Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
27 January 2016

In this week’s magazine | Should Labour split?

A first look at this week's issue.

By New Statesman

29 January – 4 February issue
​Should Labour Split?

Cover story: Should Labour split?
Thirty-five years on from the Limehouse Declaration, we ask politicians past and present whether Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents should stay or go.
Neil Kinnock, Roy Hattersley, Frank Field, Joe Haines, Diane Abbott, David Owen, Tim Farron, Mary Creagh, Peter Hyman, Caroline Lucas, Peter Kellner and Vernon Bogdanor on the question everyone at Westminster is asking.

Neil Kinnock: Labour cannot tolerate a failing leader – Corbyn needs to prove himself, or “conclusions must be drawn”.

George Eaton: The choice before Labour.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Leading article: The Corbyn Conundrum

Content from our partners
How automation can help insurers keep pace with customer demand
How telecoms companies can unlock their growth potential through automation
The pandemic has had a scarring effect on loneliness, but we can do better

The talk of an immediate coup must cease – but after the May elections the Labour leader must meet standards or go.

Stephen Bush talks to the Gang of Four’s Bill Rodgers: “It’s very difficult, very painful to leave.”

Roger Mosey on the Battle of the News at Tens: Tom Bradby’s “bloke in the pub” act may grate, but the challenge from ITV’s “relaunched cruiser” may be just what the BBC’s “stately galleon” needs.

Shiraz Maher: How Islamic State has become a master of playing on our fears.

Peter Wilby on the woes of the Guardian, the torment of Lord Bramall, Cecil Parkinson – and ways with snow.

The NS Interview: Leo Robson meets Michael Winterbottom, Britain’s busiest film director.

 

****

Cover story: Should Labour split?

In our cover story this week, the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock breaks his silence on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Kinnock dismisses the prospect of a split and argues that “disruptive action in the short term” would be “fruitless”. He advocates a period of grace, after which decisions will need to be made:

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.

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.

The Labour MP Frank Field argues that the party must have a new leader by 2020:

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.

Harold Wilson’s press secretary Joe Haines, who urged Labour moderates to rebel in a piece for the New Statesman earlier this month, reiterates the need for a coup:

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.

David Owen, one of the Gang of Four who left Labour to found the Social Democratic Party (SDP), explains that his hand was forced in 1981 and hopes there will be no such split in the party today:

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.

[. . . ]

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.

Roy Hattersley, the Labour peer and former deputy leader, argues that a split would be disastrous and insists “there is work to be done”:

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.

Diane Abbott dismisses both the idea of a split and those MPs who are attacking Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership:

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.

Peter Hyman, a former strategist and speechwriter for Tony Blair, writes:

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.

The constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor agrees with Hyman that the time may have come for a new party:

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.

[ . . ]

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.

Read the cover story in full, including contributions from Tim Farron, Mary Creagh, Caroline Lucas and Peter Kellner, on newstatesman.com.

 

George Eaton: The choice before Labour.

The NS political editor, George Eaton, considers the scenarios, short of an outright split (“in contrast to the regicidal Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, Labour is tolerant of floundering leaders”), most likely to unfold in the Labour Party in the next two years as the gulf between the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the Labour membership grows by the day:

As they dismiss the possibility of a split, Labour MPs are contemplating alternatives. An option that is increasingly being discussed is the one proposed three weeks ago by Joe Haines, Harold Wilson’s former press secretary, in the New Statesman. Haines called for MPs to assert their mandate from Labour’s 9.3 million voters and elect their own leader. “In the end, the parliamentary party determines its own standing orders and its own affairs,” a former shadow cabinet minister told me. “We have the ability to choose who is the leader of the opposition. It would essentially be a split between Labour members, or part of the membership, and Labour voters.”

Others predict that a mass resignation of frontbenchers, perhaps combined with a trade union revolt, could force Corbyn to stand down. Most do not expect a coup attempt this year. The likely victory of Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral election will, MPs believe, distract from parlous results elsewhere in May. After just seven months as leader, Corbyn will also be able to plead for more time. The probability of an EU referendum this year further limits MPs’ room for manoeuvre.

It is in 2017-18, if Labour’s position does not notably improve, that many believe a reckoning will come. Senior figures from all wings of the party have already fired warning shots.

 

Leading article: The Corbyn conundrum.

Echoing Neil Kinnock’s remarks, this week’s leading article argues that talk of a “coup” should be suspended until after the May elections, but thereafter Jeremy Corbyn must either meet standards or go:

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 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.

[ . . . ]

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.

 

Stephen Bush talks to the Gang of Four’s Bill Rodgers.

The editor of The Staggers, Stephen Bush, meets Bill Rodgers, one of the quartet behind the Limehouse Declaration of 1981:

The decades that have passed since the Gang of Four broke away from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party have given Bill Rodgers – now Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, after the Liverpool suburb where he grew up – a certain calmness. Conflicts with his fellow gang member David Owen, electoral disappointments and battles with the left are recalled dispassionately, 35 years on. But one moment from the past still seems very raw. Over coffee at his home in Highgate, north London, I ask him what it felt like to leave Labour.

