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27 January 2016

Should Labour split?

Thirty-five years on from the Limehouse Declaration, Labour MPs are again talking about breaking away. We ask politicians past and present whether Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents should stay or go.

By New Statesman

Neil Kinnock: To split would be to let the Tories win

There is no logic in the idea of splitting and there’s no case for the idea. Those who are said to want it – if they’re members of parliament, are they going to resign their seats and fight by-elections, like Dick Taverne did [Taverne stepped down as a Labour MP to run as an independent in Lincoln in 1973] or the Tory-Ukip defectors did? Are they going to form a party like the SDP did, with catastrophic results for everybody, not least the division of the anti-Thatcher vote, which meant that she could secure 100 per cent of the power with 43 per cent of the electorate?

Anybody advocating a split in the Labour Party has got to face the reality that they would be letting the Tories rule the 21st century just like they mainly ruled the 20th century. There can’t be any rational social democrat or democratic socialist who would want that, but it is a historic inevitability if they pursue it. I take the view that a  lot of people, left, right and centre, in parliament and in the unions take: that Jeremy Corbyn won, he’s got to have some space, and he must be judged on performance in terms of Labour’s advance or movement in the other direction. That’s the political reality that people must really grasp and work on: the idea of trying to take disruptive action in the short term will simply be fruitless. That’s the reality.

It’s difficult to see that [Jeremy Corbyn is electable]. Many of the people who voted for Jeremy are outstanding party members who said that they were frustrated – indeed, infuriated – by the failure of Labour to connect with the electorate. I know exactly what they mean, but that’s the test.

If Jeremy is seen to be failing to connect to the electorate after a reasonable space of time then he may come to his own conclusions. People who join the party in order to uphold the interests of care and justice and opportunity and security will then make their own judgement regardless of who they voted for in 2015.

Jeremy’s commitment to the party has never been in doubt [although] his commitment to various party leaderships has frequently been in doubt. That comes up in every conversation . . . It’s difficult for him and those closest to him in the circumstances to acquire loyalty and to uphold unity when there’s that record stretching back thirty years. It isn’t impossible provided that he can show evidence that Labour is making advances.

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There’s a fundamental question here and it is whether people want to secure power in the party or to win power for the party. Those people who want to win power, whether they’re left, right or centre, will be watching the evidence and will make their decision on the basis of that evidence. Not because of some spasm of emotion, or the fact that their candidate didn’t get elected: they’ll want to know they have a party that is being led in its advance with the electorate.

If that isn’t the case then conclusions must be drawn.

Neil Kinnock was leader of the Labour Party from 1983 to 1992, and served as a Labour MP from 1970 to 1995

Interview by George Eaton

David Owen: Remember, in 1981, our hand was forced

As an independent social democrat in the Lords, having given money to ­Labour in 2014/15, I profoundly hope there is no need to split. With Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers, we fought to avoid splitting in 1981, two years after election defeat. At conference on 30 May 1980 we challenged rejection of cruise missiles and in October deplored the seismic change of coming out of the European Economic Community without a repeat of Labour’s 1975 referendum. Then Michael Foot beat Denis Healey by ten MPs’ votes for the leadership – and we lost a chance to move to a one-member-one-vote leadership election system by ten votes in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Then, on 24 January 1981, the special conference at Wembley agreed a much worse electoral college, with 40 per cent of the vote going to trade unions, 30 per cent to MPs and 30 per cent to constituencies, making certain that the 1983 manifesto would be “the longest suicide note in history”.

In 2013, sensibly, one-member-one-vote became the method of choosing the Labour leader, but less sensibly MPs manipulated the 15 per cent PLP nominations threshold last year to allow Jeremy Corbyn on to the ballot. Nevertheless, the party voted enthusiastically for radical change.

Having long ago argued against Trident renewal as foreign secretary [under Labour] and in the SDP, I think what is vital is a minimum deterrent, to stay in Nato and not play around with EU defence. Clearly, a free vote for MPs [on Trident] is honourable. But I also want to restore the NHS in England and end its external market. Tony Blair was wrong on both policies.

