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Labour rebels dismiss breakaway speculation

Rather than forming an alternative parliamentary grouping, MPs say they will challenge Jeremy Corbyn again if he wins.

Rarely a week passes without reports that Labour rebels are planning a split of some kind. The latest story, in the Daily Telegraph, suggested that rather than creating a new party (an option that has never been on the cards), MPs intend to form an alternative parliamentary grouping. This would involve electing their own leader and seeking designation as the official opposition.

The idea has been discussed in Labour circles ever since Joe Haines, Harold Wilson’s former press secretary, called in January in the New Statesman for the parliamentary party to unilaterally declare independence. But it is not a course that MPs intend to pursue, even if, as most expect, Jeremy Corbyn is re-elected.

Labour backbenchers Toby Perkins and Wes Streeting told the NS they knew of "no one" who was advocating the idea, while Jamie Reed said he thought the story was a "put-up job". He added: "McDonnell and Corbyn have no regard for the party. Never have had, never will. They are ones angling for a split. The 81 per cent of Labour MPs who know what we need to do to have a chance of winning in 2020 have no intention of going anywhere." Three senior rebels described reports of a split as “bollocks”. Another said: "Nobody can track down likely source of the Telegraph piece, so it may just be a lone voice. I don’t think it’s a runner."

MPs said that further leadership challenges were likely before anyone gave serious consideration to a split. But one added: "If, however, the hard left pursued deselections then those ejected from their own party would most likely feel compelled into a separate party option, which really would be a disastrous split. Unless that’s what McDonnell meant by ‘so be it’." The shadow chancellor is alleged by leadership candidate Owen Smith to have "shrugged his shoulders and said 'If that’s what it takes'" when privately challenged on whether he was prepared to split Labour (a claim described by McDonnell as "complete rubbish").

Corbyn’s opponents believe that some MPs will follow shadow Home Office minister Sarah Champion and return to the frontbench if he wins the contest. But most of the 172 who backed the no confidence motion have no intention of doing so. “We’ve crossed the Rubicon, there’s no going back,” said Streeting. “This is irreparable while Jeremy remains leader.”

The SNP is currently bidding to be made the official opposition on the grounds that Corbyn has the support of just 40 MPs, while it has 54. But the rebels believe the Speaker will not award the nationalists this designation since they, unlike Labour, do not even have the potential to form a full frontbench team. Catherine Haddon of the Institute for Government told the NS: "The only argument here would be if the 81 per cent of MPs who voted against Corbyn seemed likely to refuse the whip or to refuse to serve in a Corbyn government were one likely. If that happened the argument does change. But we are not there yet." 

Both Corbyn supporters and their opponents have sought parliamentary advice on which side would have the right to use the Labour name in the event of a breakaway. The expectation, based on the Registration of Politicial Parties Act, is that the leader would retain ownership.

MPs acknowledge the possibility of a future split, but the option is not being pursued at any significant level. Though most rebels expect Corbyn to be re-elected, they hope to narrow his margin of victory and to win among full party members. This, they say, would deny the leader the right to boast of an "overwhelming" mandate. But without a dramatic change in Labour's selectorate, many now believe that it is only through a general election that the party's internal struggle will be resolved. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.