What happens next for Labour?

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.

Labour’s right is doomed if they just wait for someone to save 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.

Labour’s leadership election takes us into the silly season

chapmansillySomewhere in Labour HQ this morning, a junior apparatchik is frantically scouring the party constitution and rulebook, attempting to find a Graham Chapman Rule that allows the party’s NEC to step in and declare that the leadership election is over because it’s all getting too silly. I’ll admit that my own party’s leadership election has been occupying my attention for the last couple of months, so I may have missed some developments in Labour’s but it does appear to have gone particularly silly over the last few days, culminating in a poll that shows Jeremy Corbyn could actually win. The summer is traditionally the ‘silly season’ of British politics, and Labour are putting on a fantastic end of the party pier show for us all to enjoy. Anyway, some thoughts:

Leadership elections are hard to poll. First, you have to find a sample of party members, affiliated members and newly registered supporters. Then you need to make that sample representative of the party membership as a whole, which is difficult because you don’t have the benchmarks to judge your sample against. I don’t doubt that YouGov have tried their best to ensure this poll is representative – and given the size of their panel and the information they have on them, they’re possibly the only pollster who do stand a chance of doing it right – but there are lots of variables in play here. The broad picture – Corbyn ahead, Burnham and Cooper fighting for second, Kendall slipping back in fourth – is probably right, but the figures attached to them may not be.

But, this poll will help Corbyn the most. One of the interesting factors in the breakdown of the results is that while Corbyn leads in both groups of voters, he’s got an overwhelming lead amongst affiliates and supporters. One of the key drivers of his campaign has been to appeal to the wider left outside the Labour Party to encourage them to sign up to vote for him, and this seems to be working. A poll that puts him in the lead is a great recruiting tool because now they can persuade people that they’re not wasting their £3 in signing up to support him, because he has a genuine chance of winning.

For the others, while it does show that they might need to rally around an ‘anyone but Corbyn’ candidate, it’s hard to see them getting people to sign up as supporters of the Labour Party in order to stop Corbyn winning. Corbyn has a ready pool of people to go and target to grow his electorate, but it’s hard to think of a large group of people who’d do the same for one of the other three. Surely almost anyone with a pressing desire to keep the Labour Party moderate is already a member?

The curse of the Serious People and their Serious Politics. Part of the movement into the Silly Phase of the leadership contest has been the inevitable arrival of various newspaper comment pieces and TV appearances by Labour’s Very Serious People to wearily scold the party membership for not being Serious People who want to vote for Serious Politicians. This has culminated in the reappearance of the Most Serious Politician himself, Tony Blair, to explain to the Labour membership that they should be forming a movement that calls for him to be restored as leader immediately doing absolutely nothing that disturbs the consensus.

As Jennie pointed out the other day, the exasperated sigh of benevolent paternalism that accompanies most of these interventions is apt to backfire as much as it is to succeed. For all his faults, Corbyn offers a vision of hope to the Labour membership and the wider left, not capitulation to the ruling narrative and the continuation of austerity seemingly for ever. I’ve said before that this Daily Mash piece proves that the best truth is often in satire and a message of hope, even if it’s nothing more detailed than Maybe Not That in response to Endless Austerity For Everyone, is always going to play better with this electorate. The world looks quite differently to most Labour voters who aren’t Very Serious People in the Westminster bubble.

Even if Corbyn doesn’t win, Labour’s internal dynamics are changed. Maybe the poll is wrong, and Burnham or Cooper will win by a comfortable margin (I’m hoping for Cooper, so I can still hope to point smugly to this post in the future) but unless it’s wildly and badly wrong, Corbyn will gather an impressive share of the vote and will have signed up lots of new people as Labour members and supporters. It’d be a huge show of strength by the Left within Labour and whoever the new leader is, they couldn’t ignore it. As Corbyn’s vote looks likely to substantially eclipse Kendall’s, the left of the party will have a much stronger case to be involved and included compared to the party’s right. Will the new leader seek to accommodate them, or keep freezing them out in the hope they’ll drift away? Do they decide to hang around and hope for better luck next time, or set off on their own?

Are Labour mirroring the Tories in opposition? Ed Miliband was Labour’s William Hague: promoted to the leadership after a short Parliamentary career beating more favoured candidates because the party thought he was a new and fresh choice. Despite occasional chinks of light and numerous shifts in policy and direction, his party remained mired in roughly the same position for most of his tenure though was convinced that the new Government was an aberration and they’d just sleepwalk into power. At the election, his campaign featured a campaign to save a national institution (for him it was the NHS, for Hague the pound) that the electorate outside of his own party weren’t convinced was under threat and he went down to defeat.

Having done that, Labour are now echoing the Tories of 2001 by having a chaotic leadership election in place of a debate about the party’s future that could well elect a figure from the party’s fringe who’s benefited from MPs voting against their preferred candidate (IDS’s supporters voted tactically to keep Portillo from the member ballot, Corbyn’s been nominated by MPs who don’t support him). So, which veteran MP gets to play Michael Howard and remove him in 2017?

What happens if Corbyn actually does win? Nothing dull, I think we can be sure of that. While some in the Corbyn camp are already plotting the first purge, no one actually knows what sort of leader he would be. He’d likely be the least-experienced leader of a major party since the war having never held a frontbench position. Some compare him to Michael Foot, but Foot had been a Cabinet minister under Wilson and Callaghan, and had decades of experience as a senior Labour figure, while Corbyn has been a backbencher for 32 years. He wants to bring back Labour’s Shadow Cabinet elections, but who would actually stand for them given how few MPs there are from the left in the Labour Party?

What would the reaction of the Labour right be? Should they hang on in there and hope he is the new IDS so he can be dumped, hopefully contaminating the whole idea of a leader from the left on the way? Or do they decide that the SDP had the right idea, they were just a few decades too early? Lots of Very Serious People would welcome a Party of Sensible Non Boat Rocking Centrists, but could they get the critical mass to make it work? Electing Corbyn throws everything into flux, and it’d be foolish to make predictions at this point. That won’t stop many people doing so – I look forward to the Sun or the Mail showing us the nightmare of life in Britain under the communist jackboot of Comrade Corbyn – but for now all that speculation just threatens to be silly enough to summon the spirit of Graham Chapman, telling us to stop.