Solidarity forever? Why Labour shouldn't split

A split would prove disastrous for the Labour party, and for the hopes of its supporters.

Ben Margulies
20 July 2016
 Stefan Rousseau / PA Archive/Press Association Images. All Ri

Jeremy Corbyn alongside fellow leadership candidates, 2015. Photo: Stefan Rousseau / PA Archive/Press Association Images. All Rights ReservedThere are a few inescapable cliché phrases in British English. 'At the end of the day' may be the most depressingly frequent, but 'Labour Party in chaos' follows close behind. Last year, Jeremy Corbyn made an entirely unheralded transformation from long-serving fringe backbencher to the overwhelmingly elected leader of his party. In the last two weeks, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP - that is, Labour’s members of the House of Commons), has sought tirelesly to transform him back into a backbencher. First, Corbyn’s shadow cabinet members abandoned him en masse; then the PLP passed a vote of no confidence in him, 172-40. Then they awaited union-brokered talks aimed at Corbyn’s removal. Finally, two of them, Angela Eagle and Owen Smith, challenged Corbyn to a new leadership election.

The battle between Corbyn and his followers represents, if not a class cleavage, then certainly a deep split in political philosophy. Corbyn’s backers are anti-austerity activists who are, in their commitment to a mixed and regulated economy, classically social democratic. The PLP, on the other hand, reflects the legacy of the neoliberal New Labour project, obsessed with projecting economic credibility (that is, fiscal conservatism) and an electoral strategy aimed mainly at the middle classes. They seek Labour’s future among different voters. Corbyn’s opponents in 2016, as in 2015, worry about the voters Labour lost to the Conservatives, UKIP and the Lib Dems under Miliband (about 19 percent of their 2010 vote). Corbyn’s camp, presumably, seeks its future among those lost to the Greens and SNP (about a tenth of the 2010 vote), or among young voters, or non-voters. It's worth noting here that Labour actually increased their overall vote share in 2015, but only 72 percent of its 2010 voters stayed loyal.

The dispute reflects Labour’s increasing inability to define political legitimacy within the party.

The dispute also reflects Labour’s increasing inability to define political legitimacy within the party. In some ways, Labour’s problems reflect “the perils of presidentialism”: Corbyn is like a president with a direct mandate from the people, facing a PLP with its own mandate derived from a legislative election. In classic examples, a president and a legislature come from roughly the same electorates. In Labour’s case, however, Corbyn and the PLP each represents a different pool of voters. On the one hand, the Labour membership is to the left of its voters and MPs, meaning that the PLP can challenge the representativeness of Corbyn’s mandate and his fitness to lead an electoral party. On the other, the membership can look up Katz and Mair’s “cartel party theory” and Populism for Dummies, and damn the PLP as a pack of careerists with no connection to voters.

Is this a great enough divide to prompt a split? Commentators are already considering the question. Should Corbyn win, the PLP, they say, might rebel and form its own party, mirroring the defection of the Social Democrats (SDP) in 1981. Some even reportedly investigated whether a breakaway parliamentary party could assume the Labour Party’s name.

Could that work? I seriously doubt it. For starters, the SDP didn’t exactly flourish on its own, and that split followed an election where Labour won 37 percent of the vote, rather than 30.5 percent. The simple fact is that the two camps are jostling over too small a share to support two rival parties. Like many social democratic parties, Labour has seen its working-class base steadily erode; it has lost nearly a quarter of its support from the DE social groups between 2005 and 2015, according to an analysis by Labour MP Jon Trickett. This chimes with wider findings about social democratic parties in Europe; according to Gingrich and Häusermann (2015), the majority of left-wing voters in Europe are now middle-class (and often public-sector employees), rather than working class. Labour’s membership is now strongly middle class – 57 percent are university graduates, and three in four belong to classes ABC1. That said, these classes are growing, since C1 tends to cover service-sector workers – they were 34 percent of the population in 1968, but 56 percent in 2008. I once argued that Corbyn could reach out to non-voters and the socially excluded, but this clearly has not happened; indeed, his failure to get those voters out to vote Remain provided the justification for the post-referendum leadership challenge.

