It’s funny how politics works. This time last year, the talk was of whether Labour moderates should leave their party and join with the Lib Dems after some of them had already taken the plunge. Labour’s hard-left was unassailably in charge of the party and it seemed there was no way they could be defeated from within. If you wanted a more reasonable form of centre-left politics, it was becoming a truism that you had to leave. Now, the situation has become perfectly reversed. In the wake of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s sacking from the shadow cabinet, the question is whether it is Labour’s hard-left whose cause is hopeless and if they should depart from Labour’s ranks, as Starmer seems keen on expanding Labour’s appeal.
What would the Labour left’s options be if they were serious about a split? They could start something completely new. This brings visions of Change UK instantly to mind, which can’t be comforting for them. If a few of the big unions broke off from the Labour party and affiliated themselves to this new entity, it could avoid being a total disaster. But it’s a big risk.
They could join up with an already existing far-left party, but given they are all pretty tiny, it is difficult to see what advantages this has over just starting fresh with a clean skin. Now we come to the elephant in the room: they could all join the Lib Dems. Before you start laughing, let’s talk about the advantages this would have for the Labour left. It does have a nationwide infrastructure that is way beyond what any party outside the big two can offer. Layla Moran, the presumptive heir to the Lib Dem throne, has intimated she wants to move the party to the left and appeal to Corbynites. Perhaps this could be a match made in heaven?
Except, many of those on the far-left detest the Lib Dems and will never forgive them for forging a coalition alliance with the Tories. There is also the Chuka Umunna problem to consider; one assumed that when the Labour and Tory MPs joined the Lib Dems last year, they would bring some of their organisational nous to the fold. Unfortunately, as the 2019 general election campaign beautifully demonstrated, there is only so much Lib Deminess anyone can remove from the Liberal Democrats, no matter how hard you try. Long-Bailey only has to imagine the misery of standing beneath that yellow bird she long detested after the Lib Dems she joined are wiped out completely, all as Starmer rejoices in his parliamentary majority, to decide this option is off the table.
Beyond what the Labour left’s options are, there are two main questions to consider: how badly would a split hurt Keir Starmer’s quest for No. 10? And how likely is a split, really? I don’t think the Labour left leaving would hurt Starmer very much at all and, in fact, could actually help him. The left exit would allow Starmer to draw a line under the Corbyn era in a way that nothing else could. It would allow him to paint Labour as the reasonable choice between far-left mayhem and Boris Johnson to an extent that hundreds of party political broadcasts could never get across.
This is part of the reason that I don’t think it will actually happen. The Labour left already watched the Change UK-Lib Dem car crash of 2019 and even they must have learned a lesson from it all. Handing the party back to the moderates for good by stomping off will almost certainly not work out for them. Much better to stick around and cause problems for Starmer from within the Labour fold. Have the leftist members of the shadow cabinet keep doing daft things, daring Starmer to sack them. Continue saying silly things at every available juncture. All in the expectation that Starmer loses the next election and then the left can take over once again and this time around, make sure they don’t allow it all to slip out of their grasp.
Waiting to inherit the Labour party again is the big prize and it seems likely they’ll stick around and hope it happens. This is bad news for anyone who would love to revel in the fun and games another failed split would entail. I don’t think 2020 is going to feature any bus designs based on barcodes, unfortunately.