One of the arguments trotted out by those trying to dislodge the leader of the Labour Party is that he has ‘lost’ the confidence of 80% of his MPs. That is surely not true – you can’t lose that which you never had, and most of those who have no confidence in him are only re-iterating what they’ve been saying for some time. Indeed, many of them seem to have started planning to remove him before he was even elected. The vote of no confidence by the MPs may have crystallised the extent of the problem in a very public fashion, but, with perhaps a few exceptions, it didn’t really represent any change of opinion.
I can see why those trying to oust Corbyn want to portray it as being about him as a person – vain and narcissistic are just two of the epithets which have been hurled at him – but that looks like an attempt to play the man rather than the ball. Whether that’s deliberate or not, I don’t know; perhaps they really do see the whole issue in terms of personality rather than process or policy. But underlying the conflict is a big question about what parties are for and what sort of democracy we want.
In this particular case, the clash is between those who see a party as an organisation which belongs to its members, and which sends representatives to parliament in order to argue for the party’s policies, and those who see a party as existing primarily in parliament, with a voluntary membership outside whose main role is to do the donkey work of delivering leaflets and knocking doors. The Labour Party started life as the former, but over a period, it transformed itself into the latter – a transformation which reached its peak under Blair. Corbynism looks to me, from the outside and in part at least, as an attempt to reverse that and reclaim the party for the membership.
Will the party split as a result? It’s hard to say at this stage. There’s at least a possibility that a new election will result in a renewed mandate for Corbyn from the membership, and I’m not sure where the rebel MPs go from there. They’ve put themselves in a position where simply accepting such a result must surely be politically unacceptable – and it would highlight the size of the gulf between them and the party’s membership. That's an untenable situation if ever I saw one. It’s speculative at this stage, of course; perhaps they’ve seen more of a movement of opinion amongst the party’s ordinary members than has been seen publicly yet.More importantly, would such a split be a good thing or a bad one? Whilst there might be a few in the Labour Party who would see a split as an opportunity to get rid of those MPs who disagree with them, I suspect that most people in the Labour Party would see it as a bad thing. But how about for the rest of us? I think a degree of realignment of political parties is long overdue – and I’m not just thinking about Labour. The two ‘main’ UK parties have become ossified in a condition which suited the two party politics which held sway up until about the 1970s, but which no longer exists.
A greater range of parties and choices would be an outcome that I would welcome, particularly if accompanied by a move to proportional representation. Labour is the party which is in most immediate danger of splitting at present; but the outcome of the election in the Tory party, coupled with the rise of UKIP, may yet see a wider realignment. That which holds back electoral reform is simply the existence of one or more parties which believe that they can win an absolute majority under the current system; take away that condition, and who knows what might become possible?