Amid the turmoil in the Labour Party, it seems rather appropriate that this year’s John Lewis Christmas commercial features a confused old man who lives on another planet. If you’ve seen the ad, you’ll know that the gentleman in question is rather out of touch with what’s happening on Earth, although he still hopes to retain some kind of connection with the people who inhabit the place.
On the TV, there’s a happy ending. For Jeremy Corbyn, there most certainly won’t be. The issue is not so much what happens to the MP for Islington North and his sidekick, Chairman Mao. They are destined for political oblivion – perhaps sooner than many people originally imagined. The real question is whether they will manage to destroy the Labour Party in the meantime.
There will undoubtedly be some kind of attempt at a coup in 2016. Some MPs are already opening calling for Corbyn’s resignation just two months after he was elected, so the pressure is only going to become more and more intense. But there’s a big obstacle, as we all know. The Labour electoral system was rightly changed to give members the ultimate say over the leadership.
So, we have a conundrum. MPs can force a contest, but Jeremy will probably win again. Why? Because the membership is hopelessly and catastrophically divorced from the interests, aspirations and political views of the wider electorate. Common sense is off the agenda because of a combination of long-term ‘sleepers’ (left-wingers who kept their heads down during the Blair and Brown era) and an influx of new people who’ve spent the past 10 years slagging the Labour Party off.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a lot of confusion in terms of data and organisation. I ended up unable to vote in the summer, despite having been a member of the party since the 1980s. Some people receive emails requesting their views on Syria and others don’t. I’m not suggesting this division is a reflection of political manipulation. It is, however, a sign that plebiscites and informal surveys have little validity. Are you a three-quid member or a proper member or just someone who signed up to something or other online? Everything is a blur.
While some MPs have been talking to lawyers about the possibility of excluding Jez from any re-run ballot, this would be a perilous route and would rightly lead to accusations that the contest was undemocratic.
Another option is that Corbyn is paid a visit by the men in grey suits. Perhaps the boilersuited men of the trade unions. They have a conversation in which they tell him the game is up. Although they backed him because of his strong stance against austerity and in favour of trade union rights, they could tell him that his sheer incompetence and lack of popularity is proving a disaster for their members.
I do think it’s conceivable there’s a scenario in which Corbyn throws in the towel. But the pressure will have to be relentless and the ultimatum very direct.
But if the Labour Party can’t be rescued from itself, there’s only one other option left. A new party must inevitably be formed.
Of course, there is a reluctance to countenance the idea right now, because our first-past-the-post electoral system argues strongly against it. In reality though, the schism needn’t necessarily prove catastrophic in the long term. It is arguable that the formation of the SDP in 1981 exposed the lack of support for Michael Foot’s left-wing agenda and led to a reformist era under Neil Kinnock. Ultimately, it paved the way for Labour to become electable once again.
Let’s imagine a situation in which Jeremy Corbyn remains leader of something which is notionally called The Labour Party. A shell of its historic former self, it pursues the 1980s leftist agenda beloved of Corbyn and his friends Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott, John McDonnell et al. If left to its own devices, I would see a party of this type perhaps attracting 20% of the popular vote in a general election.
Meanwhile, a mainstream social democratic alternative under the leadership of, say, Chuka Umunna or David Miliband starts to provide a credible and coherent alternative. It speaks up effectively against the ideological agenda of the Tory government, but sounds credible on security, the economy and welfare.
In 2020, I have no doubt that such a split in the Labour Party would lead to a Conservative victory under the current electoral system. But sadly, we have to recognise that a Conservative victory is coming anyway. The question is how the left successfully rebuilds in time for 2025.
The formation of the new party would leave Corbyn vulnerable and ideologically exposed. He’d be left with the name ‘Labour’, but it would now be a label associated only with the Bennite tradition he represents.
It’s difficult to know for certain how events will unfold. But it’s certainly worth getting our telescopes out and looking beyond the next general election.