Breaking the impasse: how to avoid a Labour split

A Labour split would be disastrous. But the party can avoid this if it learns from the republicanism of Machiavelli.

.David Owen
14 July 2016
 lindasaurus. Flickr. Creative Commons.

Monument to political thinker Machiavelli. Photo: lindasaurus. Flickr. Creative Commons.In ‘The Discourses’, the infamously astute republican thinker Niccolo Machiavelli argued that the strength and vitality of the Roman Republic, compared to other republics, lay in the fact that it successfully institutionalised the inevitable antagonism between the people and the nobles. Thus, each held the threat posed to the republic by the other in check, and republican liberty was preserved. Machiavelli mercilessly mocked the pieties of republican thinkers who imagined a harmonious transcendence of this antagonism. He recognised that a sustainable balance of opposing forces could produce something stronger and more resilient than efforts at harmonious unity could realistically hope to achieve.

Machiavelli’s insight is one that the Labour Party, in the midst of its current travails, would do well to remember. The history of the Labour Party is also one of antagonism between opposed forces. Simplifying somewhat, we can see the current implosion as a recurrence of a tension that has structured the history of the Party from its inception. This tension plays out between a Left that is focused on Labour as a transformative social movement, and a Right that is focused on the acquisition of Parliamentary power (with plenty of folk in between). When the Party functions at its best, the role of the Left is to keep the Right honest, to block its tendency to surrender too much in its electoral pursuit of power, to prioritize short-term tactics over long-term strategy. The role of the Right is to keep the Left focused on the point that principle is impotent in the absence of power, that sacrificing electoral success (or deluding yourself concerning the prospects of such success) for ideological reasons surrenders the field to an enemy who will not advance the interests of the people that the Labour Party is meant to serve. There are, sadly, relatively few points in its fractious recent history in which the organisation of the Labour Party has successfully institutionalized this antagonism. Yet this institutionalisation is vital to its ability to succeed as a political party.

Today it seems that the Labour Party is closer to a split than anytime since 1981. The Left, with its leader in place, has responded to a rebellion of the vast majority of its MPs by reaching, once again, to its long established vocabulary of betrayal and plots. It continues to assert its claim to represent the true flame of socialism and, at times, dismissing the importance of becoming the governing party. The Right draws on its long-practised appeal to electability, to being a credible government-in-waiting. It claims to represent the interests of those who will suffer once more if the field of government is effectively abandoned to Tory rule. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn is holding firm. Leadership challenges by Angela Eagle and Owen Smith are already on the table, while NEC decisions are surrounded by a penumbra of recrimination. There is almost no hope of compromise.

So let’s stand back from the field of internecine conflict and ask if an institutional change might help alter the terrain. Suppose, for example, the role of leader of the Labour Party were divided into three roles:

- The Chair of the Party, elected by members, who has the role of re-building Labour as a social movement across the country.

- The Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party, elected by the MPs, with the role of mounting effective parliamentary government and opposition.

- The General Secretary of the Party, elected by members and MPs (through an electoral college), who occupies the role of organising party campaigns and, with the other two leaders, working out its strategy.

Such a structure aims not to overcome but to balance the tensions between Left and Right – as Labour party structures have generally tried to do – in order to realise the strength and vitality of the Labour movement in a parliamentary form. How might this help? It is relatively easy to see Jeremy Corbyn’s real strengths coming to the fore in the role of Chair of the Party without being undermined by his real weaknesses. Similarly, the General Secretary role is a natural fit for Tom Watson (and others like Stella Creasy). As for Leader of the PLP, well there are several plausible candidates other than those currently standing against Corbyn: Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Dan Jarvis would be among those uncluttered by the past. No doubt there are flaws in this proposal; it would be surprising if there were not. But despite the potential flaws in this exact solution, it is crucial that we take institutional reforms like it into serious consideration. Such considerations remind all of us who care about the Labour Party that we can be antagonists without being enemies. Indeed, our antagonism, properly channelled, is not a weakness, but may rather be the source of strength of our party. Standing back from the current fray and looking at party structures may offer prospects for avoiding a split that benefit no one and harms us all.

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