All the calls for unity after Corbyn’s election victory are completely understandable. It is a truism that divided parties can’t win elections. The trouble is that united parties with the wrong policies and the wrong leader can’t win elections either.
Unity under Corbyn is a complete charade, particularly within the Parliamentary Labour Party. While the Labour church is notoriously broad, it’s difficult to imagine Presbyterian elders being particularly happy when told the new members of the congregation have chosen to follow the Pope. Pull together, they’re told. We’re all Christians, after all.
Here’s a controversial thought. Might it be that disunity and division are exactly what Labour needs right now?
Let’s cast our minds back to the early 1980s. The left, with its figurehead of Tony Benn, was in the ascendancy in the Labour Party. A conference in January 1981 endorsed the policies of withdrawal from the European Economic Community and unilateral nuclear disarmament. By the end of March, a new party – the SDP – was founded by Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers. In 1983, as part of an alliance with the Liberals, they received 25% of the vote - just three points fewer than Labour under the leadership of Michael Foot.
Of course, the first-past-the-post system wasn’t kind to the SDP-Liberal Alliance in terms of seats in Parliament, but they had made their mark. The break from the old model of politics had very clearly demonstrated the limits of left-wing Labour’s appeal in a system when people had a proper choice. 70% of the electorate opted for political platforms to the right of those advocated by the Party under Foot.
The result of this was the election of Neil Kinnock and a process of modernisation and reform throughout the remainder of the 1980s. It was a long, arduous struggle, as Kinnock had to fight on two fronts. As well as dealing with the new left politics represented by the likes of Corbyn and other Campaign Group MPs, he also had to confront systematic and organised infiltration by Trotskyists.
Kinnock made gradual, incremental change. Although he was never destined to be Prime Minister, the Labour Party owes him a huge debt. While he knew that unity was important, he also realised that there are some important prerequisites for that unity. What’s more, he understood the compromises that had to be made in order to win the trust of the electorate.
So let’s consider two different scenarios in 2015.
In the first, sullen and resentful Labour MPs sit timidly on the backbenches while Corbyn, the confrontational McDonnell and the completely discredited Burnham pursue an agenda that will lead the Party into electoral oblivion. Seeing Chris Bryant, the MP for Rhondda, claim on camera a couple of days ago that he could actually imagine Corbyn winning a general election was one of the most embarrassing pieces of TV I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s amazing how one ludicrously mismanaged election process has managed to rob people of their common sense and sense of irony.
Maybe the centre-ground Labour MPs believe they’ll be able to take pot shots once in a while. But if they do choose to stick their heads above the parapet at any point, they stand the risk of being deselected by an ever-increasing army of activists and leftists drawn to the Party. (It’s as if the location of a permanent illegal rave has been announced on Facebook. The headbangers will keep on arriving for the next few months, I expect.)
A second scenario is that a handful of brave Parliamentarians forge a new identity and stand up to the Corbynistas. Clearly the core group should include those who have refused to serve in his Shadow Cabinet. There should be a clear and unequivocal statement of intent: that Labour must remain a party in the political mainstream, committed to Europe, NATO and economic credibility. Now is the time to face down Corbyn and explain that the real Labour Party is rooted in the communities that elect its councillors and MPs, rather than in a self-selected base of leftist activists.
One thing is absolutely certain. The attack on Corbyn must be substantive. Far too much of the commentary about him so far has been about his unelectability. While it’s evident that it would take an extraordinary set of circumstances to see him make it to Downing Street – probably a complete implosion of the Tory Party over Europe and a full-blown economic crisis of the scale of 2008 – we must defeat him intellectually. As Tony Blair made clear, even if Corbynism were electorally popular, we wouldn’t support it.
Yvette Cooper, to her credit, made an impressive effort at the end of the leadership contest to explain why Corbyn’s economic policies are so misguided. Quantitative easing is a desperate measure reserved for times of extreme peril, not a policy that can be used when an economy is growing. The costs of renationalising the rail and energy sectors would be crippling, unless we failed to compensate shareholders. And if that happened, the stock market collapse that would follow would put in danger the pensions of the very people Labour tries to represent.
So we must tackle him over the economy, confront him over defence and point out just how out of touch he is with the electorate. What does he really think about EU membership? How is he going to protect us from the terrorist and state threats that menace us around the world?
If we receive no satisfactory response, then the time will have arrived to go our separate ways. In the short-term, Labour will be weakened. But in the long-term, it’s only a vocal challenge from the mainstream left that will pull the Party back once more from the brink.