In the end, the Labour leadership election was rather a damp squid. It became clear early on that Owen Smith’s attempts at Corbyn-lite – his campaign ran on the premise that the message is sound, just not the messenger – convinced few, a paltry 38% of those eligible to vote compared to Corbyn’s mighty 62%. This was in spite of a high court ruling barring 130,000 new Labour party members (most of whom were likely to be Corbynistas) from voting. To Corbyn and his comrades, this is an emphatic victory and his democratic mandate is undeniable. Yet the facts on the ground remain: Labour are performing dismally in the polls, Corbyn falling behind May even when voters are asked whom they trust most over the NHS (38%-30%). Within his most sympathetic constituency, young people, Corbyn has an approval rating of -18%. Corbyn has won the Labour leadership twice in a year, are the Labour MPs – 75% of whom voted against him in a vote of no confidence – now have to, in John Major’s words, `put up or shut up`?
There are three options for Labour MPs: firstly, they could indeed `shut up` and opt to work with Corbyn, hoping that positive engagement will prevent Labour Party policy for the coming years being dictated solely by Corbyn and his inner circle; secondly they could go again, making the Labour Party more reminiscent of 1920s China than of one of Britain’s two great governing parties; thirdly they could hedge their bets and go it alone.
On the first option, this would be the standard when a leader wins a clear democratic mandate. There will be issues where both the right and the left may be able to agree – notably on housing and the NHS, as well as possibly on the topic of the nationalisation of the railways. But the discourse, from both sides, has been poisonous. Furthermore, on key international issues such as NATO, Trident and the European Union, the gulf is too wide and with Corbyn becoming increasingly authoritarian – packing committees with supporters and refusing to rule out mandatory reselections – the atmosphere is hardly conducive to healthy and reasoned debate.
The discourse, from both sides, has been poisonous
The second option would make the Labour Party seem truly desperate, not to mention disdainful of Labour Party members who gave Corbyn such a resounding mandate. Yet another attempt at toppling him would only be in line with his principles. In a Morning Star article in September 2003 Corbyn wrote “New Labour has alienated millions of people… There should be an annual election for leader” while in 1992 Corbyn accused John Smith of offering “no real opposition”. Furthermore, no MP has been as rebellious as Corbyn, defying the whip 428 times during Labour’s spell in government. Corbyn should be proud of Labour MPs coup-plotting and rebelliousness; they are simply practising what he preached. Nor would it be undemocratic to do so – Labour MPs took 9,347,304 votes in the 2015 election, compared to Corbyn’s 313,209 in the Labour leadership election. They are as accountable to their constituents as Mr Corbyn is to his supporters and if they feel their seats are under threat, they have a right to speak out.
The third option one might call the nuclear one. It involves the rump of Labour MPs who voted against him in the vote of no confidence splitting from the party. While undesirable on paper, for many this may be the only way out. Under threat of deselection, with no future in the Labour Party as it is today and with the party itself facing annihilation, there may be little choice left. When the party split in 1981 it was in similar circumstances (fear among some that the election of Michael Foot and infiltration of the party by Trotskyist factions was leading the party towards electoral oblivion). In early 1981, though, the Labour Party had a lead over the Tories in the double digits. Currently Labour trail the Tories by seven points, according to a YouGov poll (38%-31%). If the risk was worth taking then, it may well be worth taking now.