labourlogoI 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.

One thing I’ve found from reading many different political blogs over the years is how they reveal the different cultures that exist within each party. It’s not just in the style of blogging, but the way they reveal – deliberately or not – how a party runs in practice.

That’s part of the reason – along with the sheer joy of schadenfreude – that I’ve been reading Labour blogs recently and watching the ongoing reaction to Jeremy Corbyn’s victory. While the left of the party appear to have mostly accustomed themselves to the shock of winning and are now planning what to do next, the right – call them moderates, Blairites, modernisers, Progress, whatever suits you – still appear to be frozen in shock, gibbering inanely and sure they’re about to wake up from their nightmare. However, the one thing they don’t seem to be doing is organising. There’s plenty of talk of what needs to be done – most of it variants on removing Corbyn from the leadership – but no real discussion of how to do it, making this little more than the plot of political underpant gnomes. (Step 1: Decide to remove Corbyn, Step 2: ????, Step 3: Corbyn removed, and onward to glorious moderation!)

Some of this may be down to a collective action problem – no one wants to be the first to raise their head above the parapet and formally move against the leader – but the general tone of all these calls for action is that someone should do something, but that someone definitely isn’t the articles author. There’s the sense of people waiting for a saviour to come in and rescue the party for them, allowing the right back into their positions of power without having to do any of the dirty work involved in getting there. There’s lots of ‘people must act’, very little in the way of ‘we must act’, and nothing of ‘and here’s what we must do’.

It feels to me that the culture of Labour’s factions is the problem here. They’re used to operating as monolithic blocks, following the lead given by senior figures and doing as they’re told. However, as well as electing Corbyn, the leadership election was a catacysm for the Labour right’s leadership, with their chosen candidate getting a vote share that would have lost her a deposit in a parliamentary election and the rest of their principal figures running to the back benches to hide. With their leaders unwilling to fight, the rank and file of the Labour right are left to mill around aimlessly, talking of how one of them might emerge from their fortress of solitude to take on the leadership and give them purpose again. Without anyone to lead the fight for them, though, they seem very unwilling to get up and do it themselves.

The problem for the right is that waiting for someone to come and lead them is going to leave them dwindling away into even more irrelevance. I think Corbyn is likely to join Iain Duncan Smith and Ming Campbell in the annals of short-lived leaderships (Labour’s inability to organise being the actual Opposition right now is dooming him) but as James Graham points out, even if he does fall, the Labour right have no vision for what they’d do with the party. Not only are they short of plans for how to actually remove Corbyn, they have nothing to say about what they’d do after he goes. Assuming that the party will automatically turn to the right after Corbyn fail to notice that it’s the left of Labour who are coming up with the interesting ideas and the new narratives, even if the leadership aren’t good at pushing them. If the right could actually come up with an answer to ‘what do you want power for?’ that isn’t ‘to stop someone else having it’, then they might be able to achieve something before Godot turns up.


bannerThere have been some very odd reactions to the announcement that the Jeremy Corbyn leadership campaign has now regenerated itself into a new organisation called Momentum. Some appear to think that because it starts with an M, it must be harking back to Militant while others appear to have decided that it’s clearly a front group for the Trotskyite takeover of the Labour Party. It’s a good example of another political irregular verb: I promote internal debate, you’re a factionalist, they’re creating a party within a party.

Aside from all the arguments about what an organisation that’s existed for about 48 hours will do in the future, I think it shows an interesting development in people’s perceptions of the Labour Party (and perhaps political parties more widely) and how party structures might develop in the future. Until recently, Labour had become what Katz and Mair call a ‘cartel party‘, an essentially technocratic organisation that reinforced the political system. However, the surge in its membership since the general election (especially during and after the leadership election) appears to be turning Labour back into a mass-membership party, though potentially unlike any we’ve seen before. Previous iterations of parties as mass-membership organisations developed over long periods of time with strong community structures that sustained and institutionalised that membership. This current surge is not just rapid, it comes into party structures that have been reduced and hollowed out over the years as the mass membership withered away.

What Labour reminds me of now more than anything is the major parties in American politics. One mistake Europeans often make in looking at US politics is to assume that the Democrats and Republicans are similar to our political parties, when their function is quite different. They work much more as empty shells, waiting to be filled at each election cycle with the candidate and their supporters, with the permanence of any version of the party – nationally and locally – dependent solely on electoral success. The candidate is more important than the party, and networks are just as likely to be built around individuals than they are around the party. The party becomes just a framework for candidate organisations to work in and populate, only giving it permanence after they’re successful and need it to remain in place for re-election.

