Comment: Labour’s split now looks inevitable

By James Steel

There are three possible outcomes to the current chaos in the Labour party. There could either be a leadership challenge, or the so-called moderates could sit tight on the backbenches, or they could form a new party. Earlier this week, Blair's former speechwriter and chief strategist Peter Hyman raised the final possibility, writing that "This is the biggest existential moment in Labour's history. Labour may not survive. Either the current Corbyn party will need some home outside the Labour party or the mainstream of the Labour party will need to make common cause with others to forge a new party."

It would clearly be simpler to avoid all this and just trigger a leadership challenge by ousting Corbyn. His critics certainly have the 35 MPs needed to launch a bid and there has been speculation that this could happen if the May 2016 elections in Wales, London, Scotland and English council seats produce bad results. However, for various reasons this is unlikely. Labour expectations are very low for the elections and as long as the party has at least one significant success, such as Sadiq Khan winning in London, then Corbyn will be difficult to budge.

There are three more pressing reasons why Corbyn will not be challenged even if the results are bad. Firstly, his critics would have to find a compelling big beast candidate to unite around. None of those who stood against Corbyn – Burnham, Cooper and Kendall – are likely to do so again and other figures like Tristram Hunt, Chuka Umunna and Dan Jarvis are either unwilling to face the hostility involved or are too inexperienced.

Secondly the election would be fought under the same one-member-one-vote rules that gave Corbyn a landslide the last time around. There's little reason to believe it would deliver a different result a second time around.

Thirdly, the winner of this contest would then have to take a bitterly divided party into the 2020 election, one that few in the party thought they could win even before Corbyn was elected. Politicians like Hunt and Umunna seem unlikely to take this risk. Far safer for them to sit out the 2020 election on the back benches and let Corbyn crash the plane into the ground, then emerge into the smoking ruins and take back control.

All this suggests the party moderates will just have to wait it out. After all the party went through five years of briefing against Ed Milliband's leadership with no formal challenge and Labour is generally not inclined to defenestrate leaders mid-term. Indeed it has not done so since George Lansbury in 1935.

It's possible that moderates could still decide to split off and form another party. But many will be wary of emulating the SDP in the 1980s, which merely split the vote on the left and was then duly punished by the first-past-the-post system. It's also worth noting that the SDP was formed by three heavyweight politicians who had all held great offices of state: Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and David Owens, and they also had massive financial backing from Lord Sainsbury. These circumstances seem unlikely to be repeated now.

Faced with these facts, it may seem likely that Labour will just muddle through the next five years in a rancorous mood like a rowing couple who continue to live in the same house purely because they are afraid of getting divorced.

But if the situation is this bad after the first hundred days of Corbyn's leadership what will it be like after a few years? Will it get to the point where the moderates feel they have nothing left to lose by breaking away from Labour, whether or not the precedents are good? Tim Farron has certainly been appealing to centrists to join him and he may be open to a merger.

Meanwhile Corbyn is setting about changing the permanent structures and power balance within the party. His team knows he is weak in the Parliamentary Labour Party. He is therefore trying to move power towards activists where he won an unprecedented 60% of the votes in the leadership election and where his power is increasing. Around 100,000 new members have joined since he was elected, mainly left wingers, while 30,000 moderates have left, a process that has been referred to as 'exitism'.

Corbyn is launching a cultural revolution against his own party establishment by appealing to his left-wing activist supporters over the heads of the more moderate MPs. This same tactic was followed by Mao in 1966 when he used his personality cult to call on the Chinese people to attack the Communist Party. As Corbyn told the Sunday Times recently: "The parliamentary party is a part of the party, a very important part, but it is not the totality of the Labour party." He instead wants the "development of participatory democracy."

In the same vein John McDonnell has advocated transforming Labour from a centralised party to a social movement run by activists. But rather than merely democratising the party, he is in fact Corbynising the party. The moderates have no effective response to this – after all, who can argue against democracy?

The Labour leader is also said to be considering a shadow cabinet reshuffle to get rid of those who voted for airstrikes in Syria. If significant moderates like Hilary Benn, Maria Eagle, Angela Eagle and Lucy Powell, were to be pushed out then that would end any attempt to pretend that compromise is possible between the two sides.

What is more, in the New Year, there will be elections to six posts on the NEC and as the activist base tilts left, more and more positions will fall to left-wingers. This will lead to the supplanting of the National Policy Forum with conference, once again tilting policy-making to the left on issues such as nuclear disarmament.

Interestingly this was one of the key policy shifts that triggered the breakaway of the SDP in 1981. The other great issue of the day was deselection of MPs and this issue will raise its head again in 2018 when the Boundary Commission changes come in and 650 constituencies are cut to 600, offering plenty of opportunity for local activists to oust MPs they don't agree with.

If this all plays out as expected and Corbyn succeeds in turning Labour into a devolved peoples' protest movement then surely there is no alternative for serious minded politicians but to split away from it, for better or worse.

James Steel is a political novelist and Head of Politics at a London school.

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