorate at large.
That’s all very well but the Labour whip is now practically meaningless. A whip only works through a circular flow of power whereby everyone gains from the discipline it brings. But when discipline breaks down to the extent that the leadership cannot fill its own front bench because so many MPs refuse to serve on it, how can the Labour Party have a policy on anything in anything other than a theoretical sense?
In fact, there is a danger that it goes one stage further, and that the rebels – which comprises the great majority of the PLP – organise their own whip. If that happened, it could easily become the embryo for a whole new party.
But that is to get slightly ahead of ourselves. Before then, there is almost certain to be a Labour leadership election. Angela Eagle is widely reported as being willing to be the one to raise the standard against Corbyn. The three immediately important questions are, firstly, is that report right, secondly, if she does stand, will it drag a second challenger out, and thirdly, can she – or someone else – defeat Corbyn?
I’m not sure that Eagle is an ideal candidate. She voted for military action in Syria last year, for example, which is surely running against the grain of Labour opinion. If members are willing to accept someone with such views, they’d be much better off going for Hilary Benn who has shown much more talent for leadership. She only finished fourth in last year’s deputy leadership contest; a better candidate would be the one who won it. However, if they’re not prepared to wield the knife then the next leader will have to be someone who is.
If, that is, they win. The experience of his leadership over the past nine months means that Corbyn can never again be the candidate he was last summer. All the same, he retains the support of the big unions and Labour’s membership base has shifted left since last year’s election. He would have to be in with a fighting chance of winning again.
At this point, there is the question of whether he’d be on the ballot. Having been mad to put him on last time, Labour MPs would be mad to keep him off now, if it’s decided that he even needs nominating (the rules are unclear but I’d take the view that he’d automatically be on). The Labour mainstream can only win back control of their party if they are seen to do it democratically, and that means defeating the left head-on in a proper contest.
If they fail, they will have run out of options. At that point, having deployed the nuclear option and missed, the left would surely feel entitled to retaliate. Even if they didn’t, they couldn’t go back to the status quo ante. The letters written this week cannot be unpublished, the resignations undone and the vote of no confidence unheld. We are now at a point where either the leadership must go or the MPs must. Put simply, if Corbyn is still in place come October, SDP2 is almost inevitable.
Almost but not quite. The one thing that could prevent it is an early election. If a new Conservative leader chose to go to the country for a mandate for his or her Brexit plan (officially – unofficially it would be to capitalise on Labour’s travails), the Labour Party would have no option but to muddle on. There would be time neither for deselections nor the setting up of a new party and it’d be a new world after polling day. This assumes that a Tory PM could finesse an early election through the mechanisms within the FTPA but it’s not an unreasonable assumption.
But absent that scenario, a split by Christmas is inevitable if the Eagle fails to land her prey. I very much doubt it’d be an option that many within Labour would look on with relish: too many will remember the fate of both SDP1 and Labour during the 1980s. But what option would there be?