Is it all threats or will there really be a split?
So adamant have some been that a split will happen that one is tempted to ask when so we can put the date in our diaries.
If nothing else, the events of the last couple of weeks have shown that making predictions is a foolhardy occupation. So what are the probabilities of a split? What nature would a split take? And more importantly could it deny a Labour victory in the next election as the split and formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) did in the 1983?
It’s worth taking a brief look at that event as many are tempted to view it as a template. What is revealed is that while there are similarities there are also important differences.
Coup is fundamentally political
Despite all the talk of Jeremy Corbyn’s suitability and competence of as leader, the coup is fundamentally political. As with the 1983 General Election, the motivation is to prevent a Labour government elected on a radical left programme. Both revolts were and are orchestrated and lead by, for want of a better term, supporters of Neoliberalism.
But the context is different in one vital aspect, 1983 was set against a back drop of the ascendancy of Neoliberalism epitomised by Thatcherism and Reagonomics.
Now, after two recessions and a global financial collapse, the Neoliberal ideology, advanced by Tony Blair and his supporters in the Labour Party, has been discredited and is in decline. It’s still a powerful presence in the form of economic policies like austerity.
Were there to be a separate party based on the discredited ideas of ‘Blairism’ it would be of little attraction to voters and have little chance of success.
One lesson that any MP thinking of defecting should take note of is, the majority of MPs that joined the SDP lost their seats and their careers were consigned to the political graveyard…
Some commentators when discussing a split seem to assert that the 172 Labour MPs can simply form their own party in parliament. This profoundly misunderstands the structure, organisation and resourcing needed for a national political party with ambitions to rival Labour and that’s assuming all 172 would sign up.
The real case is that most Labour MPs are loyal to the party and those that aren’t value their careers!
What would a “new party” look like?
That reduces the probability of a split somewhat. However, if that doesn’t rule it out entirely what would its likely nature be?
The main core of the coup attempt appears to be a group of 25 to 40 MPs, mostly career politicians, on the right-wing of the Labour Party.
The consideration of self interest would be felt particularly keenly amongst this group so it’s reasonable to assume that the number of defectors would be towards the lower end of the scale as it was in the 1981 formation of the SDP.
A further consideration in forming a new party is the question of its social base, its membership and demographic. With the ongoing process of the polarisation of society, there is very little left of the ‘centre ground’ and what is left is occupied by the Liberal Democrats. The only other ground is to the right, into Conservative territory which clearly would fail.
Do the numbers stack up?
Do the right-wing have the numbers for a viable party? The closest estimate of the right’s real base of support within the Labour Party would be their candidate Liz Kendal’s 4.5% (18,857) of the vote in the leadership election last September. It’s doubtful they would all leave. The SDP boasted a membership of 65,000 in 1981. If all the right-wing’s supporters in the Labour Party joined a new party it could not mount a viable or sustained challenge to Labour even with heavy funding. Like the SDP they would have to rely on alliances with other parties.
What about an alliance?
If forming an independent party is not a viable option, where would the natural home for these orphaned MPs be? Here again, there is an important difference with the 1980s experience.
The Liberal Party of 1981 welcomed the defecting MPs with open arms. The current crop of prospective defectors supported the Iraq war, something vociferously opposed by Liberal Democrat members. The reputational damage, (Update: With the publication of the Chilcot report this is especially the case), to the Liberal Democrats of welcoming this rump of MPs would probably be a risk not worth taking.
To do the damage necessary to prevent Labour winning the next General Election these MPs need a party machine that at least covers all of England and Wales. Taking everything above into account, even if they do split away, it’s unclear that their project would derail Labour, other events may conspire do that but its unlikely to be the doing of a rump of right-wing ex-Labour MPs.
The coup handed the left a cheap victory
There is a final consideration, the Labour coup is showing all signs of failing. One unintended consequence of the mass resignations is that Corbyn has has filled the key posts with those loyal to him and the party – he now has something that seemed impossible a couple of weeks ago, a Corbyn cabinet. In gambling everything the coup organisers have given the left a cheap victory.
I’d judge that those supporting the coup such as Lord Mandelson would be wary of handing the left another cheap victory by emptying the Labour Party of their remaining support.
So far an empty threat
Even though in these volatile times events can turn on a sixpence at bewildering speed, it would seem that the threat of a Labour split is mostly just that at this stage, a threat.
Gary Hollands – July 5th 2016 updated July 8th 2016.
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