So here we are, approaching day 9 of what was surely meant to be a 24-hour coup. Stuck as we all variously are, discussions among Labour people have gone over the same ground rather a lot during the week. Two themes that keep recurring are the role of the party’s membership and the potential for a split. The two are related in some interesting ways. A split, firstly, would create an additional centre party, to the right of Labour and to the Left of the Tories, and would give a massive boost to the centre vote at Labour’s expense. But what would happen then? Well, what happened last time it was tried?
As you can see, Labour were roundly beaten by the Tories in 1979, taking 36.9% of the vote to the Tories’ 43.9%; Labour’s vote share wouldn’t go above 40%, nor the Tories’ below 40%, until 1997. In all the next three elections, the Tory vote share was more or less unchanged, never falling as much as 2% below the 1979 level. What did happen over those three elections was that Labour lost ground massively to the ‘centre’ and then clawed it back. These were, of course, the years when the SDP was launched, swept all before it, formed an alliance with the Liberal Party, lost most of its MPs, merged into the new Liberal Democratic Party and was forgotten (the whole thing took less than a decade). The effect of the split was to create a centre-party surge; the effect of the centre-party surge was to split the Left and help keep the Tories in power; and the surge ended when Labour managed to recover the support they’d lost.
That’s one way that a centre-party surge can end – through Labour winning those voters back. Another surge, not driven by a party split, developed between 2001 and 2010, as a morbid symptom of the decline of Labour’s appeal under Tony Blair. The chart could also be extended back in time to the two elections of 1974, in both of which the Liberal vote share went above 15% – something not previously seen since 1929. Both of these third-party surges ended abruptly and ignominiously – the Liberal Democrats discredited by their period in office, the Liberals both by their period in office and by the trial of Jeremy Thorpe. Nor was there any discernible benefit to Labour; the votes of former ‘centre’ voters appear to have largely benefited the Conservatives in 1979, UKIP in 2015.
This suggests that, where a centre-party surge fades gradually, voters can be won back to the Left; where it collapses suddenly, the Right gains. Intuitively this rings true. An ascendant centre party – like the one led by Kennedy and Clegg – is one that is in the process of drawing voters away from Labour, and attracts people who see themselves primarily as ‘not Labour any more’; if such a party has a rapid loss of credibility, voters who have started moving away from Labour are likely to carry on. A slow fade, by contrast, takes place when a ‘centre’ identity (like that of the SDP) has been successfully established and then starts to lose its appeal; someone who ‘is’ SDP for a couple of years may drift back to Labour when the spell breaks. But the difference between a surge that turns into a slow fade and one that ends in a sudden collapse is secondary to the key similarity between the two, which is that they draw votes away from Labour without the centre party ever having any prospect of taking power in its own right; the result is therefore to entrench the Tories in power. This was the effect of the 1974 surge (collapsing in 1979), the 1983 surge (fading through 1987 and 1992) and the 2005-10 surge (collapsing in 2015). In the 37 years between May 1979 and the present day, the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors have been in power for five years, promptly followed by the collapse of their vote (from 22.9% to 7.8%); the Tories have been in power for 24. Under FPTP, a centre-party surge – or a fortiori a new centre party – will always help the Tories. Anyone advocating a new party needs to be aware that this will be the result.
As for Labour’s individual membership over the years, it looks like this (figures x1000).
Prior to 1980, constituency Labour Parties had been constitutionally required to have a membership of no less than 800; needless to say, the main result of this policy was to make official figures less than reliable. Figures from 1981 on – assembled here from several different sources – seem reasonably trustworthy. What we can see here is that nothing much happened, in terms of individual membership, from 1981 to 1993. There were a couple of small surges – in 1984 when Kinnock became leader; in 1989-90 after a rule change enabled members to join ‘centrally’ instead of through a party branch – but nothing with any major or lasting impact. The New Labour surge of 1994-6, which took the party membership from 260,000 to over 400,000 in three years, was extraordinary and unprecedented. So too was the New Labour slump which followed almost immediately, taking the party membership back down from 400,000 in 1998 to 300,000 in 2000, 250,000 (2001), 200,000 (2004) and on down to 2009’s trough of 150,000. Like Kinnock before him, Ed Miliband attracted some new members; membership jumped back up to 200,000, but then stuck there. In fact, membership hovered around this (historically low) level until the 2015 leadership election. At that point – and, more importantly, ever since then – the party has recruited like never before; if Tony Blair raised membership by 60% in three years, Jeremy Corbyn has more than doubled it in two.
What’s interesting is the politics of individual membership. In 1981 – where our chart begins – the Labour Party had reasonably well-functioning, if idiosyncratic, democratic structures for deciding policy, but elected its leaders by the votes of MPs alone. (The Conservative Party had a similar system, and still operates a Parliamentary ‘vote of no confidence’ system, administered by the 1922 Committee. It’s what you’d expect from a party founded as a supporters’ club for a group of MPs; it’s less appropriate for a party which began life as an extra-parliamentary movement.) Votes on policy matters were cast by constituency Labour parties and by affiliated unions, both of which often came down rather to the Left of the parliamentary party. The cause of “one member, one vote” was advanced in the early 1980s by right-wingers including Frank Field, who intended it as a brake on the Left: the assumption was that the left-wing domination of CLPs was only possible because organised minorities had hijacked branch structures, and that the views of individual party members would be a better reflection of the ‘common sense’ of the party.
