Is Labour cruising towards a split?

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

 

The unhappiness of Labour moderates at the direction of their party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn is no secret. Any moments of supposed party unity, such as that seen after the general election, have been quickly shattered by internal crises – like the seemingly never-ending anti-Semitism controversy that has plagued Labour.

 

The divide between Corbynites and moderates has even led some to theorise that the party is on the verge of splitting – a scenario that would likely end in electoral misery for both sides.

 

The idea of a split is nothing new, rumours of this outcome were especially prevalent before the last election, when Labour was 20 points behind in the polls and 172 of the party’s MPs had voted no confidence in the leader.

 

However, Labour’s newfound strength in the polls may be as much of a curse as a blessing. Moderate MPs can no longer bank on the electorate rejecting Corbyn, making leaving the party seem more desirable.

 

If the next election takes place when it is scheduled to, Corbyn would be elected to serve until 2027. This would mean another nine years of his Labour leadership, or even longer if he went on to win re-election.

 

Whilst some people may think that his age makes this unlikely, I wouldn’t be so sure. Across the western world, age is becoming less of a limiting factor when it comes to holding higher office.

 

In the United States, Joe Biden (75) and Bernie Sanders (76) are widely tipped as potential Democratic presidential candidates for nomination in 2020. In Britain, the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems are all in their 60’s and 70’s.

 

Meanwhile, a new slate of left-wing Labour MPs were elected in 2017. Now, it seems increasingly likely that when Jeremy Corbyn does resign, a similarly left-wing MP will make it onto the ballot.

 

Therefore, an increasingly desperate section of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) may think their solution is to leave the party, in spite of concerns that doing so would split the left-wing vote and lead to another Tory election victory.

 

However, the more left-wing section of the party supported Corbyn just as avidly when he was trailing in the polls – it was during this period they re-elected him leader – as they do now. On the other hand, the section of the party opposed to Corbyn’s leadership are against him just as much now as they were when he was behind in the polls.

 

What this tells us is that, for both sides of the argument, morals and ideology are more important than electoral success. Such a conclusion makes party unity seem a lot less likely, while a schism within Labour seems infinitely more so.

 

Indeed, it seems that there is a broad spectrum of people who would welcome a split. Moderates herald it as a chance to get their ideas to the forefront of politics, while some Corbynites see it as a way to create a party more united around its leader and his ideals.

 

Moreover, Brexit stands only to widen already existing rifts within Labour, with many Labour MPs believing our relationship with the EU is the most important political issue of our time. These MPs may see a split as the only way to stop or soften Brexit if leaders of the two main parties still continue to support our exit from the EU and the Single Market.

 

A new pro-EU party could cause a headache for both sides of the aisle, with Tory Remainers, such as Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry, being potential converts to a new party. Both of them have criticised the current state of the Conservatives and said they would leave their party if Boris Johnson becomes prime minister.

 

A schism looks more likely than ever, but it’s not inevitable. In spite of a growing number of people advocating a split, most people in Labour oppose one – and for good reason.

 

A large departure of moderate MPs from the party would essentially cede control of Labour to the left for the foreseeable future, as the moderates would lose control of the PLP – the only stronghold they have left within the party. Moreover, any MP who splits would likely face a much tougher re-election campaign than if they had stayed put.

 

 

However, what has been remarkable about the majority of the internal issues facing the party is how easily they could have been prevented. The anti-Semitism crisis could have been contained had the party quickly adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA’s) full definition of anti-Semitism, and if disciplinary charges had not been brought up against Margaret Hodge.

 

Instead, ideology was prioritized over pragmatism. Yet, weeks after the controversy broke, the investigation against Hodge was dropped and Labour may be about to fully adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. This would mean the leadership has needlessly wasted important political capital on this issue.

 

That being said, while some moderate MPs may see these events as motivation to leave Labour, others may be inclined otherwise. The PLP’s resounding disdain for the party’s handling of this issue was undoubtedly instrumental in getting the investigation against Hodge dropped and they can also take a lot of the credit if the leadership concedes on the IHRA issue.

 

These events will have reminded many MPs of the stark differences between themselves and Corbyn. They should have also served as a reminder that they would be giving up their influence over Britain’s second largest party if they were to leave.

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