How likely is a Labour Party split?

Michael Calderbank asks whether Labour's warring factions can ever be brought back together in a united party

August 4, 2016 · 7 min read

This article is taken from the latest issue of Red Pepper – try our pay-as-you-feel subscription to get the print magazine

The stand-off between the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) majority who tried to perpetrate the anti-Corbyn coup on one side, and the elected leader, majority of members and most affiliated trade unions on the other, has led some commentators to speak of a looming ‘existential crisis’ in the Labour Party. An apocalyptic tone suddently began to colour the debate about the future.

In reality, while the possibility of some form of significant split has certainly increased, it is by no means certain, or even likely. There is a desire for a united and effective opposition to a Tory party driving through negotiations over Brexit. Added to this is an emotional reflex to preserve the party that generations of our families have helped to create and build. The history of left-wing breakaways from Labour – from the ILP in the 1930s to the emergence of Militant (now the Socialist Party) and the Scottish Socialist Party, is not auspicious.

The Labour mainstream has always put pragmatism before political clarity. The first instinct of many is to keep the ‘Labour family’ together – to conciliate, negotiate and broker a deal between the conflicting parties. Keep the show on the road.

This presents the Corbyn leadership and Momentum with a strategic dilemma. If the tactic of the Blairites is to paint the left as divisive and destructive, do we respond by emphasising our willingness to be inclusive and unifying? This is problematic, not only because it means bringing people who have sought to publicly insult, humiliate and remove the left leadership back into the fold, but because it assumes the aims and objectives of the party’s rival wings are fundamentally reconcilable at some deeper level. But is this really the case?

The level of internal divisions being played out through the media risks making the dire predictions of electoral wipeout a self-fulfilling prophecy

If some of the coup-plotters believe that Labour needs to chase votes lost to UKIP by talking about tougher immigration controls, appeasing the right-wing press and pushing ahead with the renewal of Trident nuclear weapons, what kind of compromise is possible? In such circumstances a ‘unifying’ approach would seem to involve giving ground on questions of fundamental principle. On this scenario, the left might survive the short-term crisis but only at the price of sacrificing some of its credibility and demotivating its support base.

Attractive policy

An alternative approach would begin not from the need to unite the different forces in Westminster, but to proceed on the basis that the leadership’s existing platform is already uniting mass support across the country. Labour’s policy agenda under Corbyn has been clear, principled, and attractive.

The party is now anti-austerity and opposed to attacks on the welfare state. We are committed to defending workers’ rights and opposing the scapegoating of immigrants and asylum seekers. We want to end the housing crisis, defend the NHS from privatisation and bring rail back into public ownerhship. We want to combat man-made climate change and work for an end to war and for justice and human rights across the world, not least in Palestine. It is an agenda that unites the overwhelming majority of Labour members and supporters. Indeed, thousands of new recruits have poured into the party precisely because such a political alternative is finally being articulated by a mainstream political party.

Labour MPs are trapped in a Westminster bubble, where what counts is who made the most wounding response at the dispatch box, or who bested who in debates at departmental questions. The ups and downs of different personalities get blown out of all proportion, while the bigger picture can get lost.

This is nothing new. When Ian Mikardo, later an MP but then a young left-wing candidate for an unwinnable Tory seat, successfully moved conference policy in favour of taking key sections of industry into public ownership, he was told by Herbert Morrison: ‘Young man, you’ve lost us the next election.’ This was in 1944, less than a year before the post-war Labour government was elected with a landslide. Today’s MPs are similarly out of touch with what makes for popularity and electability.

Mandatory reselection

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, party members became increasingly frustrated at the failure of Labour MPs in parliament to implement policy decisions voted on at the annual conference. When Denis Healey went to the IMF and started imposing spending cuts in 1976, he faced howls of anger from party members who saw this as flying in the face of the policy commitments they had voted for. Supporters of Tony Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy realised they had to ensure that Labour MPs could be held to account by party members in their constituencies, leading to calls for the ‘mandatory reselection’ of Labour MPs. This meant that MPs who didn’t enjoy the confidence of their constituency parties had no automatic right to continue as party candidates.

If today’s party leadership were to reject attempts to compromise with the Blairites and instead pursue a strategy of confronting and defeating their opponents, the question of across-the-board reselections would be posed sooner rather than later. The only way of avoiding this is to assume that the survival instincts of MPs would kick in: that, given time, MPs would be aware of how popular the present policy direction could make Labour and therefore drop their resistance.

The difficulty here is that the level of internal divisions being played out through the media risks making the dire predictions of electoral wipeout a self-fulfilling prophecy, as policies get drowned in a tidal wave of talk about a dysfunctional party and an inability to command authority in Westminster. This would embolden the right for further trench warfare. Assuming that right-wing MPs would dig in and fight steps to deselect them rather than leave to form a new party, Labour would then effectively move into all-out civil war mode. It would be ugly, and as Labour tore itself to pieces in full public view, the Tories could call a snap election and possibly win a landslide. The first-past-the-post electoral system does not deal kindly with splits in the vote. The danger is that if centrist Labour MPs foresee the Corbyn leadership taking this direction, the ground would be prepared for a ‘unity’ candidate to emerge and peel off a significant element of the left’s support and trade union backing.

More questions than answers

There are suddenly more questions than answers. If Labour ‘unity’ can only be bought at the expense of the Corbynites having to make serious concessions to the right, or by replacing him altogether by a soft-left ‘unity’ candidate, then the question surely poses itself of whether it’s time to abandon the fetish of the unity of the Labour Party and pose instead the unity of the social movement against neoliberalism.

Left politics in Britain for over a century has been dominated by the ideology of Labourism, which holds that Labour is the sole party capable of giving political representation to working-class interests, and that social change can be best delivered by returning Labour MPs to parliament to govern the country in our interests. But as the wipeout in Scotland and the Brexit vote have shown, voters in huge swaths of Labour’s former industrial heartlands no longer buy into these traditional assumptions.

The Bennite insurgency and the Corbynite project have each gestured towards a new left politics that doesn’t begin and end in Westminster but brings forward political demands from within the context of extra-parliamentary struggle. Plenty of people still want to give Labourism a new lease of life. But minds are also starting to turn to whether, should Labour become a casualty of this war, new forms of political organisation might emerge from the ashes. In the meantime we must keep Corbyn and stiffen our sinews for the battle ahead.

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