Despite their dominance of the headlines for the last 24 hours, the Labour plotters have a key weakness. They know that they can only remove Jeremy Corbyn if he chooses to resign. The normal course of action in any parliamentary coup is to force a leadership election. But that would assume you have an alternate leader who could win. In fact the opposite is the case – there is an array of rival candidates for the position – Tom Watson, Angela Eagle, Dan Jarvis etc. – and the likelihood is that Labour members would once again elect Corbyn by a huge margin. So as long as Jeremy Corbyn sticks to his guns and doesn’t stand down, it is very unlikely that he can be toppled, however many shadow ministers resign.
The issue is the same as it has been since last summer — the Parliamentary party and the membership are now entirely at odds with one another. A split is beginning to feel inevitable – if Corbyn is forced out there is strong a chance that he will form a new party based around Momentum, taking perhaps 20-30 MPs, several unions, and a sizeable portion of the membership. If Corbyn wins a second leadership contest then a much larger group of MPs, with fewer Unions and members, will leave and form something new. Either way, Labour as a broad based party will be finished. In some ways this could be positive. In the long run, having people with radically different views in the same party will always be chaotic, and will require ever more torturous gymnastics, such as those Ed Miliband was forced to perform. In two separate parties, each could put their case in a clear and principled way, and let the electorate choose which vision they prefer.
There is however a major stumbling block, in the form of the current electoral system. First Past the Post elections tend to give the vast majority of the seats to the two main parties. As we saw last time Labour split, in the 1980s, the only beneficiaries will be the Tories. In 1983, Labour and the SDP won 53% of the vote between them, 27.6% to Labour and 25.4% to the SDP. But because of the voting system, the Conservatives won a large majority of the seats on just 42.4% of the vote. The only way a split could work without letting in the Conservatives would be through an electoral pact, in which the two ex-Labour parties divide up the seats between each other, perhaps holding a primary in each constituency before the election to ascertain which would be the most popular. The two parties would have to agree that if they collectively formed a majority in parliament they would legislate to introduce proportional representation, so that in future they could compete and be assured that each would receive seats in parliament in accordance with their share of the vote.
It’s hard to imagine that this could all be done in time for a potential November election. And a split without an electoral pact would be disastrous – handing the Conservatives a huge majority. There is another possibility, a way that Labour could just about hold together and have a chance of winning an election this year. It would require MPs to nominate a non-Corbyn leadership candidate that would be acceptable to the membership.
The current legal advice is that Corbyn will automatically be on the ballot, without requiring nominations. That would free up the 20-30 pro-Corbyn MPs to nominate another left candidate, increasing the chances of a genuine socialist being victorious. They could then reach out to some soft-left MPs to make up the numbers – making the case that the only way to move beyond Corbyn is to find someone that both the membership and the PLP can support. I am open minded as to who this could be but suggest that Clive Lewis would be an ideal candidate. He is firmly leftwing but has other important qualities – much younger (45), represents a southern non-London constituency (Norwich South), supported the Remain campaign from a strongly socialist internationalist position, and is more media savvy (a former BBC) journalist and more forceful than Corbyn. He also ex-military, so if background that makes Dan Jarvis a suitable candidate, then Lewis is too.
I appreciate that many Labour members are highly supportive of Corbyn personally. But the cause is more important that any individual, as Jeremy has said on many occasions. And while Corbyn’s policies are the right ones, I think we supporters should acknowledge that his team have proved themselves fairly useless, as the VICE documentary showed. If we can find a candidate that will continue Corbyn’s policy agenda while demonstrating the ability to reach out to a broader range of voters then we should support them. Putting two left candidates on the ballot gives us the best of both worlds as they can both ask voters to give the other their second preference. So it would it be a candidacy designed to ensure a socialist succession, to further the Corbyn agenda with a stronger and more electable candidate.
I supported Corbyn last summer, and if the choice is between him and a vapid, bland centrist then I will support him again, and I predict many members will do the same. Offering a principled socialist vision to the electorate is ultimately more important that holding the Labour party together at all costs. But the left use this moment to create a plan b, finding a candidate that can offer both principle and competence, both socialist and media savvy. If the parliamentary party nominates such a candidate I predict that they will win handsomely.