The Leadership Election is their last chance to save themselves
‘Exceptional things don’t happen as often as commentators think’ is nearly always a good betting rule of thumb but there are two riders to that assertion. Firstly, ‘not as often’ doesn’t mean ‘never’, and secondly, when they do happen, they can cluster.
In fact, 2016 hasn’t been quite as extraordinary as some might believe, though only because 2015 was. Brexit might be a defining moment in both the UK’s and the EU’s history but Leave had fluctuated either side of 50% for years; the Democrats in the end chose a solidly safe candidate and if the Republicans didn’t, they did pick the man who’d led in the polls since the middle of last year. The resignation of a PM is always unusual but Cameron’s departure was a natural consequence of a Brexit vote, and his replacement was the safe pair of hands that was always likely if the MPs could keep matters among themselves.
But 2016 isn’t over yet and there’s plenty of scope for something truly exceptional. Indeed, it’s already happening and is the hardening of two factions within Labour into two camps so hostile that it’s difficult to see how they can coexist. In the last week, Jeremy Corbyn has effectively threatened MPs opposed to him with deselection while they have launched a formal challenge to his leadership. Some have gone further. Three made direct attacks on Corbyn’s incompetence or conduct, while another publicly contemplated leaving the Party altogether if he’s re-elected.
This is more than a contest for office; to safeguard their own future, the winning faction will have little choice but to destroy their opponents as an effective force because the party cannot function while the civil war goes on. That no-confidence vote cannot be unheld.
Older Labour members will no doubt feel a sinking sensation of déjà vu about all this. The battles against the Militant Tendency in the 1980s were long, bitter and acrimonious. Rather like the Bourbons, it seems that Labour is at once capable of learning nothing and forgetting nothing. They might do well to recall the Bourbons’ fate.
If Corbyn wins where does that leave Labour moderates? They will then have played every card they have and will be facing opponents who will be both angry and euphoric; a heady and dangerous mix. Only three options would be possible: to recant and submit to the new order, to shut up and hope it all eventually blows itself out, or to leave one way or another.
Few will opt for the first choice which would be humiliating and patently false. More might try to sit on the fence and take the second but how sustainable can that be when Momentum types will be watching and waiting to expose ‘disloyalty’ – of which they’ll already have evidence.
Which leaves only the third option: to quit. For all the talk of no splits, it’s almost impossible to see how that can be achieved if Corbyn wins.
For that matter, it’ll be quite difficult to avoid if Smith wins although in that unlikely situation, he would at least be watching or chasing the infiltrators back out, together with those who invited them in if he has any sense.
But more likely is a renewed Corbyn mandate and from there, the natural dynamics would play out. The Labour bus is careering towards the cliff, driven by someone who’s unqualified and egged on by a raucous bunch intoxicated by unexpected power. It’s true that jumping or inviting being pushed by standing up to the power in the party is likely to be painful but if the last chance is missed – and this leadership election is the last chance – then the alternative would be so much worse.
Doesn’t that bring us back to the point about forgetting nothing and learning nothing? Hasn’t Labour been here before and didn’t it end badly? Yes, they were and it did. But that time the unions and the leadership were on the side wanting to drag the party back from the abyss. This time, they and the membership are keenly accelerating towards it in the optimistic belief that they’re immune from the laws of gravity. But ‘gravity’ is no doubt just a Blairite theory.