What if Labour splits?

Meg-Russell

In the post-referendum turmoil facing the Labour Party, there are increasing questions about whether the party might split. Despite shadow cabinet resignations and a Parliamentary Labour Party vote of no confidence, Jeremy Corbyn seems determined to hang on, and to force a contest if necessary. If that proceeds, a split looks very likely. But what would this mean in organisational terms: both inside parliament and beyond? Meg Russell investigates.

Events in the Labour Party over the last week have been extraordinary. Accused of a lacklustre performance in the Brexit referendum, party leader Jeremy Corbyn has lost the majority of his frontbench through resignations – sparked by his dramatic sacking of Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn. Labour MPs have now agreed a motion ‘That this PLP has no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party’, by 172 votes to 40. Yet still Corbyn seems determined to hang on, and to force a contest in the wider party, hoping to retain the support of his activist base. As noted in a previous post this follows rule changes turning the Labour leadership contest into a fully ‘one member one vote’ process, and giving voting rights to ‘supporters’ who signed up for just £3. Left-wing activists flooded into Labour to vote for Corbyn, with the unprecedented consequence in British politics that a parliamentary party was left with a leader which it did not support. The problem in the referendum was not only that Corbyn campaigned half-heartedly, and was even accused of actively undermining the Labour Remain campaign, but that his presence from the very outset meant that the media and public had ceased taking Labour seriously.

The prospect of a contest raises the very serious possibility of a Labour Party split. If there were a contest and Corbyn won, the majority of his MPs might well feel forced to abandon the party. If he lost, he and his supporters might be forced out. Indeed a split might even be seen by some in the party as preferable to a contest – which would run all summer and could only have a messy end. But how would a Labour Party split work in practice? What, in particular, would be the immediate parliamentary consequences? What are the wider organisational repercussions? This post focuses particularly on the former, but touches on the latter – concluding that they are far more difficult.

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Corbyn as an organisational phenomenon

Meg-Russell

Changes to the way the Labour leader is elected were an essential factor in Jeremy Corbyn’s victory. Meg Russell explains how the switch to a ‘one member one vote’ system was a fundamental change for the party – and for British politics – with last summer’s events raising profound questions about party democracy. This text is adapted from a response on the night to Steve Richards’ PSA Lecture on ‘Leadership, Loyalty And The Rise of Jeremy Corbyn’, on 15 October last year, and recently published in the Political Quarterly.

Steve Richards sets out convincingly some of the political and ideological currents that led to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. But his unexpected election was also an organisational phenomenon – touching on key issues of internal party democracy. Changes to the mechanism for electing the leader, agreed under Ed Miliband’s leadership, were essential to Corbyn’s victory. The result raises profound questions about who does, and who should, own a political party such as Labour.

The leadership contest of 2015, which delivered Corbyn’s victory, was the first in the Labour Party’s history to be based purely on the principle of one person one vote. The question of who should choose the leader has been a particularly hotly contested one through the party’s recent history, as in many other political parties. Looking back to the 1970s, there was no involvement at all by the party outside parliament in the choice of leader – it was entirely a decision for Labour MPs. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) chose its leader, who then led the party as a whole. This same principle applied in all three of the main parties.

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