Labour’s bitter split and divorce is unavoidable
With a general election due, Corbyn supporters and their opponents will tear the party in two
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.