Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday 13 December 2015

How the Labour party will now be slowly destroyed by our electoral system

Here we go again. Mark banging on about electoral reform.

Well guilty as charged. However I really do feel it is going to play a substantial, probably pivotal role in the evolving disintegration of the Labour Party.

Before I lay out my thesis I should make it clear that despite my obvious opposition to New Labour's more authoritarian aspects and also to the sheer opportunism of the party in opposition between 2010 and 2015 I certainly do not wish to see its demise as a serious political force. Most of my family were Labour supporters when I was growing up. I was delighted with Blair's victory in 1997 and indeed enthusiastically voted for the party in both 1997 and 2001. If I was going to have to choose between 20 years of hegemony from Labour or the Tories I would choose Labour. They are closer to my own political philosophy than the Conservative Party for sure.

But it is becoming increasingly obvious to me that the Labour Party as it is currently constituted will not be here within a decade or two. We have seen a confluence of factors that now militate against its long term survival.

Firstly the membership has changed beyond all recognition from even 6 months ago, let alone 6 years ago. The extraordinary rise of Jeremy Corbyn who only squeaked into the ballot due to acts of charity by several Labour MPs who would never have dreamed he could win and certainly would never have done so had they realised this has triggered an influx of hundreds of thousands of new members, both full and "supporter" level, but all of whom have a vote in leadership elections. Many of these new members are what we used to refer to as "hard left" or even if they don't recognise themselves as such are certainly fellow travellers with much of what the hard left stands for.

Secondly Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and their acolytes now have their hands firmly on the levers of power within the party. And despite their denials it is becoming increasingly obvious that the Momentum group set up to support Corbyn's aims is organising at a grassroots level and will eventually either through confrontation or attrition start to replace more moderate Labour MPs with candidates who are "one of them" to adapt one of Thatcher's most famous phrases.

Thirdly, the mere fact that Corbyn is the leader and groups like Momentum are now so active is leading to more and more people who were previously members of Trotskyist groups and other parties like the SWP etc. joining or in some cases re-joining the Labour Party. They feel like they have got their party back and are swelling the numbers.

A combination of these factors make it almost impossible for Corbyn to be dislodged. He won in the first round with 59.5% of the vote. This is a crushing victory. Burnham only managed 20%. And by way of comparison Blair only got 57% when he stood and won in 1994. Corbyn is master of all he surveys within the party. And the fact that if anything the membership now compared to a few months ago is likely to be even more Corbynite makes it even more difficult to imagine him being successfully challenged.

It is worth bearing in mind as well that if Corbyn is challenged, then according to the Labour Party rules he is on the ballot by default. This means he would no longer need the nominations of 35 Labour MPs to be a candidate in any future election.

The only way I can see the hard left cabal being ousted in the forseeable future would be if Corbyn himself decided to stand down. I wouldn't completely rule this out. It is possible that over the course of the coming months and perhaps couple of years he gets so worn down by the constant attacks from both inside and outside his party and from the media that he eventually chooses to throw in the towel. I have to say though that at the moment this seems pretty unlikely. He appears to be enjoying the job more and more and I doubt he will eschew the chance to remake the party in his own image.

And even if Corbyn did stand down I am certain another left winger, probably McDonnell or someone similar would stand for the leadership. And although the 35 MP threshold would kick in, given how hugely the membership has changed this year I would imagine there would be huge pressure on MPs to at least allow a left winger onto the ballot (who would then of course win). If MPs prevented this I would predict out and out civil war between the membership and the PLP with dozens of deselections happening in short order. Momentum might be largely keeping their powder dry for now but they would definitely not stand for that and they know they have the power to hold the MPs to ransom.

Perhaps the most important question arising from all of this though is why is it happening at all? How can we have a membership of a party that is so at odds with the vast majority of its own MPs? Why is someone like Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell even in the same party as say Peter Mandelson or Tristram Hunt or Liz Kendall? It doesn't really make much sense. Those people should really be in a completely different party to each other. Their aims and political anchors are in completely different places.

It's because of the electoral system stupid.

Of course in an ideal world Corbyn and Kendall would be in totally different parties. It was clear during the leadership campaign that they agreed on very little substantively. The problem is that if the hard left or the moderates wanted to split off and form another party the electoral system would punish both sides for doing this. In safe Labour seats where the Tory vote is very weak the left would probably be OK and the Labour Party and Splitters Party could fight each other for those constituencies. But in the vast swathe of marginals and semi-marginals against the Tories or other seats where e.g. UKIP or the Greens or the Lib Dems can run a united Labour Party close a split Labour Party would be a disaster for the left. In dozens, perhaps well over a hundred seats we would see the Tories primarily and perhaps other parties more marginally reap the rewards. Not because these other parties have necessarily done anything to deserve winning these seats but because Labour had split and First Past the Post awards seats to the largest plurality. In simple terms if Labour hold a seat with 50% of the vote where the Tories last time got 30% and Labour splits into two parties where each split party gets 25% of the vote the Tories win even if they still only get 30%.

Of course Labour knows all of this. If they have any doubt they just need to look to recent history and see what happened when Labour split during the 1980s when the Gang of Four formed the SDP. In the following two general elections both Labour and the SDP were hugely punished for being separate parties and the result was 16 more years of Tory government.

If we had a different electoral system based on some form of proportionality a decision to split would be much easier as even if the vote split down the middle (or more likely say the hard left got 10% of the vote and the moderates got 20% or 25% of the vote) then they would get seats allocated in roughly those proportions. And then following an election it's possible that those parties, perhaps in conjunction with others could form a government. But their respective electoral strengths would be clear and the coalition would be formed after an election rather than being forced to cram a load of people who loath and barely even understand each other's politics into the same party before an election.

But we don't have a system like this. And this is why by far and away the most likely scenario is that the Labour Party does not split and instead remains one single party. And slowly but surely that one single party is in the process of destroying itself. The constant off (and increasingly on) the record briefings against each other, the incredulity of many Labour MPs at the behaviour of the leadership (just look at the video of Tom Watson's face when McDonnell recently pulled out Mao's Little Red Book at the despatch box for this in microcosm), the grassroots organising to punish MPs who deviate from the Corbynite line. And eventually, inevitably the proof that Corbyn is unelectable in 2020. But even when this happens that won't stop the hard left. They simply will never accept that their programme is unpopular. They will blame anything but themselves and will instead carry on with their purity drive.

They will eventually after years of this be a hollowed out force with MPs fallen by the wayside replaced with true believers.

This could have been avoided or at least mitigated if the party had been able to separate into the more natural political groupings that common sense would dictate. But that can't happen. Our electoral system simply will not allow it.

It would be easy for someone like me who has campaigned for electoral reform for a long time often in the teeth of opposition from dinosaurs on the Labour benches to find this highly amusing. It is only 4 years since we had the chance to make a change to AV that could have helped facilitate a much better situation for the current Labour Party. But many within Labour fought tooth and nail to prevent this relatively minor but important progressive change to our system and they won. So they will now reap what they sowed.

But I do not find this situation amusing. It is deadly serious. Because the consequence will be probably 20 years at least of Tory governments. A Tory party who knew very well what they were doing when they blocked any chance of a proportional system during the 2010 Lib Dem coalition negotiations and a Tory party who pulled out all the stops (in alliance with those Labour dinosaurs) to prevent AV in 2011.

I suspect eventually Labour will come to see how they have shafted themselves in the long term through their refusal to countenance a more progressive electoral system.

But it will be too late by then. They won't have enough MPs to make any difference any more.

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