It is a common narrative on the right that once Labour loses the next election there will be great bloodletting within the party. Labour will stumble around in the wilderness for years while failing to land any punches on the Conservatives.
But such a view fails to recognise the nature of dividing lines within the party. And, paradoxically, the recent attempted coups against Gordon Brown make such civil war even less likely.
The conventional thinking says that following defeat, the left and centrist factions within Labour will fight a bloody battle for years. Groups such as Compass will fight for a leftward shift, while the centrists from Progress will advocate staying moderate to attract independent and Tory voters. Loud civil war will ensue.
While there will be discord, various factors mitigate the risk that the party will tear itself apart. First, the biggest unspoken dividing line between the left and Labour is not economic issues, but the Iraq war. This continues to haunt Brown and still defines the party and cabinet ministers around him. It is the single biggest issue that keeps lefties away from Labour.
And so the purge of cabinet ministers through failed coups is a positive move because it has ejected those tainted by the war as well as the expenses scandal: Geoff Hoon, James Purnell, Hazel Blears, Jacqui Smith, Tony McNulty and Patricia Hewitt. Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and John Prescott are no longer at the helm either.
Second, the big beasts of the centre left (Jon Cruddas, Harriet Harman, Ed Miliband) are intelligent enough to recognise that the core Labour base alone won’t win them elections. Cruddas has stated this repeatedly, even to Compass members, which has not endeared him to many socialists. But the hard left, for now, remains too divided and powerless to exercise excessive influence over the party’s direction.
Third, one of New Labour’s distinguishing characteristics has been to avoid the mistakes of the past (industrial militancy, lack of discipline) in almost paranoid fashion. This generation knows that the longer it pursues infighting after the election, the longer it will be out in the wilderness. Once the leadership contest is out of the way, it’s very likely the party will be quick to turn its fire on the Tories again.
It is also likely that new media will play a role in ensuring a degree of discipline. When Blears and Purnell resigned in June last year, and when Hoon and Hewitt made their move, there was a swift and loud backlash by Labour members and lefties online. And on both occasions there were no visible signs of support for the coups.
Once Labour is out of power, party members and the broader left alike will want to see unity pretty quickly, so that anger can be directed at the Tories. The web will play its part in ensuring this happens.
That isn’t to say that economic issues are irrelevant. Labour will have to move leftwards in opposition, to differentiate itself from the Conservatives, sound more populist and accept the need for a motivated base that delivers leaflets and fights for the party. But that does not necessarily mean electoral wilderness, given that the economic crisis has, in any case, made Britons less accepting of the City’s largesse.
If Labour loses the election, a new leader will have no choice but to overhaul the Labour brand and admit to mistakes of the past. That will have to include saying sorry for the Iraq war to help mend bridges with many disillusioned lefties. Helpfully, the cleansing process has already begun.
Sunny Hundal is editor of the left-wing blog Liberal Conspiracy.
This article appears in this week’s issue of the New Statesman, available from all good newsagents.