Labour’s bit­ter split and di­vorce is un­avoid­able

With a gen­eral elec­tion due, Cor­byn sup­port­ers and their op­po­nents will tear the party in two

The Daily Telegraph - - Comment - TOM HAR­RIS COM­MENT on Tom Har­ris’s view at tele­graph.co.uk/ com­ment or FOL­LOW him on Twit­ter @MrTCHar­ris

Jeremy Cor­byn has made a habit of spurn­ing the po­lit­i­cal gifts pre­sented to him by a dis­united Con­ser­va­tive Party. But even for him, it is an as­ton­ish­ing achieve­ment to come off worse af­ter a Brexit ref­er­en­dum that has seen the Tory Prime Min­is­ter ousted and the ma­chin­ery of gov­ern­ment paral­ysed. Yet that much was clear yes­ter­day as shadow min­is­ters queued up to re­sign.

Many vot­ers will have had no idea that the Op­po­si­tion had so many min­is­ters. But then, many would also as­sume that the Labour Party must now sack its leader or split. Un­for­tu­nately, it’s not that sim­ple.

Labour MPs are an­gry at Jeremy Cor­byn’s lack­lus­tre role in the failed cam­paign to keep the UK in the EU. But that’s not why they’re try­ing to get rid of him. The main rea­son they want to re­move Jeremy Cor­byn as leader of the Labour Party is that he makes Labour un­electable. And with a gen­eral elec­tion ex­pected be­fore the end of this year, the task be­comes rather more ur­gent for those who hope to re­tain their seats, let alone get into gov­ern­ment.

Phase One of the putsch has not, at the time of writ­ing, suc­ceeded in oust­ing him. He’s been weak­ened by the avalanche of res­ig­na­tions, cer­tainly, but so what? Any other leader would have re­signed by now. But Mr Cor­byn is dif­fer­ent. He has no loy­alty to the Labour Party. He has no emo­tional con­nec­tion with the Labour move­ment and no in­tense love of the party’s his­tory or legacy. His pri­mary con­cern is the mul­ti­tude of causes he has sup­ported since he was first elected to Par­lia­ment in 1983.

So he prob­a­bly won’t re­sign, even af­ter he loses today’s vote of no con­fi­dence by a dis­grace­ful mar­gin.

Then what? Then the 20 per cent rule kicks in. This dates back to the golden age of lead­er­ship chal­lenges – the late Eight­ies – when re­peated coup at­tempts were con­sid­ered such a costly waste of time that, from 1988 on­wards, the rules were changed so chal­lengers needed to win the nom­i­na­tions of 20 per cent of Labour MPs.

A chal­lenger is now cer­tain to emerge be­fore the sum­mer re­cess, and that chal­lenger will have no dif­fi­culty in at­tract­ing the sup­port of at least one in five (51) Labour MPs. But here’s the cru­cial point. It looks likely that Iain McNi­col, the party’s gen­eral sec­re­tary and es­sen­tially the re­turn­ing of­fi­cer for any lead­er­ship elec­tion, will rule that Mr Cor­byn, even though he is the in­cum­bent leader, also needs to seek the sup­port of 20 per cent of MPs. That he will find this dif­fi­cult says all you need to know about his fit­ness for lead­er­ship.

Mr Cor­byn’s sup­port­ers didn’t count on an early elec­tion. But an au­tumn vote would have two very sig­nif­i­cant con­se­quences. First, ev­ery sit­ting Labour MP will be au­to­mat­i­cally re­s­e­lected as a can­di­date with­out hav­ing to go through a fraught grilling by Mo­men­tum, Cor­byn’s grass­roots cam­paign group. Se­condly, David Cameron’s pre­cious bound­ary re­view, with plans to re­duce the num­ber of seats in the Com­mons by 50, as well as equalise num­bers of vot­ers in each seat, will have to be post­poned for yet an­other elec­toral cy­cle. Re­drawn bound­aries might also have re­quired Labour MPs to be re­s­e­lected. Both th­ese fac­tors mean that Labour MPs, spared trial by Mo­men­tum, will face less pres­sure to nom­i­nate Mr Cor­byn.

Keep­ing Mr Cor­byn off the bal­lot pa­per sounds like the mod­er­ates’ best-case sce­nario. But such an ugly de­vel­op­ment will have ma­jor repercussions for party “unity”. Thou­sands of mem­bers will re­sign in fury, some trade union lead­ers may even threaten dis­af­fil­i­a­tion. We may well be look­ing at the first shots in a civil war that will rip Labour in two and see the launch of a new party, ei­ther of the Left or cen­tre Left, de­pend­ing on who gets to keep the brand.

Even if Mr Cor­byn suc­ceeds in get­ting on to the bal­lot pa­per and se­cur­ing re-elec­tion, there re­mains the threat of large num­bers of MPs opt­ing to elect their own leader in Par­lia­ment who would chal­lenge him for the ti­tle of Leader of the Op­po­si­tion.

Labour mem­bers still like to con­vince them­selves that their party is a broad church, tol­er­ant of a wide range of views. Such a fan­tasy can’t be sus­tained for much longer. The two sep­a­rate and op­pos­ing par­ties cur­rently shel­ter­ing under the tat­tered Labour um­brella are at war. Sep­a­ra­tion and di­vorce are now in­evitable.

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