On top of that, Labour is suffering losses geographically. The Great Sept of Baelor is in better shape than Scottish Labour at the moment. Welsh Labour is faring better, but it is facing strong challenges from Plaid Cymru on the left and UKIP on the right. What that means is that Labour’s existing base may be too small to support two parties in a first-past-the-post electoral system. Let’s play out the scenarios. Suppose the PLP does decide to abandon Corbyn and the institutional Labour Party and form a new SDP. That party will lose most of the membership and all the money and institutional architecture of the existing Labour Party. It may lose Scottish and Welsh Labour as well; Welsh Labour has always been to the left of the national party, and Scottish Labour ran on a fairly left-wing platform in the Scottish elections.

What platform would the PLP/SDP run on? If it really opposes Corbyn, and needs to differentiate itself from him, it would have to run on being “progressive,” but “fiscally responsible” – that is, it would have to be New Labour. Essentially, they would be offering themselves as a better and fairer class of neoliberal technocrats than the Conservatives. The problem is that the Conservatives can almost always claim to be better at managing the economy in neoliberal terms than Labour can. Furthermore, the Tories are just as capable of introducing modest progressive reforms as Labour, such as Osborne’s “national living wage” or Theresa May’s promises this week to combat inequality of many types. The PLP/SDP would, like Labour in the 1990s, simply have to wait until the Conservatives proved themselves incompetent, and then hope for a victory.

Indeed, the only hope for this sort of project might be if it cast itself as the anti-Brexit party and appealed to the young and middle classes on that basis. 

 PLP members might respond that the Conservatives have proved themselves incompetent with the Brexit referendum and its aftermath. Indeed, the only hope for this sort of project might be if it cast itself as the anti-Brexit party and appealed to the young and middle classes on that basis. That might work in the short term, though it poses a short-term tactical dilemma of whether to unite or work with the Liberal Democrats, an association some would consider toxic. But once the EU issue was settled one way or the other, we come back to the same problem; Labour would be a mildly neoliberal party, unable to deliver material benefits to the excluded who voted for Brexit, and even many of the young, frustrated middle-class voters who can’t find economic security – a large portion of those ABC1s. The party would quickly face the same decline that its post-Blair ancestor did.

What about a split from Corbyn’s end? Well, as Bale’s study makes clear, Corbyn’s mass movement has not turned out to be very representative of the wider public, though it is middle-class majority makes it similar to other left-wing parties in Europe. It would not be aiming for middle-class voters in marginal seats. The most likely model would be the Spanish Podemos, which is also an anti-austerity party, and one which emerged from grassroots mobilizations (the indignados movement). For the June 2016 election, it formed an alliance with the United Left (they ran conjointly as Podemos Unidos), which includes the Communist Party and other institutionalized Marxist groupings, somewhat like the hard left in Labour. Moreover, recent research suggests (Ramiro and Gomez 2016) that Podemos appeals to highly educated voters who are frustrated with their job prospects, not unlike the angry youth that Rhiannon Cosslett encountered in her New Statesman article on Corbyn last year.

However, there are a few issues arising from trying to pursue a Podemos-style electoral project. Firstly, Spain has a proportionally representative system, if not a particularly fair one, making it easier for parties to translate popular support into parliamentary seats. Secondly, Podemos Unidos only won about 21 percent of the vote. Thirdly, Spain, with its 21 percent unemployment rate, has a lot more angry unemployed young people than Britain. The upshot of the 2016 poll in Spain was that two left-wing parties shared about 44 percent of the vote, and the conservative party won a plurality, and is as such most likely to form a government.

Neither faction of the party seems to have the slightest clue how to rally the “left-behind” working-class voters often cited as the main impetus for Britain’s secession from the European Union.

Finally, neither faction of the party seems to have the slightest clue how to rally the “left-behind” working-class voters often cited as the main impetus for Britain’s secession from the European Union. Corbyn has made no headway with them; the Blair-Brown legacy includes both the PLP that’s rebelling against Corbyn and the very leaving behind these voters resent. Many of these voters are socially conservative as well as economically disadvantaged; neither the Labour membership  nor the PLP (which supplied the majority of votes for legalizing gay marriage) is likely to be able to breach that gap.

Together or apart, Labour faces tremendous problems. Its historic base is eroding; it faces more challengers (from left and right) than its Conservative opponents; the electoral boundaries now militate against it; and the party seems desperately short of good political leadership. But neither of its warring camps have much hope of overcoming these problems on their own. Labour may have no choice but to embrace solidarity.

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