The Labour Party’s current crisis is often characterised as an ideological dispute between the Parliamentary Labour Party and a membership that is significantly more left-wing. But, as Javier Sajuria demonstrates, it is hard to stand this up. The ideological distance between Labour members and MPs is in fact smaller than that between Conservative members and MPs. To explain why many are now suggesting that Labour is on the verge of splitting it is necessary to look at party rules as well as ideology.
The situation within the Labour Party has been described by many as a dispute between the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the membership. The en masse resignations from the shadow cabinet, followed by a vote of no confidence from 81 per cent of MPs, shows that Jeremy Corbyn has lost the trust of his peers (or perhaps he never really managed to obtain it in the first place). Labour activists, particularly those grouped around the Corbyn-supporting Momentum, accuse the PLP of betraying the party and lining up with the right-wing. On the other hand, MPs respond by pointing out that voters, and not members, elected them and that they have a mandate to protect the party from oblivion.
Regardless of how relevant it might seem under the current situation, the ideological distance between members and party elites is not a new interest for political scientists. John May’s curvilinear disparity law explains that more active members are usually more ideologically extreme than MPs and voters. As Meg Russell states in her book Building New Labour, there is a limit to how much a leader (or in this case party elites) can steer a party’s position to the left or right. Therefore, we could expect that a widening gap between members and the MPs may result in a difficult situation for the party, or even an eventual split. With that in mind, I set out to investigate – in a very preliminary way – if this ideological gap can explain Labour’s crisis, and if not, what are the alternative theories.