“It’s a very demanding thing to break . . .” He has to pause to collect himself. “It’s very difficult, it’s very painful, to leave.

History will not repeat itself, Rodgers tells Bush, because Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents are not leadership material:

I wonder if he thinks that Labour’s social democrats should once again try to go it alone. “I’m sorry to see my old party the way it is,” he says. But he is sceptical of the current generation’s ability to follow the Gang of Four’s path. “What we have here is not a leadership group [on the right of the Labour Party] . . . There is no one clear leader or even a group of leaders,” he says. “There are rising stars but it takes time to see – are they going to be consistent? Are they going to take risks? Can they be attacked and abused and [do they] have the necessary ability to take it?”

Rodgers believes Labour will survive, but concedes that “it’s a more messy situation than I have ever known”.

 

BBC versus ITV: Roger Mosey on the battle of the flagship news bulletins.

In a column for this week’s issue, the former BBC executive Roger Mosey surveys the battlefield in the war of the News at Tens:

The news is the news. For some months there has been an intense battle each weekday night at ten o’clock between the main television channels for viewers and for journalistic bragging rights to their flagship bulletins – with the BBC’s stately galleon under fire from ITV’s relaunched cruiser. The declaration of war began when Tom Bradby became the presenter of a new-look ITV News at Ten, and lustily engaged in a propaganda scrap with his rival Huw Edwards. The Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, lobbed an extra cannonball at the BBC by suggesting it should move its bulletin from 10pm to allow ITV a clear run; and ITV raided the corporation’s crew, with first Robert Peston (the former BBC economics editor) and then Newsnight’s Allegra Stratton moving over to the other side.

Mosey, a veteran newsman, is not convinced by Bradby’s presenting style and considers him an unlikely challenger to Huw Edwards:

At first I rather liked its freshness, but there are only so many times you can start a programme by saying, “Imagine what it’s like to be on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean,” or whatever is the story of the day. The Bradby on-air persona can feel like the bloke who corners you in the pub and is a bit too pleased with himself.

Although he admires Laura Kuenssberg’s “bold questioning” and rapid interpretation of political events, Mosey believes she “hasn’t yet shown that she has the ability to paint the big picture that the Ten requires”. Mosey questions the BBC’s decision to go “doolally about David Bowie” while covering stories of global importance in a merely “workmanlike” and unambitious manner. Switching to the other side, he senses that Robert Peston (who has replaced Bradby as ITV’s political editor) is “a little forlorn”.

But the Battle of the News at Tens can only be good news for broadcasting, he concludes:

It is right for the commercial channel to make some noise about its journalism and not to let the corporation crowd out the rest of the market. There is no reason for the BBC to be mean-spirited about a spot of competition, and it may come to see that it’s a good thing to have a rival snapping at its heels.

 

Shiraz Maher: How Isis is playing on our fears.

The New Statesman contributing writer and radicalisation expert, Shiraz Maher, considers the latest video from Isis. In it, he argues, the group demonstrates a new mastery of manipulation-by-fear:

It was the final part of the latest Islamic State video that will have caught the attention of the Security Service. After a 15-minute film celebrating the Paris attacks in November, viewers see David Cameron giving a press conference in Downing Street with a message from Islamic State flashing across the screen. “Whoever stands in the ranks of kufr [the infidels],” it reads, “will be a target for our swords and will fall in humiliation.”

Various London landmarks – Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square – then appear in rapid succession before the video comes to an abrupt stop. A terrorism analyst sent me a message shortly after the video was released on Sunday. “I would consider it a warning,” he noted. “That wasn’t [there] because they didn’t know how to fill the last segment.” This is not the first time IS has appeared to threaten Britain, but it is the most pointed and menacing warning yet.

Maher observes that Isis has become “a master of playing on our fears – this time by suggesting the same carnage that so badly hurt the French will be visited on Britain, too”:

Such is the power of modern terrorism that the mere threat is enough to cause deep-seated anxiety. When you consider that it takes roughly as long to reach Paris from London by train as it does Manchester, the proximity of what transpired in the French capital last November suddenly feels much too close to home.

 

Plus

Laurie Penny asks if America’s liberal voters should support Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton?

Helen Lewis: Deciding which jail to send a trans prisoner to isn’t always clear-cut. And accusations of bigotry don’t help.

Doctor Who: Jonn Elledge reflects on the fury directed at the top TV writer Steven Moffat.

Letter from Lisbon: Peter Wise on cohabitation and a new ideal for the divided European left.

Books: Stuart Maconie on Owen Hatherley’s angry attack on the cult of postwar Britain in The Ministry of Nostalgia; and Tom Holland reads Battling the Gods, Tim Whitmarsh’s history of the first atheists.

On Location: Will Self’s psychogeography students run wild in London.

For more press information, please contact Anya Matthews: anya.matthews@newstatesman.co.uk / 020 7936 4029 / 07815 634 396