Labour can win the next election in 2020 – but only through a “progressive alliance”. But this demands realistic compromises from Corbyn, the party conference, the National Executive Committee and the PLP. It means creating a constitutional convention in 2017 alongside the SNP (the likeliest next-biggest party), the Liberal Democrats (if they will change their policy on a market in health), Plaid Cymru, the Green Party and any MPs from Northern Ireland. Agreed reforms in their respective manifestos could then be legislated on in the first session of parliament.

Lord Owen is a former foreign secretary and one of the original Gang of Four

Diane Abbott: A new party would have no heart

Should Labour split? Of course not. It would be a betrayal of the millions of people in the country who need a Labour government, and it would also be a betrayal of the thousands of party members who are behind the Labour leadership.

We forget, because the opposition to Jeremy is so noisy, that the majority of party members and supporters – even those who didn’t vote for him – want him to be given a chance. Trade union leaders want him to be given a chance. The bitter and rancorous split is among MPs and only among MPs. It’s awful that, months after he won the Labour leadership with the biggest majority, people are still attacking the leadership. As for the notion that Labour is now two parties? It’s a very Westminster-centric conceit. In the country, people who support Labour, whether they’re white-collar professionals or they live in former mining communities, are actually one party, and they believe in Jeremy Corbyn’s core agenda, which is peace abroad and social justice at home.

It’s less a split about ideology and more a split about a type of politics. I argue that it’s no coincidence that the people Jeremy sacked – Michael Dugher, Pat McFadden – and those who resigned spent most of their careers as special advisers. They emerged from the New Labour model of politics where you probably did politics at university, you became a special adviser, you got a safe seat, you became a junior minister, and then if you were lucky you got into the cabinet. Jeremy’s insurgency has smashed that model of politics, and that’s why they’re so upset; if you’d invested your life in a certain model, you’d be upset, too. But the history of the SDP says it all: if they split from Labour, they would ultimately disappear without a trace.

Before she defected to the SDP, Shirley Williams said that such a party “would have no heart, no roots, no philosophy”. She was right the first time.

Diane Abbott is the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and shadow secretary of state for international development

Frank Field: Labour must have a new leader by 2020

What about playing to Jeremy Corbyn’s strengths rather than emphasising his weaknesses? Two qualities stand out. The first attraction is that he is genuine. What he says now, he has maintained ever since I have known him. Many of his passions I share. The disagreement is in the way he puts these utopian goals as if they were an immediate programme for government. We also need to be trusted with the keys to 10 Downing Street.

His other huge strength is that he doesn’t look part of the metropolitan elite that has dominated the leadership of the three main parties up to the last election. But, as refreshing as these gifts are, they are not ones that by themselves are likely to win an election. They need to be joined to a candidate who looks like a prime minister-in-waiting and who might therefore build a transitional programme towards some of Jeremy’s goals.

Jeremy has recently highlighted the differences between the humblest and the highest-paid workers. Here is one of his many radical aims that unite traditional voters with the metropolitan Labour supporters. Yet Labour’s traditional voters are turned off in abundance by his views on immigration, his new stance on Europe and defence. To put much of Jeremy’s radicalism into practice, we need a leader in parliament who is not drawn from his grouping, or the ex-Blairites that are found wanting.

At some stage, the Parliamentary Labour Party will need to elect an alternative prime minister. It can come quite late in the parliament. I, and others, tried to get Alan Johnson to stand against Gordon Brown. A change of leadership only weeks before the election was called could have delivered us victory in 2010. Not having a leader in the country, which Jeremy is, is not our weakness. It is in having no alternative prime minister. Finding that person will, I hope, come from the 2010 intake who are not stigmatised by previous Labour regimes. Then, please God, Labour backbenchers will have the courage to act decisively.

