A tale of two parties: the rise of Corbyn and the fall of Labour

More than 150 years ago, Charles Dickens wrote ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, depicting the plight of the French peasantry, demoralized by the French aristocracy, prior to the revolution, and the subsequent brutality of the revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats in the early years of the revolution.

A little closer to home, another – quietly brutal – revolution is stirring within the Labour Party. About seven months ago, I blogged on the battle at the heart of Labour as an unfancied Jeremy Corbyn swept to power miles ahead of his rivals.

Now we stand on the cusp of another leadership contest within the party, which Corbyn is likely to win at a canter again, but this time there will be blood after the contest.

The likely bloodletting stems from the fact that Corbyn, as leader of the parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), is neither respected nor rated as a competent leader by the majority of elected MPs he leads, each of whom were democratically elected by their constituents as Labour MPs to represent them. Corbyn recently lost a vote of no confidence by a huge margin although this does not have any power to compel him to resign, as it would have done within the Conservative party.

This is juxtaposed against the fact that he clearly retains the support of the majority of party members who have signed up to join Labour (NB. different to the PLP!), and was democratically elected as leader by them by a historic margin.

Here is a key question – who should the Labour party be paying attention to when setting out its priorities and, apparently, electing its leader: its activists (who have paid to join Labour, or are elected to the local Labour Party groups), or the wider Labour-supporting electorate (as represented by MPs who they have elected)? The PLP clearly feels it should be the latter, whilst Corbyn and his supporters – identifying an opportunity to entrench their views – feel it should be the former. Democracy, eh? What larks.

At any rate, having been battered since his arrival by a number of events, including said no-confidence vote; allegations of anti-semitism and bullying within the party; widespread criticism over his performance in holding the government to account; and a wholly underwhelming showing in the referendum which arguably was a major factor in the country’s decision to leave the EU, Corbyn and his supporters are now baring their teeth against the internal critics.

Launching his campaign to remain as leader against the challenge of Owen Smith, Jeremy Corbyn has raised the prospect – which he had previously ruled out – of mandatory re-selection of MPs ahead of the proposed political constituency boundaries changes in 2018.

This is critical for two reasons: first, it will reduce the number of constituencies in the UK to 600, changing existing boundaries which had previously favoured Labour. Secondly, it will mean that existing Labour MPs will have to go to their local Labour party in 2018 to submit themselves for mandatory ‘re-selection.’ In other words, it is an opportunity for Corbyn to rid himself of his worst critics. The glorious revolutionaries of the Labour left can cut down the old aristocracy from the Blairite era and establish their own future. Vive la revolution.

It’s worth considering that the policy of mandatory re-selection, first introduced in the 1980s as the weapon of choice for the hard left, was wiped out by Neil Kinnock in 1990 as he sought to re-unite the Labour party: Labour voters and members should take note of this latter point.

Why is all of this important? Because it means that Labour could become an irrelevance in UK politics for years to come. There are two likely scenarios in the short term:

The first is that if – as seems likely – Corbyn wins, and enforces his mandatory re-selection process, there may be a split in Labour. Existing MPs could break away to the Lib Dems; they may choose to stand as independent candidates in their constituency if not ‘re-selected’ by their local party members; or there may be a move to form a new political party… something which has already received backing from some of Labour’s bigger donors. Labour’s core vote will divide, losing them MPs.

The second possibility, if Labour does not split, is that the party will limp on in its current ineffectual state, or following ‘reselections,’ Labour may select new MPs more sympathetic to Corbyn and move further to the left, entrenching pro-left MPs in the PLP. Their core voters will desert them in favour of UKIP, Lib Dems or the Conservatives.

In either circumstance, there will be blood. And the balance of power will shift in favour of the Conservative party, and mean that they – as a government – are not held to account by a credible party of opposition who would be able to fulfil the opposition’s secondary obligation of being the UK government-in-waiting. As someone who is a centrist and has voted for Labour and the Conservatives twice each in the last four general elections, I like to see a strong opposition marshalled by someone who commands the respect of their MPs, and who the government fears as an aggressive and fearless critic who will hold them to account. Labour cannot currently do this.

Perhaps Corbyn or some future leader could surprise me and a lot of other people, develop a dose of charisma and turn into Bernie Sanders, tap a popular undercurrent of undiscovered left-wing voters and turn the left mainstream, or move the mainstream left… this seems to be the hope that a number of my Labour-supporting friends cling to. On Corbyn’s current showing, I doubt it will be him. At some point in the future, Labour may return a more moderate candidate who appeals to the centre-ground, but given the current make-up of Labour party members, this seems unlikely.

The facts of life remain conservative (small ‘c’), and by abandoning the current progressive centre ground to a Tory party, who are quietly making hay there, Labour are letting them have it their own way. The old insults about the Tories being a party for the privileged few will not wash after cursory inspection. They have legislated on equality issues such as gay marriage; unemployment is at its lowest level for years; the tax burden on the least wealthy has fallen and the most wealthy 1% contribute more to the national budget than they ever did under Labour – circa 25% of tax revenue at last count. There are things they are not doing that I wish they could be challenged on, but the Tories continue to be trusted on the big issues such as the economy and defence far more than Labour.

Theresa May will continue to be a progressive. As home secretary, her modern slavery act of 2015 – achieved with the support of former Labour MP Frank Field – recognised one of the greatest evils that the 20th and 21st centuries has brought, and attempted to get to grips with it. In her early speeches setting out her leadership credentials she has signalled her continuing focus on progressive issues such as underachievement of white working class boys within the UK, and in doing so has demonstrated that she is prepared to maintain a focus on the progressive agenda.

Corbyn has forgotten the key fact that in order to wield power in government, you must first be capable of seizing it, and the party that seizes the centre ground normally seizes power. Perhaps he hasn’t forgotten, perhaps he just doesn’t care. At any rate, Labour is currently an irrelevance in British politics. Theresa May has parked her progressive tanks on the lawns previously occupied by Blair and Brown, and Labour looks likely to respond by riding off into a left-wing sunset for the foreseeable future.

Adios, friends. Enjoy your revolution, but please come back soon.

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