The Labour Party has splintered into factions since the general election defeat in May, its worst since 1983. In fact, this loss was even worse than under the leadership of Michael Foot, because back then the party was still strong in Scotland. As Labour gathers in Brighton for its annual conference, the mood in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is especially despondent. Hard left, soft left, soft right, modernisers, centrists, rump Blairites – there are many different ways of describing the various groupings in the PLP.
There is, however, another way of considering the split – and that is as a division between optimists and pessimists. That, at least, is how some of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters wish to frame it.
The optimists are those who enthusiastically support the new leader and disparage anyone who would doubt him. They swept him to an astonishing victory on a wave of adulation and hope and are convinced that he is a politician of unusual principle who can build a movement of change while offering something different from the tired formulas and compromises of the Westminster game.
Since Mr Corbyn was elected leader on 12 September, Labour has signed up 62,000 new members. In the view of these recruits – and nearly all Corbyn supporters – Labour can only win again if it becomes a committed left-wing, socialist party. And even if Labour does not win, what matters above all else is that, as the musician Brian Eno put it during the leadership contest, the “conversation” changes. In this, Mr Corbyn is already successful: he has certainly changed the conversation at Westminster.
Polling from YouGov, published in association with the New Statesman (see page 36), shows that two-thirds of those who voted for Mr Corbyn want to abolish private schools and the monarchy, and favour higher taxes to pay for greater welfare. Yet Labour’s target voters think none of these things.
This is what so alarms the pessimists, who would prefer to call themselves realists, or sceptics. The pessimists do not believe that Mr Corbyn can lead them to victory – unless he compromises on many of his core beliefs and positions, as he has done already on the Europe question. Among the pessimists are most Labour MPs. They believe that Labour lost the election under Ed Miliband in May because it was not trusted on economic matters, and say that polling tells them that the electorate does not yearn for Corbyn-style socialism. Indeed, they are in despair at what has happened to the party and are aghast that John McDonnell, from the ultra left, is shadow chancellor for a party that has little economic credibility.
Writing on page 34, Peter Kellner, the president of YouGov and former political editor of the New Statesman who reported on the Bennite wars of the early 1980s, warns that Labour might have to split if its MPs cannot be reconciled to the Corbyn leadership. “If Corbyn is still in place in two or three years’ time,” he writes, “then his opponents will face a stark choice: accept that Labour has reverted to an older, firmly anti-capitalist version of its purpose – or leave this party and start a new one.”
In his interview with George Eaton (starting on page 20), Mr Corbyn defends the appointment of Mr McDonnell: “He is a very close friend of mine, as everybody knows. He is a brilliant guy on economics and the ideas that go with it. I think it’s very important that the leader and shadow chancellor are thinking in the same direction.”
The Labour leader also reasserts his authority by reminding colleagues that he won a resounding mandate, which will allow him to dictate policy on issues such as opposition to Trident renewal and a benefits cap.
Yet Labour supporters, whether they are for or against their new leader, ought not to be too despondent. As Nick Pearce, the outgoing director of the IPPR think tank, writes on page 26, the character of the Labour Party that emerges from this period of tumult will tell us whether it has a future as a serious political party. “Corbyn’s paradox is that he harnessed democratic energy to a familiar statist and dirigiste project. Labour can only hope to renew if it embraces the democracy and ditches the dirigisme.”
Whatever happens in the months and years ahead, all has been changed, changed utterly by Mr Corbyn’s win. Now Labour must grapple with the consequences while attempting to hold itself together as a viable election-winning force.
This article appears in the 23 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left