Frank Field is the MP for Birkenhead (Labour) and chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee

Roy Hattersley: Walking away would be an admission of despair

Of course the Labour Party must not split. If the mainstream majority in the parliamentary party attempted to create an alternative to Jeremy Corbyn’s unelectable extremism, the certain result would be a Tory government for the next fifty years.

Walking away would be giving up the fight for Labour’s future before it has properly begun. And the idea of a new party – radical but reasonable, progressive but popular – is self-indulgent fantasy. The Social Democrats had the same idea thirty years ago. They ended up joining a coalition that put David Cameron in power and claiming, by way of apology, that without their intervention the so-called health reforms would have been even worse.

There should be no split and no talk of a split. Even speculating about the possibility gives Jeremy Corbyn’s satraps the chance to accuse his critics of treachery. More important, living in the dreamworld of a sudden and successful breakaway provides an easy and comforting alternative to joining the battle to get Labour back on course.

Corbyn and Corbynism have to be challenged in the constituencies, in the parliamentary party and on the floor of the Commons. The challenges will only be made by men and women who believe that Labour is capable of recovery and regeneration.

And it is. Many of the men and women who voted for Jeremy Corbyn last September are mainstream, but disillusioned, party members. They will vote to make Labour more interested in power and less in protest, if they are offered a programme that is both genuinely socialist and relevant to the real needs and concerns of the general public. It is possible. A split would be an admission of despair as well as defeat. Forget it. There is work to be done.

Lord Hattersley was the deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983 to 1992

Tim Farron: Labour’s already split from top to bottom

John A Hobson wrote that: “The tendency of all strong governments has always been to suppress liberty, partly in order to ease the processes of rule, partly from sheer disbelief in innovation.”

The picture today is more complex. There seems to be no lack of appetite to deploy technology to erode our freedoms and civil liberties when it comes to the state quietly monitoring our electronic communications. At the same time, green technological innovation is being sabotaged by the Conservatives – either because they doubt the climate science or for narrow and often grubby political interests. Still, as this Conservative government unpicks the progressive achievements of the coalition at an alarming rate, Hobson’s words appear eerily to be a warning from history. For the health of our politics, Britain needs a progressive liberal voice that will challenge the Conservative orthodoxy and offer an alternative that accounts for people’s real experiences. It must not shy away from the implications of new threats such as climate change, while providing a counterpoint to the mantra of “trust us” that we hear from the state and the security services. Secrecy over Saudi security deals, a worrying increase in “cash converter” justice and the Investigatory Powers Bill all risk undermining the values we seek to protect.

Labour is not that alternative. It is split from top to bottom. Those pulling the strings of the Momentum faction are revealing an ugly, controlling and bullying side that is out of step with Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a kinder politics. Many progressives in Labour feel isolated, threatened by deselection and dismayed at Labour’s lurch towards an irrelevant socialist creed.

I believe the state should reinforce individual freedoms while ensuring it provides well-resourced, well-targeted and well-managed services that enable people to make choices to improve their lives. It should embrace innovation, particularly in the economy and when it comes to energy, not fear it. I am more than happy to work with others to achieve that end. A realignment of progressive politics, with the Liberal Democrats at its heart, is the alternative that Britain needs.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats

Caroline Lucas: First, change our electoral system

There is no doubt that the first-past-the-post electoral system has created two political parties that are far larger than they naturally would be – a situation exemplified by Jeremy Corbyn now leading a party that counts Peter Mandelson among its members.

I want to see a realignment of the left. Whether that requires a Labour split remains to be seen but it does mean that those of us who share progressive values need to find ways to work outside of the rigid party system to present a viable alternative to the Tories. In the short term I would argue that we should seriously consider electoral pacts in the next general election – with a guarantee that a progressive government would introduce a fairer voting system as a priority. Ultimately, having huge political parties – which are wedded together more strongly by the electoral system than by a shared set of values – does the electorate a disservice. Not only do people have less choice, but the quality of the political debate is hampered when two parties can spuriously claim to have a monopoly on wisdom.