The policy of ‘one member, one vote’ made very little headway in the party, partly because of the perceived importance of the union link and partly (not unrelatedly) because OMOV was embraced by the right-wing splitters who founded the SDP. OMOV for leadership elections had a very limited and qualified implementation in the form of an ‘electoral college’, whereby the votes of MPs, affiliated unions and individual members each counted for a third of the final vote. When it came to policy-making, many on the centre and Right of the party were concerned that party membership was too small to make OMOV work, particularly if it was implemented on a constituency-by-constituency basis. Neil Kinnock in 1992 expressed “fears that one-member-one-vote would leave the more moribund local parties, with only 120 or so members, open to Militant or other infiltration”. (The average CLP membership in 1992 was 425.) He concluded that “MPs will simply have to ensure membership is large enough to prevent cliques taking over”; the risks of OMOV could be mitigated by keeping membership high.
Throughout the 1980s, successive leaderships bemoaned the gap which they believed to exist between activists and ordinary party members, but did very little to resolve it; this was partly because introducing OMOV for policy-making would have alienated the third element of the party, the affiliated unions. The problem remained unsolved until New Labour’s ‘Party Into Power’ reforms cut the knot, not by empowering party members but by disempowering local parties – and affiliated unions – altogether, bringing the ruling National Executive largely under the control of the party leadership and turning the annual conference into a rally rather than a policy-making forum. Under these conditions, when membership offered no possibility of holding the party’s national representatives to account, it is not surprising that membership went into decline – or that it declined even more steeply than the party’s vote did in the same period. (At the 2010 General Election Labour took 64% of the votes it had won in 1997; Labour in 2009 had 37% of the individual members it had had in 1997, rising to 49% by the end of 2010.) The decline was reversed – and then some – when the 2015 election was run with a revised version of the electoral college, based on OMOV in three groups: party members, registered party sympathisers and individual members of affiliated organisations (trade unions and others). The party membership now stands at a historic high. While party members have no more power over policy decisions than they had under Blair, they do now have the power to vote for and against party leadership candidates, and this form of OMOV has proved to be quite a draw.
The Labour Party as a membership organisation has often been at odds with the Labour Party in Parliament. What’s striking about the current crisis is that Ed Miliband’s electoral reforms have both revitalised the membership and given it the power to articulate that antagonism – and all this using a reform which was originally intended to take decision-making powers out of the hands of the Left. I suppose it’s to the credit of some on the Right of the party that they realised what was at stake so quickly – although any credit for insight needs to be qualified to take account of their extraordinary lack of tactical knowhow. In July 2015, for example – while the election was still in progress – the Independent printed this:
Two internal polls … suggested a surge in support for Mr Corbyn, with one even suggesting he could win on 12 September. Although this result is still seen as a long shot, MPs said in the event of a Corbyn victory they would immediately start gathering the 47 names needed to trigger a coup. One said: “We cannot just allow our party, a credible party of government, to be hijacked in this summer of madness. There would be no problem in getting names. We could do this before Christmas.” Another Labour MP said a Corbyn victory would cause deep unhappiness among the current shadow cabinet, and suggested that few would want to serve under him.
Yet talk of a potential coup will cause uproar among grassroots Labour members because, in this scenario, Mr Corbyn would have won in the most democratic leadership contest the party has ever held. A second leadership contest could also lead to the same result.
Some Labour MPs would like the way of toppling a leader changed to ape the simpler, but more brutal, system used by the Conservatives. … “The 1922 is a good model for Labour to follow,” said one fast-rising Labour MP.
The courage and audacity of these people – choosing anonymity rather than come out as an enemy of somebody they didn’t expect to win – is only matched by their strategic insight: they knew they couldn’t win under the current system, and their solution was to (a) daydream about alternative systems that would let them win and (b) plan on going for it anyway. (I wonder who that ‘fast-rising Labour MP’ was, and if (s)he’s still rising fast.)
In August 2015, Prospect printed some bizarre musings from Peter Kellner, who was concerned that Corbyn – if elected – might do too well:
Labour could do deceptively well in polls, by-elections, European and local elections in the next three or four years. Corbyn’s Labour could harness the protest vote, as the Lib Dems did for decades, and the Social Democratic Party did in the 80s. … This is bad news for Labour MPs who hate the idea of Corbyn as their leader, and are hoping for early evidence that he is a vote-loser. … Corbyn’s internal opponents should not rely on him doing so badly as leader in the next year or two that he will have to quit. They may need a different and far more dramatic Plan B. The only way to escape his orbit may be for them to split the party.
