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A Labour split would have one chance to succeed – but succeed it could

August 25th, 2018

FPTP is not an insuperable barrier in the right conditions

Anyone remember the Pro Euro Conservatives? The Party was formed by two former Tory MEPs opposed to the direction that William Hague was taking the party on Europe. After a good deal more media interest than was due for a tiny splinter party – mainly, presumably, because it allowed a new angle on the never-ending internal Tory conflict on Europe – they polled 1.3% at the 1999 European elections, lost their deposit at the Kensington & Chelsea by-election later that year and was disbanded two years later having failed to break the mould of British politics.

The reason for this trip down a justifiably neglected memory lane is to illustrate the usual fate of splinter parties: they form, they fail, they die or merge. There are several overlapping reasons for this but we can narrow it down to money and organisation, retail offer, and voting inertia. As a rule, the new party will lack a sufficiently distinctive policy stance to attract many voters, will not have the professionalism or campaign machine to take on the established parties, and struggle to overcome the ‘wasted vote’ argument under FPTP, which then proves a self-fulfilling prophesy – and even if they can overcome all those obstacles, the electoral system still provides such a high barrier as to be almost insurmountable, as the SDP found.

Such is received wisdom, except it’s not entirely true. There are examples of parties which have made that breakthrough, either as splinters or as rivals in the same part of the political spectrum, and displaced an incumbent as one of the two main government-forming parties (and under FPTP, there will generally only be two such parties). To take a few examples:

– Most obviously, Labour replaced the Liberals in the early part of the 20th century. This was only marginally down to the expanding franchise. In normal circumstances, the Liberals would have moved left to occupy the new ground and under Lloyd George, they’d have been ideally placed in 1918 to do so. After all, the Tories weren’t harmed by the influx of new working-class voters. Instead, the split in the Liberal ranks let Labour in.
– In Scotland, the SNP barged in to create a new settlement which is still working itself out but where they are without question the major party. True, Holyrood and PR played a part in their rise but it came about all the same.
– In Canada, the Progressive Conservatives never recovered from their disastrous election of 1993 and was supplanted on the right by Reform, before the two later merged.
– In the US, the newly-formed Republicans displaced the catastrophically-split Whigs in the 1850s within five years.

These are, of course, exceptions, and all come with special circumstances though the common theme is the exceptional weakness of the party (or parties) they replaced. Indeed, the oft-cited example of the SDP is not quite so firm as is often made out and their failure was a consequence of contingencies outside their control as much as the oppressive structure they operated in. During the winter of 1981-2, they were regularly polling in the forties; polls backed up by by-election gains. Although those ratings were already slightly on the decline by the time the Falklands War broke out, had Galtieri opted not to invade, the Conservative recovery would have been much slower; had Britain lost the war, the magnitude of that shock could have made anything possible. Alternatively, had Benn defeated Healey for Labour’s deputy leadership, that could have been the trigger to prompt a new wave of defections, which might have proven the tipping point on the left (Peter Mandelson identified Healey’s win as the point at which he and others decided it was worth sticking). Whatever, the meagre Alliance total of 22 MPs in 1983 could have been many more; potentially enough to.

These sort of calculations must now be going through Labour MPs’ minds. Stephen Bush has written for the New Statesman that he believes that a split within is now inevitable. That probably puts it too strongly: the pull of party, friends and history is formidable, and events can intervene to ensure that ‘now’ is always not the right time. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that some – not many perhaps but some – MPs feel strongly alienated by the current leadership and how the party has transformed in the last three years. That they haven’t already left Labour, despite some very vocal criticism, could possibly be indicative of future combined action rather than as of an intention to stay, hunker down and fight (though Bush identifies the ongoing Brexit debate as critical).

If there is to be a split, then realistically, the new party or alliance will only get one shot at breaking through. As history demonstrates, most challenger parties fail and those that succeed tend to break through quickly. Further, the unions will almost certainly stay loyal to Corbyn’s Labour for 2022, which leaves an unresolved tension. Ideally, the social democrats would like the unions back on their side – not least because it would symbolize them as the legitimate inheritor of Labour’s traditions. To get them would have to involve defeating Corbyn at the election and turning Labour into the sort of wreck that the Liberals were after 1918.

Some may say that those thinking of splitting are so determined that for them, it’s primarily about principle and policy, and electoral success is secondary. I very much doubt that. Politicians are rarely inclined to make heavy sacrifices (in reputation as much as in money and office – Labour abhors unsolidarity, however defined by the person abhorring it), unless there is at least some prospect of return on that sacrifice. To give it all up for a gesture is surely asking too much.

Which is why if a split does come, it will need to be sudden and sizable; big enough to regain third place in parliament from the SNP, I’d have thought. Bush puts their number at about a dozen. That, frankly, is nothing like enough. There is the possibility of a drip-drip strategy but I’m sceptical: a damp squib of a launch is more likely to put off those wavering than encourage them.

To all this though we also need to add deselections and the boundary review. So far, Labour’s left has made no organized effort to secure parliamentary nominations or to deselect errant MPs. If that looks like changing, the incentive to jump before being pushed (so that the act looks like one of principle rather than sour grapes), increases dramatically – and that is something which could produce dozens rather than a handful of splitters.

Will it happen? My guess would be not without a lot more provocation. As things stand, MPs opposed to Corbyn have already endured a great deal but each new defeat has tended to be incremental rather than seismic, and that’s not an adequate trigger on which to jump from a movement in which they’ve invested a great deal of time and emotion. You might think that opposition to Brexit and support for a second referendum would provide the opportunity but apparently not: were it so, they’d have already gone – the time to apply pressure to the government is now.

One last point. It’s the Tories who might be at risk as much as Labour from an SDP2. The Con share is almost certainly propped up by a fear of what a Corbyn government might do. If the opposition is from a rather less threatening left-of-centre figure, or if the split on the left makes a Corbyn government much less likely, that could well cause a meltdown in Con support as well as Lab’s as the ties keeping May’s coalition together unravel.

David Herdson