Since Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful Labour leadership election, MPs to his right spent a lot of time claiming that with Corbyn at the helm, electoral victory was nigh on impossible. Of course, the 2017 election shows the increasing probability of a Corbyn-led government. Election analysis from the New Statesman published shortly after the surprise result showed that Labour needs to win 34 seats, a swing of 1.63 per cent. Even while suffering an election defeat under Ed Miliband, the party still increased its vote share. Although no-one can say for certain that Labour will be at the head of a new government, the next election, whether it is in two years or five, is fast becoming Labour’s to lose. This is especially given the current outlook for the economy. Growth and wages have been revised down, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that the country will go two decades without growth in pay.
With Labour now presenting itself as a government in waiting, many across the party – especially those that may remain critical of Corbyn – need to change the way that they think. The question can no longer be “how will we win an election?” since Labour would need to suffer through one of the worst performances in its history to not walk away from the next election as the largest party. Instead, the question that needs to be asked is: “how will we govern?”
It would hardly be ground-breaking to note that the last two years have highlighted some of Labour’s internal divisions. In fact, in spite of a successful election campaign, there are many issues on which the party remains divided. Chief among them is Brexit, an issue that won’t be going away, even after we leave the EU. These divisions have been resurfacing as the Brexit process rumbles on, and legislation is debated, from the EU Withdrawal Bill to a recent amendment about the customs union tabled by ardent Remainer and Corbynsceptic MP Ian Murray, Labour are far from through with their internal disagreements; disagreements that would no doubt be amplified as the party moved into government.
While internal divisions are nothing new in governing parties, from the Conservatives’ current civil war over Europe, to Labour’s TB-GBs a decade ago, internal squabbling has never outright stopped a party from carrying on the business of government. But when a coalition governs, it isn’t just internal factions that are at war.
The 2010 Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government perfectly illustrates the issues. While the parties did share some common interests, largely around socially liberal policies, their divisions ran much deeper. After being punished for collaborating with the Tories, the Lib Dems ruled out coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives during the 2017 election.
What happens if Labour are the largest party, but have to govern either as a minority, or in coalition? This is what Corbynsceptic MPs should be asking. While the phrase “coalition of chaos” seemed to lose all meaning during the election campaign, the fact remains that some of the big ticket items in Labour’s 2017 manifesto would be difficult, if not impossible, to sell to any of the other parties. In Scotland, the continuation of the independence question makes the idea of a coalition with the Scottish National Party hard for many in the Labour party to stomach. Then there’s the fact that, while the SNP-led Scottish government is finally expected to raise income taxes, it has shown extreme caution in the face of Labour pressure.
George Eaton’s analysis for the New Statesman, cited above, argues that “a potential majority coalition of socialists, liberal Remainers, and conservative interventionists is emerging”. The question that no-one is asking, and that needs an answer with increasing urgency, is how such a coalition would be able to govern effectively, if at all.