'It’s a question of when rather than if' - Is the rumoured Labour split just days away?
Talk of an imminent Labour split has been circulating around Westminster for some time. But with Brexit fast approaching, and discontent building on the backbenches, is the longstanding speculation about to become reality? Kevin Schofield investigates
On 25 January 1981, four Labour MPs shook British politics to its foundations. Former ministers David Owen, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and Roy Jenkins summoned the media to Owen’s impressive home in east London to announce that, having become increasingly disenchanted by their party’s drift to the left, they were leaving to form “a Council of Social Democracy”.
The trigger for the announcement had been a one-day conference at Wembley 24 hours earlier, at which the party had voted to dilute the influence of MPs in choosing its leader and deputy, dramatically shifting power to the trade unions.
In what was known as the Limehouse Declaration, the “Gang of Four” set out their reasoning: “The progressive decay of the independence of the Labour party, in the face of increased trade union involvement in all areas of party policy and mechanism, has culminated in a catastrophic Wembley conference. As a result of this conference, the leadership of the Labour party is now to be decided by a handful of trade union leaders in a smoke-filled room. This is the final straw for a party which has been set on this course for the last twenty years.”
The subsequent rise and fall of the Social Democratic Party is being studied again as speculation mounts that another Labour split is on the cards. A report in the Observer last week suggested that at least six MPs were preparing to break away, possibly to set up a centrist movement with moderate Tories.
Those sorts of numbers have been floating around the Westminster rumour mill for months, but there is a feeling, with Britain’s exit from the EU fast approaching, that things may be about to come to a head. Indeed, The House has been told that some Labour MPs could even resign the party whip as early as next week, should Jeremy Corbyn continue to refuse to support their calls for a second referendum.
“It’s a question of when rather than if,” says one MP on the brink. “It just needs a trigger and then the resignations will begin.”
Corbyn’s stance on Brexit is just one source of concern for the malcontents on his backbenches. On Monday evening, the Parliamentary Labour Party gave the leadership seven days to set out what it has been doing to eradicate anti-Semitism from its ranks. The response from general secretary Jennie Formby – who told the meeting it was “dishonest” to think it could be removed entirely – gave those present little hope that the problem is being treated with the seriousness it deserves. “What went on at the PLP has pushed a few MPs closer to the edge,” says one source.
One MP tells The House that “no more than 10” of their colleagues could resign in the first tranche of departures, but that more could follow depending on the leadership’s response. Another says it could be as high as a dozen, with more to follow in the spring.
“We’ll wait and see what goes on over the next year to year-and-a-half,” explains one MP. “If they set up a new party we have to see how credible it is.
“Nobody wants to smash up the thing we’ve worked really hard for all these years, but if it can be proven that another party will work then there will be loads more MPs on top of those initially resigning.”
Names which are regularly bandied about as potential rebels include Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger. None of them were available to talk this week.
Some MPs are under immense pressure from members in their constituency who are loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. Motions of no confidence have been passed in Leslie and Smith, and Berger could face the same ordeal on Valentine’s Day, ironically enough.
As yet, none of the moderates have faced a so-called “trigger ballot”, the start of the process which could see them deselected. “If I get triggered, I’ll just walk,” one MP says. “That’ll be it for me, they won’t even have to have a vote. I’ll resign the whip.”
“I want to be a member of a democratic socialist party, not some Stalinist cult,” adds another despairing backbencher.
But other MPs, none of whom could be described as Corbyn loyalists, say that walking away is the worst thing that disillusioned MPs should do.
One veteran of Labour’s last battle with the far-left says: “I never had any interest in joining the SDP because Labour voters and the country need an effective opposition, which is the Labour party.
“I remember when the SDP was set up someone saying, ‘if you’re strong enough to start a new party then you’re strong enough to take back control of this one’. The party has been through convulsions and infiltrations from the far-left in the past and seen them off, and when it has it has regained the confidence of the British public.”
The MP also suggests that those thinking of departing are inadvertently doing their opponents’ work for them.
“There is clearly a campaign by a clique close to Corbyn to try to make the party so unpleasant that people will leave, and they can take control of it,” they say. “That’s all they’re interested in, not in creating the biggest possible coalition to win the election. People should stay and fight against the pernicious influence of Momentum.”
Another MP is equally dismissive: “A split based on Brexit will never work. A new party has no possibilities in the north or Midlands and might help create a new far-right party to fill the void.”
Those at the top of the party seem pretty sanguine about the speculation. They’ve been here a few times since Corbyn became leader, and it has always come to nothing.
A Labour source says: “A new party funded by the super-rich to protect the status quo will rightly be seen as an establishment stitch up.
“Any new party set up to promote policies of cuts, corporate control and privatisation will be strongly rejected at the polls.”
To predict how Labour’s latest existential crisis could play out, it is helpful to go back to the 1980s.
Despite securing 25% of the vote, first past the post ensured that the SDP-Liberal Alliance only won 23 seats. Labour’s 209, with less than 28% support, secured 203. 1987 brought little cheer either, with 22 MPs returned on 25% of the vote. The hopes of genuine three-party politics in the UK were dashed.
Despite the volatility of the current climate, and claims that millions of anti-Brexit, centrist voters have been left politically homeless, there is little to suggest that any new party would be any more successful now. After all, the Lib Dems – who one would assume are the natural choice for that section of the electorate – virtually get the bunting out when their poll numbers creep into double figures.
A Labour split may be all-but-inevitable, but the prospect of them breaking the mould of British politics is far less certain.
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