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22 February 2019

Why the Labour right thinks it has cause for optimism

Despite the resignation of Ian Austin, some believe the splitters have made the internal battle easier.

By Patrick Maguire

Has Ian Austin lit the fuse on a second Labour split? That’s the inevitable question posed by this morning’s resignation of the MP for Dudley North – a long-time ally of Gordon Brown and stalwart of the party’s right.

Unlike the eight Labour MPs who quit the party and defected to the Independent Group this week, Austin has consistently voted against softening or delaying Brexit, as well as having supported Theresa May’s deal. He is also defending a majority of just 22 in his Black Country constituency much smaller than that of any MP to have left thus far. 

In that respect he is broadly representative of another deeply anti-Corbyn section of the Parliamentary Labour Party: those representing Leave seats in the North of England and the Midlands. This group’s response to the rise of the left is best understood through a cliché: “Stay and fight.”

Austin has concluded that the fight has been lost. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that others like him have too. John Mann, one of the two Labour MPs to have joined Austin in voting for the withdrawal agreement, said this morning: “I have no intention of leaving Labour, and I will be the last man standing working to root out the anti-Semitism that has permeated the party.”

Mann is perhaps the only old right figure whose public attacks on the leadership have been as strident as Austin’s. That he is staying suggests that today’s resignation is unlikely to precipitate copycat departures from MPs of a similar ideological complexion anytime soon. Others on the old right caution against seeing Austin as the canary in their coalmine. “Ian is a lone ranger,” says one MP. “He is more Brownite than old right. It would be wrong to see him as part of any organised network.”

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A month before the Independent Group split, one of its founders described Austin’s seemingly contradictory decision to remain a Labour MP, while denigrating the leadership as too alien to the party’s traditions to govern, as an attempt to build a “class consciousness” within the old right. “Ian knows it’s finished, and he’s trying to convince others of that too,” they told me. He does not appear to have been successful. 

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So why haven’t others followed his lead? Some believe that this week’s split makes life easier for Corbynsceptics in the PLP, not harder. They argue that departure of the likes of Chris Leslie, who pursued what his detractors describe as a confrontational, “scorched earth” strategy of opposition to the leadership, will both free them of guilt by association and give their cause a human face. The presence of former Conservative MPs in the Independent Group is also a political gift for those who have not quit. “We can define ourselves against them, instead of just against him,” one says.

It’s for that reason that hope, rather than despondency, has been the instinctive response of some Labour MPs to this week’s events. Despite reports that “scores” could defect to the Independent Group or otherwise resign the whip should the party fail to back a second referendum, its transformation from a moral stand against Corbynism to an overtly centrist, Tory-infused political project makes it a deeply unattractive destination for Labour MPs who share their basic analysis of the party’s problems but not their ideology. But it does allow them to outsource their internal PR problems. Rather than making Labour inhospitable to Corbynsceptics, this week’s events could make it easier for some to stay.