It is only by introducing a fairer voting system that we will give people a genuine chance to vote for the party or candidate in which they truly believe. Until then, the two-party behemoths are likely to keep stumbling on.

Caroline Lucas is a former leader of the Green Party and the MP for Brighton Pavilion

Mary Creagh: It’s time for us to get back in the game

The short answer is that Labour should not split. In the 115 years of our history, the party has been one of the most powerful and resilient forces for change ever established, nationally and internationally. Our belief that we work collectively to tackle inequality in all its forms, through decent work, fair taxation and responsible business, has survived several recessions, two world wars and bitter splits in 1932 and 1981. We have played in the political Premier League for most of our existence. Why would we split and relegate ourselves to being a protest movement?

Our values and actions make us different. In government, we cut CO2 emissions, slashed fuel poverty and ensured that people live with dignity in warm homes, as I highlighted in the recent Energy Bill debate. Our failure to defend our record was one of the reasons we lost the election in 2015. Margaret Beckett’s report into our defeat echoes my message when I stood to be Labour leader: we were seen as too left-wing, anti-business, and out of touch with people’s aspirations.

Splitting the party would be to abandon our record, ignore the public and make it harder to put our values into practice again. Instead, we must renew.

As someone who has campaigned in every election since 1992, I believe we must set out what a Labour government can offer when there is less money to spend. We must confront the long-term decline in our old industrial heartlands. How do we ensure that our public services provide the best education, health and care in the world? How do we strengthen families and communities, welcome strangers and make the UK a great place to be born, to live, work and grow old?

We must be restless for change in a changing world. I am delighted that hundreds of Green and Lib Dem members have joined our party since Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory. After a great result in the Oldham West by-election, I look forward to campaigning alongside members, old and new, to elect Labour mayors in Bristol and London in May. We also need to win control of councils such as Kirklees, Plymouth and Milton Keynes: places that we must win to form a Labour government in 2020.

Talk of splitting tells the voters we care more about our party than we do about the country. Labour’s historic purpose is to win power and change lives for the better. Chatter on the benches is all well and good but we need to get back in the game.

Mary Creagh is the MP for Wakefield (Labour) and a former member of the shadow cabinet

Peter Kellner: MPs must undermine their leader

To answer this question we must confront two truths. The first is that there is a fundamental gulf between Jeremy Corbyn’s doctrine and the views of most Labour MPs. He is anti-capitalist, anti-nuclear and anti-American. They are not. Moreover, from Clement Attlee to Gordon Brown, no Labour prime minister has been any of these things, let alone all three.

This suggests that Labour should recognise this doctrinal cleavage and split into two. If the UK elected its MPs by proportional representation, that would make sense. However, we must face the second truth. Under Britain’s electoral system there is room for only one major party of the left. Think back to the SDP in the early 1980: division then delivered a landslide victory to the Conservatives. Or go back further, to the era when Labour challenged and eventually replaced the Liberals as Britain’s dominant progressive party. After the Liberals’ landslide victory in 1906, Britain had to wait 39 years, until 1945, for the next majority anti-Conservative government.

So, no, Corbyn’s opponents should not split the party – at least not yet and not ­unless conditions make it absolutely inevitable. The only beneficiaries would be the Tories. But does this mean surrendering the doctrinal high ground to Corbyn by accepting that he has a mandate to impose his views? Emphatically not. Together, Labour MPs won 9.3 million votes last May. Just 250,000 people voted for Corbyn to be party leader. Their mandate is much greater than his.

They should use it to insist that their ­policies and their doctrine prevail in the Parliamentary Labour Party and in votes in the House of Commons. If they work together they should also be able to wrest control of the shadow cabinet from him; if they can’t, then the anti-Corbyn MPs should leave the front bench and make clear their refusal to accept the shadow cabinet’s authority over how they vote.

