I’m still of the opinion that while a formal split in the Labour Party is possible, it’s not likely to happen. There are three options for those Labour MPs and members currently dissatisfied with the direction of the party: stay there, bunker down and wait for better times; give up and find something more productive to do with their time than party politics; or go off and either join another party or start a new one. As someone who was sure the Tories were about to split for about a decade from the mid-90s, I know the temptation to jump past the first two options to proclaim the third is definitely going to happen, but I’ve also noticed that predicted party splits usually fail to happen.
There are plenty of things that fall into the category of possible, but not likely that we still prepare ourselves for, just in case. That’s why I think that we as Liberal Democrats need to think about what a Labour split would mean for us as a party, and how we should react to it if it does happen. Of course, a lot of this depends on the nature of the split which could vary from a tiny group of ultra-Blairites forming the New Blairist Party to a significant chunk of the PLP jumping into the Moderate Sensible Centrist Party. (People with more interest in marketing than me will no doubt think up more plausible party names if these events ever happen)
There are three different approaches that the Liberal Democrats could take towards any new party that emerges from Labour in the event of a split: compete with it, work with it, or be part of it. What would these look like in practice?
Competing with it would be in the spirit of Cyril Smith’s advice about the SDP – ‘strangle it at birth’ – and the approach the party took towards the continuing SDP after the merger. It would be the party saying that the centre to centre-left of British politics is our turf and seeking to finish off any competitor at the ballot box before they could get established. Just like in 1989-90, it’d probably be a series of battles over who could come 3rd or 4th in by-elections and local elections. It’s a risky and high-stakes strategy, with the victorious party getting a lot of attention while the loser would face many ‘so what’s the point of you?’ questions.
The second option is to work with the other party, though this can cover a number of different relationships between the two. It conjures up images of the formal electoral alliance and co-operation of the SDP/Liberal Alliance but could be something much more informal ‘we won’t campaign hard in X if you stay out of Y’ type arrangements coupled with some Parliamentary co-operation. A lot of the pros and cons of this are the same as they were with the Alliance: increased electoral effectiveness and combined strength, tempered by having to deal with all the issues generated by the memberships and bureaucracies of two different parties. Within any working relationship between two parties there’s also the issue of the relative size of the two partners, both in Parliament and in the country, which will have knock-on effects in what both want from any partnership.
Finally, and probably the most controversial option, Liberal Democrats could join with any Labour splitters to form an entirely new party that includes both within it. From one angle, this would be fast-forwarding through the 80s, jumping straight over the Alliance stage and into the merger, with similar pros and cons: you’d have the advantage of having a single party, but forming that party would be a tricky process if you want to make it a truly broad church. This may seem an unlikely option at first, but one that I think could suddenly seem very plausible if a new party is formed and has initial popularity while Lib Dem fortunes in the polls stay low. A centrist/centre=left party split off from Labour would be attractive to many current Lib Dem supporters and members, and it might end up being in the best interests of the party’s aims to decide to formally become party of it rather than suffer the slow death of a thousand defections.
(There’s one option I haven’t included here, partially because it’s not technically a split, but also because I think it’s very unlikely to happen at least in the short-to-medium term: a Labour MP or MPs joining the Liberal Democrats. In Labour eyes, the party is still too tarnished from its time in coalition and doing too badly in the polls to make it a tantalising prospect, even before that MP has to come up with their answer to the Carswell Question and decide if they want to go from one party where the membership gets angry with the MPs over votes on Syria to another where the same thing happens.)
To reiterate my point at the start: a Labour split is possible, though not likely and the relevant conditions are now unlikely to change before next May. As Liberal Democrats, we shouldn’t preoccupy ourselves with discussing Labour’s woes and possible future to the exclusion of anything else, but we do need to be prepared for the possibility of a new party emerging relatively suddenly and have an idea of how we’re going to approach it should it happen.