The article ends there; presumably Kellner had just used up his wordcount and had no space to say any more. It’s a shame; I would have been interested to know how he reconciled denouncing Corbyn as a ‘vote-loser’ with a positive recommendation of splitting the party. To be fair to Kellner, he may not have intended to endorse ‘Plan B’ – or may have thought better of it – as in January this year he wrote this in the New Statesman:
Corbyn’s opponents should not split the party – at least not yet and not unless conditions make it absolutely inevitable. The only beneficiaries would be the Tories. But does this mean surrendering the doctrinal high ground to Corbyn by accepting that he has a mandate to impose his views? Emphatically not. Together, Labour MPs won 9.3 million votes last May. Just[sic] 250,000 people voted for Corbyn to be party leader. Their mandate is much greater than his. They should use it to insist that their policies and their doctrine prevail in the Parliamentary Labour Party and in votes in the House of Commons. If they work together they should also be able to wrest control of the shadow cabinet from him; if they can’t, then the anti-Corbyn MPs should leave the front bench and make clear their refusal to accept the shadow cabinet’s authority over how they vote.
If the PLP cannot depose him – and it now looks as if it can’t, for if it was to force a new leadership election, he would have the right to stand and would probably win – then its best option is to undermine his leadership at Westminster so completely that he has no alternative but to stand down. Then Labour could have a new leadership contest, in which MPs ensure that nobody with Corbyn’s views receives enough nominations to become a candidate. The far left would kick and scream. Fine. They might tear up their membership cards. Even better. The Labour Party, and the still-powerful Labour brand, would be back in safe hands.
So it’s a No to splitting the party, or at least a Not Yet. Destroying the party in order to save it, however, seems to be very much on the agenda. The insouciance with which Kellner contemplates bullying a democratically elected leader into resigning, then throwing away a 200,000-strong influx of members, is startling. But it’s also instructive. Anyone awake and reasonably sober during the New Labour experiment (which had a powerful tendency to intoxicate) will have noticed the conjunction of a leadership supremely confident in its own decision-making powers, the erosion or dismantling of party democracy and a stampede away from anything that looked like socialism. As shiny and bizarre as New Labour indubitably was, I’m coming to the conclusion that this combination of qualities wasn’t accidental, and that it was an extreme case of a malady that had long afflicted Old Labour.
I mentioned the extra-parliamentary origins of the Labour Party earlier on: Labour began life as the Labour Representation Committee, a group campaigning – necessarily outside Parliament – for the political representation of working people (I owe this point to a rather fine article by Geoffrey Alderman in the Spectator, of all places). Socialism as a direction of travel – the progressive emancipation and empowerment of working people – is of its nature democratic; it cuts with the grain of effective democracy (and I owe that point to my Dad). I think we’re seeing now, with They Live-like clarity, something that’s probably always been there: the fact that there are people in and around the Labour Party whose opposition to socialist policies isn’t temporary or tactical, but absolute and entrenched – and whose view of democracy is strictly instrumental. If wider recruitment and greater party democracy will impede the development of a socialist Labour Party, they’re all in favour. If, as at present, those same things will tend to hasten the development of a socialist Labour Party, they’ll throw those principles overboard without so much as a reasoned argument (who wouldn’t want the Labour Party to be in ‘safe hands’?). And if the only thing that’ll halt the creeping advance of socialism is to split the party and throw the next couple of elections to the old enemy – well, they’ll consider it. Purely as a last resort, you understand.
Caveat lector: I don’t claim to know what’s going on in the PLP. Far more MPs have signed up for the anti-Corbyn cause than could possibly be accounted for by wreckers like Progress, even supported by more reasonable right-wingers like Labour First. But then, I get the impression that the atmosphere at Westminster is both unpleasant and febrile, with hardly anyone thinking straight (this applies to the whole period since the referendum, come to think of it). If Keir Starmer’s resignation letter is anything to go by, a number of Labour MPs have gone along with the coup purely because it appears to be happening, and they don’t want to end up in a bunker with Corbyn and Seumas Milne (literally or figuratively). It looks as if Milne the Media was a bad choice in more ways than he was a good one, and in general I don’t think Corbyn’s been the world’s greatest party leader – although I think at this point we can surely agree that he’s far more sinned against than sinning. But at the end of the day – at the end of several days – Corbyn stands for socialism and democracy, against austerity and against imperialist war. In short, he is the most consistently socialist leader the Labour Party has ever had, as well as being elected by the most democratic procedure the party has ever used – a conjunction which, incidentally, is tremendously hopeful for the future of the party, if that future is allowed to happen.
We need to avoid a split and keep as much as possible of the new membership, and it may not be possible to do either of those things if Corbyn is forced to resign; we certainly won’t be able to do both. If Corbyn does resign between now and 2020, it must be on his own terms – terms which allow his programme for the party to continue, bridge the gap between the PLP and the base, and enable the newly-recruited 50% of the Labour Party to continue as members. Only thus can the party hope to resume its historic function as an instrument of working-class emancipation – which will also enable it to regain relevance to ordinary people’s lives. This would, of course, represent the 180-degree reversal of Peter Kellner’s hopes and the complete failure of the coup. That’s as it should be. The coup must fail.