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29 June 2016

Something has to give in Labour’s struggle for power. But what?

It's difficult to see an end to the party's woes. 

By Stephen Bush

Pat Glass has resigned her post as shadow education secretary, just two days after being appointed to fill the post following the resignation of Lucy Powell.  What’s going on?

Glass was a surprise appointment by Jeremy Corbyn to fill the post of shadow Europe minister following the sacking of Pat McFadden in his last reshuffle, but quickly impressed both the European parliamentary party and the Remain campaign. MEPs went from briefing that they’d had to Google her following her appointment to singing her praises.

Glass had a bruising referendum campaign, receiving serious death threats and had already told friends she would be quitting at the next election, and agonised over whether to take the position of shadow education secretary, her dream post and one that ideally suited her long pre-politics career in education and family services. Glass was firmly in the “make it work” caucus of Labour MPs, who, even as resignations were taking place on Monday, hoped that they could steady the ship.

But Glass is one of a number of MPs, including several still on the frontbench, who feel that the poisonous mood that has spread through the party makes the status quo untenable.

What’s not clear is where the party goes from here. Support for Corbyn remains strong in the membership, not least because the grassroots fears that his resignation would herald a swing to the right as far as immigration and the free movement of people are concerned. Talk of there being a candidate in the parliamentary party who the loyalists “fear” is wide of the mark – if Corbyn is on the ballot, he will win and win handily.

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The difficulty then is what type of parliamentary opposition he could form. Deselection of the rebels is, as one loyalist reflected, a “2020 solution to a 2016 problem”.

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My information is still that the party’s official legal advice says that Corbyn would have to collect 50 nominations from the parliamentary Labour party and the European party.

Ultimately, though, what matters is not the legal advice but the decision of the NEC. Both rebels and loyalists believe they have the numbers but the margins of error are high. (Without wishing to traduce NEC members, the urge to say the right thing to both sides and then work out what way the wind is blowing in the room is understandably strong at this point.)

Frankly, I doubt even all of the 40 MPs who voted against the no confidence motion would sign his papers, as some did so in an attempt to avert what one dubbed the “no-win scenario” the party is now in. Even if they did, he would struggle to secure the extra signatures from Labour’s members of the European Parliament. But a palace coup will have reverberations that will go on for some time.

In either case, a split looks more and more likely. Labour has exhausted the essential component for a social democratic and a socialist party forced to cohabit thanks to first past the post: goodwill, although senior figures on the loyalist side hope that a handover to John McDonnell might yet bind up the party’s wounds, while a few optimistic rebels believe that Corbyn might yet stand down and give a fresh contest his blessing.

As I wrote yesterday, the row remains a struggle between two of Labour’s iron laws – the party never gets rid of its leader, and Tom Watson always wins. A physics experiment of sorts. The problem with those is that they tend to end with explosions.