Meanwhile, they should abandon all the guff about bringing the party together, finding common ground, praising “Jeremy” as a nice guy, and pretending that he has the remotest chance of leading the party to victory in 2020. Indeed, they should say and do nothing that suggests anything other than that he is the wrong leader, with the wrong views, who can lead Labour to nothing but disaster.

In short, they should acknowledge that they are engaged in a fundamental battle over Labour’s future and make clear it is a battle that they are determined to fight to the finish and to win. If the PLP cannot ­depose him – and it now looks as if it can’t, for if it was to force a new leadership election, he would have the right to stand and would probably win – then its best option is to undermine his leadership at Westminster so completely that he has no alternative but to stand down.

Then Labour could have a new leadership contest, in which MPs ensure that nobody with Corbyn’s views receives enough nominations to become a candidate. The far left would kick and scream. Fine. They might tear up their membership cards. Even better. The Labour Party, and the still-powerful Labour brand, would be back in safe hands.

Then we could start the task of developing a serious, rigorous and compelling social-democratic vision for the 21st century – and admit that it has been the failure to develop and articulate such a vision in recent years that left a political void inside the party that Corbyn and his preposterous ideas have been able to fill with such alarming ease. 

Peter Kellner is a former political editor of the New Statesman and is now the president of YouGov, the polling company. He writes here in a personal capacity

Joe Haines: The PLP should dethrone Corbyn

The Labour Party was split, is split and always will be split. It’s the nature of the beast. What is unique about today is that the splitters are the majority of the parliamentary party who know that the unilateralist Corbyn’s leadership is disastrous and that his policies, such as they are, are bonkers. The Beckett report on why we lost the last election is, in a guise of superficial unity, a recipe for losing the next. It offers a mixture of the blindingly obvious (voters didn’t like our immigration and economic policies) and the obviously blind (Ed Miliband was a good leader; his “weakness” was got up by the media), and thus comforts Corbyn and is no answer. Its piety can’t paper over the reality of a chasm growing wider by the day.

The PLP is now moving out of the “something must be done” phase towards “we must do it” and formalising the split, based on a recognition that with Corbyn there isn’t any hope of winning the 2020 election. The ambition of those who believe this can be organised should be to create a new grouping of MPs with all the moderates coming under the same umbrella, preferably with Alan Johnson as its leader. If two-thirds of the PLP join up, it could become the official opposition, receive the several million pounds’ Short money and dethrone Corbyn from the front bench in the Commons.

It would not be necessary to call a national leadership election, but the real leadership would go to where the power lies – within the PLP, as it used to be. The small group in the Commons of true believers in Corbynism would thus become the dissidents, intractable, treading their own path. So what? Nothing new in that. Jeremy did it more than 500 times.

Even the good guys have their egos, however, and much would depend on Johnson, if and when he is approached. He is probably the most likely man to unite the soft left, the centre and the centre right and nominate a team from a (largely) united PLP, and to train and nurture that team to prepare an effective government by 2020.

You have only to reel off the names of the most obvious members of such a shadow cabinet – Yvette Cooper, Chuka Umunna, Tristram Hunt, Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall, Rachel Reeves, Emma Reynolds, Michael Dugher, Dan Jarvis, Hilary Benn, Keir Starmer, Chris Leslie, Caroline Flint and the Eagle sisters, for a start – to see how much more powerful and impressive a team it would be than Corbyn’s shadows. No Emily Thornberry at Defence would be an immediate improvement.

Would Alan Johnson do it? Well, he might, if it were for a transitional period only. If he won’t, why is he an MP? And what would Tom Watson do? Elected deputy leader, Watson is the traditional tough that every party needs. He would like to be leader, and sooner rather than later, but he doesn’t stand a chance while Corbyn’s crew are in charge. They would do him down even if Corbyn fell off his bike. He should signal his willingness (albeit privately) to join the remodelled PLP.

It would be foolish, I believe, to wait until the London, local and Scottish elections are over in May before making the move against Corbyn. Votes lost are difficult to regain. The facts should encourage the PLP to act. For every vote – full members, registered supporters (the £3-a-year lot) – that Corbyn won last September, there are 36 Labour voters, nine million in total, who are represented only by the PLP. For once, might is right and the PLP should exercise it.

