There was always a chance Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the British Labour Party would come to this. At the time of writing, despite an overwhelming vote of no confidence among Labour MPs, he clings on, citing a democratic mandate of party members. Each side points to the Brexit vote as its reason for acting (or not). An irrefutable moment of crisis underscores the urgency in trying to either maintain party unity, the risible Corbyn position, or for selecting an electable leader, the PLP position. Others in the Corbyn camp, I suspect, see this as a moment to finally rid the party of recalcitrant Blairites (their real opponents are always the so-called Blairites). It seems no one is prepared to let this crisis go to waste.
All this has done is to expose, yet again, Labour’s decades long struggle to hold together. Thatcher and her legacy no longer unites them. Plenty has been written about the ideological divides within the party between a socialist left and a social democratic centre left. Such arrangements are true of all parliamentary parties in a majoritarian system. The evisceration of the Liberal Democrats in the 2015 general election was a reminder of the perils of a governing coalition. To avoid this, parties are themselves internalised coalitions in order to win elections on their own.
But thinking this way in reference to Corbyn does us little good. For winning elections is not the mission of the hard left, as a recent tweet by Jon Lansman, head of momentum so beautifully demonstrated, when he said, ‘Democracy gives power to people, “Winning” is the small bit that matters to political elites who want to keep power themselves’. Given this, anyone surprised by Corbyn’s refusal to go shouldn’t be. As Nick Cohen observes in his indispensible book, What’s Left?, this wing has always been more concerned with controlling the levers of power within the party rather than those gained in a general election. Real power comes with too much responsibility. As Diane Abbott, a fellow traveller, said recently, thinking about winning elections is ‘Westminster-centric’. Protests and party purity is what gets them out of bed in the morning. As does the potential for martyrdom.
Whether this is something laudable depends on what one thinks political parties are for. For the Corbynistas, winning elections is a rare by-product of their activism. And the voters must always come to them. If this proves impossible – tant pis.
Never has this attitude been more luminous. And make no mistake: in the midst of an incredible moment in British political history, this is shaping up to be a fight to the death. De-selection threats are finally back, and the recent Momentum-led rally in Parliament Square had the distinct odour of the Militant days of the 1980s.
But in moments of peril comes opportunity. The Greeks had two different concepts for time: one as Chronos and the other as Kairós, thus differentiating ‘anytime’ from the ‘right time’. And for the millions disposed to progressive politics, this is certainly the latter – a moment the SDP Gang of Four would have dreamed of. Within three months, at most, I suspect one side will own the Labour brand for good.
Success requires the PLP to realise there is no turning back. It must make two commitments. First it must forget challenging the ambiguous nomination requirements and test Corbyn’s oft-mentioned mandate in a new leadership election. Given the absurd election rules ushered in under Ed Milliband (his most lasting legacy) and the unwavering backing from hard left union leadership, it is likely that Corbyn will emerge victorious.
But if he is left standing, and with the Labour Party likely to be little more than a smoking ruin at this point, the PLP must then hold to commitment number two: it must ditch them regardless. This can occur in two ways: either the PLP simply selects its own leader, thus commanding the largest opposition in parliament (nowadays dubbed the Hains option) or it forms a new party entirely, perhaps in combination with the Lib Dems, a longstanding ambition of many.
To avoid this and seek reconciliation would be foolish to the extreme. Corbyn, and especially John McDonnell and Seamus Milne, the real forces behind it all, have no interest in reconciliation anyway. It is anathema to their worldview, and would also undermine their project to takeover the party. This is now a fight between two forms of democracy: a representative form on one hand and a party plebiscite on the other. Yet not only do they have different visions for the party, that is clear; but also, they fundamentally disagree about how democratic politics should work. Their ‘new politics’ is to organise a pressure group—a ‘movement’ as they like to call it—that is neither kind nor gentle. I feel for those, including many of my students, who thought they were interested in anything else.
The sooner this is cast adrift from the seriousness of governing, the better – even if it splits the party. In fact, it’s about time it did.