Thirty-five years ago, Labour suffered the most momentous split in its history. On 25 January 1981, the “Gang of Four” (Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams) issued the Limehouse Declaration; they then founded the Social Democratic Party (SDP) two months later. The SDP ultimately failed in its ambition to break the Westminster duopoly but it came closer than any other force to realigning British politics.
As Labour grows ever more polarised between left and right under Jeremy Corbyn, many inside and outside the party are asking whether a comparable schism could happen again. Never has a leader commanded so much support from members but so little from MPs (just 14 of whom voted for him in the leadership election). Most of the MPs regard him as unelectable because of his trenchant positions and fear a landslide defeat in 2020 if he remains in place. The party’s current poll ratings are the worst of any post-1945 Labour opposition and Mr Corbyn’s are the lowest of any recent opposition leader.
Labour’s unpopularity has prompted some to argue that if Mr Corbyn’s opponents cannot regain control of the party, they should found a new one. Indeed, Assem Allam, a former Labour donor with an estimated worth of £320m, has pledged to fund a breakaway faction.
But contributors to this week’s issue, from all wings of the party, including Diane Abbott, Neil Kinnock, Roy Hattersley and Mary Creagh, reject this proposal. They are correct to do so. A split would further fracture the anti-Conservative opposition and likely guarantee the Tories another 15 years in office. As the SDP experience demonstrates, disunity is fatal under our first-past-the-post electoral system. In the 1983 general election, the SDP-Liberal Alliance achieved 25.4 per cent of the vote but won just 23 seats (of which six went to the SDP). It is wrong to assume that Labour would have secured all or even most SDP votes (a significant number would have voted Conservative) but those it lost made the climb back to power far harder. It is likely a divided left could only acquire office through a coalition or an informal pact, merely re-creating the problem in a new form – witness the present inability of Spanish progressives to form a government.
The most pessimistic invoke George Dangerfield’s celebrated book The Strange Death of Liberal England and foretell a similar fate for Labour. A new party will have to be fashioned from the ashes of the old, they say. But whoever is its leader, Labour is likely to prove more resilient than such prophecies suggest. Its emphatic victory in the recent Oldham West and Royton by-election, which exceeded expectations, showed its residual appeal. The danger for Labour is not death but, as in the past, continual defeat. Like the England football team, it may fall permanently short of victory.
After his landslide victory, Mr Corbyn, who has inspired tens of thousands to join the party, deserves the time and space to demonstrate his competence and suitability for leadership. As David Owen, reflecting on the creation of the SDP, wrote in the New Statesman in 2011: “It was not unreasonable for those on the left to try to shift the balance of power in the party closer to their views in the aftermath of electoral defeat.” Something similar is happening today.
Since all agree that Mr Corbyn will lead Labour into this May’s elections, talk of a future “coup” or mass resignations should cease. If the party appears defeated before a single vote has been cast, the electorate will respond accordingly. Yet if the Labour leader is to command loyalty, he must foster unity, rather than division. His inept, protracted reshuffle was an unnecessary distraction. He is wrong to seek to change party policy on nuclear defence against the wishes of the electorate. As many MPs originally hoped, he should concentrate on those issues on which unity exists: the economy, the NHS, housing and education. Too often, he and his supporters have appeared more concerned with the enemy within than the enemy without.
After two successive election defeats, Labour MPs have resolved to do all they can to avoid a third. Even before Mr Corbyn made the leadership ballot last June, many pledged to replace any leader who was shown to be failing. Mr Corbyn should be held to no less a standard than Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper would have been. As Neil Kinnock warns, if he fails to advance Labour’s position after a reasonable space of time, “conclusions must be drawn”.
Editor’s note: This piece was corrected on 1 Feburary to amend the statement that Labour has the worst poll ratings of any opposition since 1945. It has the worst of any Labour opposition.
This article appears in the 27 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?