Could membership of the single market be the wedge that causes a Labour split?

laboursplitIn a time when barely an hour passes without something interesting happening in British politics, some people might have missed that Jeremy Corbyn’s position on the UK remaining in the single market appears to have got a little muddy this afternoon:


Now, this might all be a flash in the pan – though attempts to clarify Corbyn’s position don’t seem to be helping – but it feels potentially important for the future of the Labour party.

With my usual caveat that almost every prediction of a party split comes to nothing, membership of the single market feels to me like the issue that could act as a key division in a Labour split. If Corbyn wants to try a push a position of supporting the UK leaving the single market, remaining in it is a key issue (with a huge amount of current salience) that unites a big portion of the Parliamentary Labour Party from the right to the soft left. The divisions over the single market aren’t just in Labour either – Downing Street has already had to correct the Government’s own Brexit minister over his position on it.

If Corbyn won’t defend the single market, the thinking might go, there’s a huge space available for an opposition that will. It’s an issue that can create links across parties (such as to the SNP, the remaining Tory pro-Europeans and the Liberal Democrats) and also generate support from outside the parties. There are a lot of large businesses that would lose a lot if Britain loses membership of the single market (the Japanese are just the first to make this clear and public), and if such a split needed the funding and structure to become a party of its own, that would be a very important factor.

Now, this might just be a subject of interest for an afternoon and Corbyn might close it down by declaring his unequivocal support for the single market at his next press conference (‘I’m delighted to have the support of 63% of the people who worked on Bonekickers‘) but it’s clear that the UK’s relationship with the EU is going to be the fundamental issue in British politics for the next few years. If Corbyn is going to shift his public position on that to one not shared by the bulk of the PLP, it could be the trigger for the final breaking of ties.

If Labour were going to split, they’d have done it by now

laboursplitAmidst the fun (for certain values of the word ‘fun’, anyway) of this summer’s Labour leadership contest, there’s a regularly repeated assumption that the result of it will lead to the party splitting. As the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn appears likelier and likelier, so does the volume of people anticipating the bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party splitting off to form their own parliamentary grouping and/or party.

Party splits in British politics are much more predicted than they ever actually occur. Sure, there’s the odd defection between parties (though even those are rare at a Parliamentary level), but there have been many more instances of people being absolutely certain that a party is going to split than actual instances of parties splitting.

There are two main reasons for this. First is the fact that even when people within a party believe it should split, the tendency is to project that desire onto the people you disagree with. No one wants to give up the power of the party’s existing name, assets and structures, so we get the situation we have now with supporters of Labour’s leaders demanding that the Blairites form their own party or go and join the Tories, while their opponents tell the bloody Trots to sod off back to the SWP. Both sides see themselves as the defenders of the tradition of the Labour Party and the others as betraying it, and both believe the others should leave so they can have their party back.

This brings us to the second reason, and the question of why these two strands of the left coexist in a single party in the first place. Most European countries have two separate parties on the left – a social democratic party, and a further left socialist/communist party. There are some elements of this in British politics with various parties vying to fill the gap to the left of Labour, but the British left parties are much smaller than their European counterparts. Most of them have had continuous (and often sizeable) parliamentary representation which hasn’t been the case in the UK since the Communists lost their last MPs after WW2.

The left that exists as separate parties in other countries has been subsumed within the wider Labour Party because the British electoral system rewards larger ‘catch-all’ parties and punishes smaller parties. Separate left parties can thrive in systems based on proportional representation, and even the French two-round system allows for the Communists and diverse left to exist separately from the Socialists, but in Britain they are forced to stay together for fear of the electoral consequences (perhaps best demonstrated in the SDP-Labour split of the 1980s).

Unless you’re entirely confident you can reduce the other side into an insignificant rump, then a party split is close to mutually assured destruction, scuppering the electoral chances of both sides. There have been plenty of times when the left could have split off to form their own party over the years, but none of them were taken because the political system would have made them even more disastrous for those involved than the SDP. If the Labour Party could exist as two (or more) separate parties, then they would have formed naturally by now rather than trying to cohabit in the same organisation. If we had a different electoral system, things might be different, as splitting wouldn’t be such a destructive mood. Maybe this is something both sides can now blame Tony Blair for, because if he’d delivered on his promise of PR after 1997, the party might not be in the mess it now is.

Lessons from the SDP for the potential of a Labour split

SDP_LogoWith all the talk at the moment of a potential Labour split, I thought it might be useful to take a look back at the history of the last major split in the party by reading Crewe and King’s history of the SDP, specifically the early sections on the formation of the party. I#m not going to recount the full history, but I think there were two interesting points in the SDP’s formation that tend to get overlooked in discussion of any potential current split.

