I should say at the start that this will be a post with a lot of questions and not many answers. Sometimes it can be easy to get an idea of where a party will go by looking at their history and the history of similar parties (as well as the theories derived from those histories) and extrapolating. The problem with doing that for Labour right now is that the situation they’re currently in doesn’t really have any precedents so everyone – no matter how much they try to tell you they can make an expert prediction – is stumbling in the dark.
There’ve been situations where parties have had leaders who are popular with the party memberships but not with the Parliamentary party (and vice versa) but never to this extreme. Even Iain Duncan Smith (an often-used parallel for Corbyn) had the support of around a third of Tory MPs when he was elected (and only lost his no confidence vote 90-75) while Jeremy Corbyn appears to have the active support of 10% or less of the Parliamentary Labour Party. In any large and factionalised party, you’d expect an IDS situation to come about occasionally, where a leader isn’t backed by a majority, but has a sizeable group behind them and is also the second choice (better IDS than Porillo, as some thought) of others. Corbyn had the other factions agreeing an ‘anyone but him’ line even before he was elected.
The exact opposite situation applies within the Labour membership. Here, Corbyn has wide support which continues to regard him as doing a good job and is actively mobilising to make that support meaningful. This isn’t just the usual ‘he’s popular with the membership, and we don’t want to anger them too much’ but a membership that’s almost pre-emptively angry and working to prevent their choice of leader from being removed. That contrasts markedly with those members who aren’t Corby supporters though, where he’s regarded as doing poorly.
The most interesting thing in both the Parliamentary Party and the membership is the absence of much in the way of middle ground. There’s very little in the way of a ‘wait and see’ faction, more two polarised groups gazing warily at each other, neither wanting to take the first move because they’re not entirely sure what weapons they have to fight with. There seems little chance of the two sides coming to a mutually acceptable agreement on how the party should proceed, and even the prospect of the party stumbling on for a while appears to be lessening daily as the prospect of military action in Syria increases.
The prospect of Labour splitting is often raised, but the one thing I’ve found about splits is that even when people within a party agree there should be splits, they invariably suggest that it’s the other side that should leave the party. Looking at the history of the SDP for examples ignores that it was a one-off in British politics and most parties stick together even when factions openly hate each other because no one wants to give up the potential power of the party infrastructure and institutions. The SDP split occurred because the splitters assumed (wrongly, as it turned out) that they could never regain control of the party.
Under normal circumstances, this is a conflict that would likely play out over years, fought through lots of small challenges as backbenchers challenge the leadership at PLP meetings while Corbyn-supporting members push for positions of power in local party meetings, threatening reselections and deselections. There wouldn’t be one event that brought everything to a head, just a series of little feuds that coalesce together into a final position about who was in charge of the party.
As it is, though, we’re likely to get that denouement in a much more sudden and dramatic form. What happens to Labour when Parliament has to vote on any military action in Syria? No matter what way he chooses to vote, a large section of the Parliamentary Labour Party is likely to disagree with him, and the pro- and anti-Corbyn wings of the membership are likely to be diametrically opposed too. That could be the signal for the Parliamentary party to attempt to dethrone Corbyn, at the very time when he’s just reinforced his support amongst the membership. The question then might not be whether the party will tear itself apart, but just how it’s going to go about doing it and what remains when the process is finished. When factions can’t find a common cause with each other, the party doesn’t become something to rally around, but something to be fought over regardless of the consequences.
Like I said at the start, I can’t predict what will happen to Labour, but I’m struggling to see any way in which this ends well for them.