|The original Labour splitters, 1981|
It is not the fact that polls cannot be wrong: we know that, especially in tight contests. But the very margin of the predicted win – 62% Corbyn to 38% Smith – must surely have brought a crushing dismay to the Smith team. Polls are not oftenthat wrong. 62% is also, coincidentally, the exact same prediction for Corbyn’s vote made in August last year after reallocation of preferences. So we are likely to be talking about the same order-of-magnitude win.
So let’s suppose it’s right and September will be a glorious vindication of Labour’s choice of leader, in the face of massive unpopularity in the country. What happens next? There are really two possibilities.
One is that the Tories somehow find a way to subvert the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011 (plus Theresa May changes her earlier position) and contrive an early general election. Labour will, on current polling, be destroyed. But following that, Labour could have a chance to regroup after a further leadership contest. There is a possibility that the penny may finally drop with its critical soft left segment that the current configuration is truly unelectable and that John McDonnell or Diane Abbott cannot possibly rescue it. And then would start the long work of rebuilding the party under a new leader
The second, and apparently far more likely scenario, is that there is no general election. After winning two leadership elections, it seems unlikely that Corbyn could be dislodged until 2020 (if he is seen to be wounded in September, that is a different matter, but the polls indicate otherwise). And he has indicated he might hang on even in the event of a defeat, although one wonders whether John McDonnell would be comfortable with this thwarting of his own political ambitions.
The question then is simply, could Labour limp on until then without a split? Assuming no change of heart for the 172 MPs who voted No Confidence in Jeremy Corbyn, it seems untenable, for three reasons:
One: the MPs would largely disagree with the policies being presented on behalf of the party (and note that policy creation would likely bypass the National Policy Forum, according to rule changes being proposed for this year’s Conference).
Two: they would tend to be deselected anyway, once rule changes were put in place to force reselection using the limp excuse of boundary changes, as Corbyn himself has said he wants.
Three: a less-considered point is what an anonymous activist guest-writing in Nick Cohen’s Spectator column call the “ethical” case. The reason that Corbyn manages to keep the support of so many members is because they are mostly unaware of his past deeds and associations (or assume that any attempt to tell the truth about them is a smear). MPs are by definition political anoraks who do not fit that category, and most are painfully aware of Corbyn’s past and what it means.
In other words, that many decent MPs cannot, morally, stomach the idea of staying associated with a man who wants not only no nuclear weapons but Britain out of NATO altogether; who supported genocide denial in Kosovo; who as late as 2014 was a member of an organisation (the LRC) supporting armed struggle in Ireland; who appears uncritically on PressTV and Russia Today, state propaganda mouthpieces for repressive regimes.
Moreover, they quite conceivably might not be able to handle the idea of their beloved party going through the motions of a party conference in September, passing rule changes to turn back the clock to the 1980s, while a parallel Momentum conference is going on next door, with speakers who are far-left non-members, or even members of separate parties which stand against Labour.
Given that they would still be in their MPs’ offices until 2020, massively disappointed with the leadership and heading for career oblivion thereafter with nothing to lose, what is their motivation going to be?
Why, to split, of course, and thereby have a chance of returning to Parliament.
This could also be made significantly more attractive if the new party had sufficient critical mass to immediately become the official opposition and have access to Short money. And, as Labour Uncut’s Atul Hatwal has argued, even Labour’s current inability to fill Shadow government positions puts in question its legitimacy to be designated Her Majesty’s Opposition.
A split is not inevitable: but from where we are now, it looks increasingly hard to resist. And if MPs were to hold their nerve and not buckle to the Corbynite line in the face of deselection threats, it would be the new party which dominated, in contrast to the 1980s.
The tragedy, of course, is that our century-old party would ultimately wither in the process. As Liz Kendall observed last year, the party has “no God-given right to exist”.
And the question still remains whether this fate, that of the Liberals in the 1920s, at some point becomes unavoidable anyway. It is certainly arguable that the sudden and overwhelming “crowding out” of long-time members by Corbynites has already made it so.
Or, put it another way: it is quite possible that we have already reached the tipping point.
This post first published at Labour Uncut