Joe Haines was Harold Wilson’s press secretary and a journalist at the Daily Mirror. His article on Labour’s future, “The Micawber syndrome”, was published in the first issue of the NS this year

Peter Hyman: Millions of voters now have no home

The first task is to admit the truth: we are now living in a one-party state. By that, I mean there is only one party that in the foreseeable future can form the government – the Tories.

The left needs to lose the delusion that we are ever going to come close to power if we run the party in a shambolic way and speak to a narrow set of overly simplified homilies. There are many among the new elites who have recently joined the Labour Party who are salivating at the prospect of a party, after all these years, finally proposing a platform of pacifism, republicanism, anti-capitalism, anti-Western rhetoric, as well as hostility to the media. But they should not pretend that this is the mainstream view of Labour’s core supporters; nor is it supported by more than a small percentage of the British people. These views should be represented by a party to the left of Labour and not become the platform of a serious political force that is credibly trying to win power.

Millions of voters now have no political home. To be fair to Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, they are the symptom and not the cause of the current meltdown. They are only filling a vacuum left by the moderates, who have neither the melody to stir the emotions nor the words to create new thinking. So the task for those who want to change the country, as opposed to the current leaders whose mission seems to be to purge the party, is the biggest political fight in Labour’s history. It requires not just fresh leadership, but organisation, vision and policies. There are no quick fixes.

The question is whether Labour can be saved, or whether a new party is better placed to represent those who want to combine social justice with economic prosperity in a viable electoral force. There is a lot of lazy commentary about forming a new party, with the idea being dismissed by those scarred by the SDP experience. But the world has moved on. True, proportional representation would help any new party. Yet even without it, politics today is far more fluid, and people are crying out for a fresh voice in British politics. If, but only if, the Labour Party does not get back on track in the next 18 months, then there will need to be serious consideration given to a new party of the left emerging.

Peter Hyman is a former speechwriter and strategist for Tony Blair, and is now the head teacher of School 21

Vernon Bogdanor: The time has come for a new party

The Labour Party is composed of three main elements – the Parliamentary Labour Party, the trade unions and the members. But the PLP is the most important, given that it represents the nine million people who voted Labour in 2015, and any future Labour government will be responsible to MPs. A government is not, ought not, and cannot be constitutionally responsible to the few hundred thousand party members outside parliament, who represent nobody but themselves and who are, in Labour’s case, apparently, three times more likely to be well-off urban professionals than the population as a whole.

Jeremy Corbyn was opposed as leader by roughly four-fifths of the PLP. Can the PLP tell voters in 2020 with a clear conscience that it believes Jeremy Corbyn to be a potential prime minister? If not, the PLP must repudiate the leader and insist upon a leader whom it does see as a potential prime minister. But, if that fails, it should consider forming a new party so that Labour voters are properly represented in parliament and the country has an effective opposition.

Some suggest that Labour might have two leaders – a leader of the PLP and a leader in the country. However, this arrangement could only work if the two were in harness. Otherwise, confused voters will ask: whose policies will Labour follow in government, the PLP leader’s or Corbyn’s?

The Conservatives removed Edward Heath in 1975, Margaret Thatcher in 1990, despite her having won three elections, and Iain Duncan Smith in 2003 because MPs thought they were election losers. Labour retained Michael Foot in 1983, Gordon Brown in 2010 and Ed Miliband in 2015. In each case, a change of leadership might have won more seats for the party. Gutlessness now will entrench extremists in the Labour machinery and end the careers of many hard-working and public-spirited MPs.

Of course, the failure of the SDP casts a shadow over the debate. A new party would face similar hurdles: the first-past-the-post system and the difficulty confronting any party of the centre left which lacks access to trade-union funding.