This, I think, fits more with what people are expecting of political parties today and explains the need for organisations like Momentum. The old mass-membership structures were based around political parties as social organisations as much as they were political ones, but with so many other social opportunities available to fill people’s time, the desire now is much more for the political. Groups that will cut away all the rigmarole and bureaucracy of running a political party are much more likely to arise in order to allow people to engage solely with the politics and the campaigning side.

Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar organisations emerge around the Tories as well, especially in the wake of the EU referendum. it’s easy to see someone like Boris Johnson trying to draw together assorted Eurosceptics into a movement to support his bid for the leadership, perhaps with the same surprising result as happened with Labour. Conservative Party structures and membership have been hollowed out just as much as Labour’s (perhaps even more so), and those seeking to rely on insider campaigns for the leadership could find themselves in the same position as Burnham, Kendall and Cooper.

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Labour leadership: Closing statements from the candidates

As we finally stagger towards the announcement of the result, the four candidates for Labour leader have been making their final speeches. Here’s what they said:

Liz Kendall: “People have asked me if I’d change anything about my leadership campaign, and I can only think of one thing I’d have done differently. Back in May, I should have decided to spend the next few months catching up on a few box sets and let Tristram Hunt destroy his career instead.”

Andy Burnham: “Throughout this campaign, I have been listening to you, and giving you what you wanted, no matter how many crazed u-turns that required me to pull. As leader, I will continue to give you what you want, and that is why I, Jerendy Corbynham, will be the next Labour leader.”

Yvette Cooper: “Labour needs someone to be a campaigner, and throughout the three long weeks of this election, I have been campaigning as hard as I can. You can be assured that I will campaign just as hard in the 2020 election as I have for the party leadership.”

Jeremy Corbyn: “That was weird. I dreamt I was running for Labour leader, people were publishing books of poems about me and Buzzfeed were running articles illustrating people’s dreams about me. Oh, I see. Right. Shit.”

Every day, we think Labour’s leadership election can’t get sillier, then every day they find some way to prove us wrong. With two weeks still to go, I’m expecting a denouement in which Jeremy Corbyn meets a mad scientist, is blown up to be 100 metres tall and the only way to save the country from Corbynzilla is for Copper, Burnham and Kendall to fight him in a similarly-sized hastily built robotic Clement Attlee.

But for now, we’ll just deal with the decision that the party will be vetting new supporters against canvassing data they have on them in order to discover whether they’re Labour voters or not. (If they’re too young to have canvass data, then their school friends will be asked to assess and inform on their real beliefs

As someone who’s done plenty of canvassing in my time, the idea that canvass data can be used to accurately judge how people have voted seems incredibly optimistic. Canvassing – for those of you not in the know, it’s what politicos call knocking on your door and asking how you’ll vote – and canvassing returns are incredibly subjective experiences, and while the data you get from them as a whole can be useful, it’s essentially unreliable. Consider that the opinion polling industry has spent decades trying to work out ways in which to obtain useful and objective data from subjective interaction between people. There’s a huge amount of literature in psychology, political science and other fields looking at just how subconsciously biased our interactions with other people are, and this has influenced the way poll companies and other research organisations conduct their operations, especially how they ask questions and gather responses.

Political parties don’t do that. Most canvass data comes from a volunteer – who might not have been a party member for long themselves – given a clipboard (or if we’re being really modern, a tablet with relevant data loaded on to it) and rosette, pointed at a street and told to find out how people are voting there. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the results that come back from this exercise are mixed. Send someone in an optimistic mood to do it, and anyone who didn’t threaten them with violence is marked down as being at least probable to vote for us, send someone feeling down and pessimistic and even the people with your posters in the window are marked as unsure. Catch someone at the right time and they’ll tell you how they’ve always voted for you, are happy to put up a poster and yes, now you mention it, they do want to join the party; come five minutes later when they’ve just had a bad phone call, the baby’s crying and EastEnders is about to start, and you’re lucky if they’ll even come to the door to tell you to go away.

Add to all that the fact that canvassing as it’s carried out nowadays is a legacy of a different kind of politics and society. When most people had strong party loyalties – and in most parts of the country there were only two parties effectively competing – it was quite easy to find out who would be supporting you and thus needing to be reminded to vote on polling day, and who you should avoid. Now, when there are multiple parties just about everywhere and people’s allegiances are a lot more fluid, things are very different. What someone told you about their political opinions in April could well be different in June. Canvassing now is about small pieces of reliable data in amongst a sea of false negatives and false positives: averaging it out might give you reliable figures for an area, but not about the opinions of an individual.