First of all, the crisis that led to the foundation of the SDP had been brewing for a long time. Labour’s divisions over Europe had been around for a long time, and the rebellion by Jenkins and others over British membership of the EEC had taken place almost a decade before. On the left of the party, Tony Benn and others had been busy organising and developing the ‘Bennite’ movement for over a decade. There’d been a gradual process of alienation that had made the right-wingers who’d eventually form the SDP consider their position in the Labour Party over a long period of time. The conclusions people came to were after years of tough struggles against the left in local parties, trade unions and the NEC. People had a much longer time to feel they were no longer welcome in the Labour Party and might do better elsewhere.

As an example, Roy Jenkins’ Dimbleby Lecture that was later seen as paving the way for the SDP was delivered in November 1979, while the Limehouse Declaration that established the party wasn’t until fourteen months later in January 1981. There was a long process both of preparing the ground for a new party and people deciding they needed to leave Labour. Then as now, the act of getting someone to defect from a party was a major task, as it’s a major shift in their life and relationships that requires time to achieve the psychological change needed to do it.

The second key point is that this long period building up to a split had led to the creation of various formal and informal groups that would provide the foundations of the SDP. These groups – the Manifesto Group, the Campaign for Labour Victory etc – weren’t founded with the intention of creating a new party but helped provide networks for those dissatisfied with the direction of the Labour Party. Again, this was a process that took place over time and in a number of different groupings – it’s worth noting that the original ‘Gang Of Three’ (Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers) were meeting and planning quite separately from Roy Jenkins and his supporters. Different groups coalesced over time, and the idea of a split emerged over time, it wasn’t a simple process of everyone deciding one day to do it.

The important lessons to learn for today are that any party split is going to be the end of a long process, not something that happens smoothly and quickly. (And as I’ve discussed before, there have been many many more times when people have said a party will definitely split than actual splits) The changes in the Labour Party have happened at an incredibly fast pace – the SDP came after a decade or more of Benn attempting to achieve what Corbyn’s done in less than a year. The gap between Jenkins’ Dimbleby Lecture and the foundation of the SDP is about the same as the gap between the last general election and today.

We’re still at a stage where most of the people who might split see their future as trying to win back the Labour Party, and aren’t close to breaking off all the ties they have with it. Maybe there will be a split in the future, but the lesson from the founding of the SDP is that it will take time to get them to that position, it’s not something that’s going to happen quickly.

What if Labour split? A Liberal Democrat perspective

laboursplitI’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.

Could the Labour Party split?

labourlogoBritish political parties are very resilient and flexible institutions. Since the modern party system came into being after 1945 there’s only been one permanent major split in a party, when the SDP separated from Labour in 1981. People – and that includes me in the past – have often got quite excited at the prospect of there being a split (most notably in the post-Thatcher, pre-Cameron Tories) but none have come about. In true British style, parties find a way to muddle through and come to some kind of agreement or those that might have split end up quitting and finding something to do other than politics.

With all that in mind, I would predict that the most likely outcome of the Labour Party’s current travails is that it will just about hold together. There may be some quite fierce internal fights and electoral disasters on the way but at some point down the line they’ll get their act together and look as unified as British political parties can manage, probably around the point where we’re all speculating again about a possible Tory split.

But what if something more unlikely happens? It’s clear that there are massive divisions within the party at present, and these have only been exacerbated by last night’s vote on Syria to the point where some are calling for deselection of those who voted with the Government. As I wrote last week, Labour is stuck in a curious position with the bulk of the parliamentary party on one side of the debate and the bulk of the membership (especially the new membership) on the other. There doesn’t seem to be much prospect of the two sides coming together in the near future, and the interesting question is whether they can find some common ground that defuses the tension before one moves against the other.

The important factor weighing against a split is that for both sides, the prize remains control of the Labour Party. The Parliamentary side (let’s call them Bennites, as they appear to rallying around Hilary, and the historical irony is too great to pass up the chance) want to remove Corbyn from the leadership – or at least the Parliamentary leadership – to give them control over the direction of the party, while a large number of the membership faction want the Parliamentary party to reflect their views and prepared to effectively dissolve the current PLP and elect another to make that happen.

For a split to happen, one side would have to make their move and be successful while the other side felt that they had no realistic chance of taking control of the party again and decide that they were best served leaving it and organising something new. This could be the Bennites walking away to create the New Improved SDP where the membership are fully aware of their level of importance, or it could be the Corbynites deciding to go an organise the new party to the left of Labour that British politics needs. This, of course, shows us why a Labour split is unlikely as attempts to form new parties to the right (the SDP) and the left (there are so, so many examples) of Labour have both consistently failed, crushed by the electoral system and/or public indifference.

That’s why I think a split in the Labour Party is possible if things go on without the two sides finding some common ground, but it’s not likely. Any potential split has to cross two hurdles: not just convincing people that they’ve got no future in the Labour Party, but also convincing them to have the level of optimism that they can ignore the history of splits and be sure that this time it’ll be different. Until that happens, there may be the odd individual defection or retirement from politics, but most will just choose to persuade themselves that it’s better to stay put and wait for the times to change.