But the failure of the SDP was not predetermined. Without the Falklands War and what then seemed Scotland’s tribal attachment to Labour, the SDP/Liberal Alliance would probably have won more votes than Labour in 1983. Electoral de-alignment is far more advanced than it was in the 1980s. Labour support in Scotland has collapsed and is under threat in the north of England. Few now say they would vote Labour because they’ve always voted Labour. The growing fluidity of the electorate is the most important psephological change in our lifetime.

Over 100 years ago, Winston Churchill called for the creation of “a great new party – free alike from vested interests and from holy formulas, able to deal with national problems on their merits, patient to respect the previous benefits of the past, strong to drive forward the wheels of progress”. Perhaps the time has come for such a party.

Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government at King’s College London

Roger Liddle: Labour’s clock is ticking

The clock is ticking for Labour as a credible alternative to the Conservatives. Having lived through the trauma of the SDP split, I don’t want another – but as others have said, Labour has no divine right to exist.

A Labour Party that had become totally controlled and dominated by the hard-left politics  of Jeremy Corbyn and his fractious inner circle would never win power through the ballot box. To stick with it would be to betray social democratic values. It would mean abandoning any prospect of advancing in the real world the values of social justice, wider and more equal opportunities, and pro-European internationalism that social democrats hold dear. It would lead to the break-up of Britain as the SNP would be gifted the argument that independence offered a more hopeful future than permanent Tory rule at Westminster.

But the response to the catastrophe that stares Labour moderates in the face should not be to cut and run. This is partly a question of finally burying the hatchet of old Blair/Brown rivalries and organising to rally support in the constituencies. But it is not only that. Rather than speculating about breakaway parties, the task is to attempt to build a movement for a new centre-left politics from within Labour itself, while opening dialogue with progressives outside.

The urgent need is to rethink the principles and agenda of the next progressive project for Britain. Jeremy Corbyn won over and recruited many Labour members in the leadership election simply because none of his challengers were seen to be offering an inspiring vision for the future. This must combine a radical commitment to tackle the  generational injustices and austerity dogmas of our time with a clear perception of economic credibility and leadership competence. It has to reach out to middle Britain beyond the diminishing forces of the Labour tribe. It has to explore what Labour can learn from liberalism, which we have so productively done in the past from figures such as Hobhouse, Keynes, Beveridge, Grimond and Dahrendorf. It has to embrace questions of environment, culture and identity that the old class politics tried to ignore. It has to put political, constitutional and European reform front and centre in its programme.

In 1981 I backed the SDP split. But 2016 is not 1981. The SDP could then boast a leadership of front rank and successful ex-cabinet ministers. It stood its ground on a coherent social democratic programme against the destructiveness of Militant and Bennery to its left and Thatcherism to its right. It allied with a Liberal Party that in the 1970s had been on the up, compared to their present collapse.

Bill Rodgers persuaded me to join the SDP ( it was awful and like getting divorced) on the basis that the new party would either succeed in supplanting Labour as the main party of conscience and reform in British politics or that would prove such a shock to Labour that it would force the party back to a social democratic path. In other words, we would win either way – and in the end, we did, though this is not to diminish in any way the efforts of those who stayed and fought to bring Labour back to its senses. But today there is no certainty that the trade unions have the capacity or the will to come to the rescue as they did in the 1980s.

I understand the disillusion of the thousands who, in frustration with Corbyn, are abandoning their Labour membership and commitment: this is the tragic, unseen story behind the surge of his twitterati and middle class left-wing support. The hard lessons of the 2015 election have seemingly been ignored: the clear views of Labour supporters and one time supporters count for very little. But there is still a lot to play for.

There will be many calls for “unity” in the party, but so called loyalists should remember that there is no more peaceful place than the unity of the graveyard. Rather, there can be no let up in the defence of fundamental social democratic values, the renewal of centre-left ideas and the exploration of new progressive alliances. Labour now faces a literally existential challenge.

Roger Liddle is a Labour peer and co-chair of Policy Network. He was a founding member of the SDP.

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This article appears in the 27 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?