Labour’s move to their new system was supposed to be about acknowledging the new realities of politics, that political identities are much more fluid and people would be more willing to be be supporters rather than members or activists. Using canvassing data is an odd way to use the assumptions of old politics to stymie the aspirations of the new.


A bit too busy with the dissertation to blog much right now, but a couple of thoughts I thought I’d put out there to see if they might spark a discussion.

First, returning to a thought I had a few months ago, what if John Smith hadn’t stood for Labour leader in 1992? (Probably for health reasons, but the whys of it aren’t important) Would the line up of candidates look that impressive at the time? Sure, Blair was only two years away from winning the leadership but in 1992 he was relatively obscure and hadn’t come up with ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. Would a call to modernise then fall on the same stony ground as Liz Kendall’s have now? Who else would be a credible contender in the climate of 1992?

Second, would a lot of the current trouble have been avoided if Labour’s electoral system was more like the Conservatives? Rather than just increasing the number of MPs needed to get nominated, Miliband’s reforms had followed the Tories in giving MPs an extended primary where they whittled down a large number of candidates to just two to face the membership/supporters/affiliates vote? With a much lower initial bar to being nominated, but a much-higher one to reach the voters, candidates who dropped out because of insufficient support this time like Mary Creagh and Tristram Hunt could have been part of the process, while no one would have needed to lend Corbyn any nominations, but a lack of support from MPs would prevent him making it to the final stage. Would it have ended up as Burnham vs Cooper, or might something different have happened?

(I actually think the Tory leadership election process is a good one, that only has such a bad reputation because the first time it was tried, it was given a selection of poor candidates and a party that didn’t want to be united)

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'Before your party switch can be done, you must answer my question one.'

‘Before your party switch can be done, you must answer my question one.’

Certain over-excited speculation (totally unlike the reasoned deliberation you find on this blog) about the possible fallout of a Corbyn win in the Labour leadership election has suggested some MPs might leave Labour for pastures new. As ever, with rumours of MPs defecting, it’s worth taking them with a bucketful of salt as while speculation of possible defections is often rife, actual defections are usually very thin on the ground.

However, Labour swinging to the left after a leadership election has been a trigger for a major wave of defections before, so perhaps we shouldn’t rule it out straight away. However, as I see it, there are two main problems any would-be defectors would face.

First up is the simple question of where would they go? Jumping straight across to the Conservatives seems unlikely, and there have been very few examples of MPs making that switch (the last was Reg Prentice in 1977), especially compared to the number who’ve gone the other way. However, switching to the Liberal Democrats wouldn’t be as easy as some may think. While the right of the Labour Party might be close to the Lib Dem economic position, it’s also the part of Labour that’s most likely to differ with them over security and civil liberties issues. Effectively, you’d be asking the wing of the Labour party that were among the biggest cheerleaders for invading Iraq and ‘anti-terror crackdowns’ to make common cause with a party that was amongst the fiercest opposition to those.

The only other option open to any potential defectors is to set up a new party, at which point the image of the SDP becomes the ghost at the feast (and David Owen is awakened from his slumbers to stalk news studios). It’s not an entirely impossible proposition (and Progress has always looked to me like something that could be turned into the nucleus of a new party if required) but it’s still a major step, coupled with a very high level of risk. Sure, you might form the party that can claim the whole of the centre ground and dominate British politics for a generation, but history suggests a gradual fade into oblivion is more likely.

Even after those structural issues are set aside, the second – and much more important in the short term – issue how any potential defector answers the Carswell Question: ‘will you be re-standing in a by-election?’ Carswell’s defection last year wasn’t just interesting because it came with little speculation beforehand, but because of the example he set (and Mark Reckless then followed) in calling a by-election to validate his defection. Now, you could argue that those were exceptions to the rule (no other defector since Bruce Douglas-Mann in 1982 had done the same) but you can sure that the media will ask the question incessantly. Any defector has to be prepared to face a by-election, or have a good answer to that question that they’re prepared to stick to – saying you wouldn’t call a by-election, then doing so, would likely be a good way to lose it.

That doesn’t mean we won’t see any defections if Corbyn wins, but as the cost and risk of doing it has been raised, expect any potential defectors to try and resolve their issues with the party first instead of jumping ship immediately. Indeed, the perfect scenario for any defector would be to get themselves pushed out before they get the chance to jump.

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