‘A split party will be doomed to defeat,’ says Len McCluskey, with a hint of threat. The left of Labour are sabre rattling behind the scenes and starting to go public; talk of them actually leaving the party is becoming louder. They are annoyed at Jeremy Corbyn’s ongoing suspension more than anything, but there are other gripes. They are irritated at Keir Starmer avoiding the culture wars as much as he can instead of taking their side without question. They are angered by the fact that Biden’s victory has robbed them of the ‘centrists can’t win’ narrative they were hoping to promote. But if the Labour party does split as a result, it could prove to be a blessing rather than a curse for Starmer in his bid to become prime minister.
Of course, there are downsides to a split. Starmer would lose MPs; considering parliament is hardly packed with Labour members, this would be a notable drawback in the short term. He would also lose a lot of young activists, who are crucial for banging on people’s doors come election time. And his party would take a financial hit if big backers like Unite take their cash elsewhere and sponsor whatever the new leftist party might be. Yet the upsides of a split are far, far greater for Starmer.
The biggest would be that it would put clear blue water between the Labour party he wants to lead and Corbyn’s party, the one so thoroughly rejected by the electorate last December. Sacking Rebecca Long-Bailey and suspending Corbyn have proved popular with target voters, but an actual split would be something of a different magnitude. If Corbyn and his followers felt so disgusted by the new direction Starmer had taken the party that they needed to leave, this would affirm the ‘under new management’ message in a way nothing else ever possibly could. Any Tory scare stories about the left having undue influence in a Labour government would become immediately null and void. People’s fears about Labour taxing everyone to death or being weak on national defence would vanish in an instant.
Many of the young people who leave Starmer’s party would also come back, in time. When the new leftist entity inevitably goes the way of Change UK and crashes and burns at the ballot box, it would become clear the choice at an election is between Starmer and the Tories. Would youngsters really continue to support a party that stood no chance of ousting Boris Johnson? It’s unlikely.
Funding-wise, the loss of union money could easily be made up from private donors, not just the Labour donors who fled during the Corbyn era, many of whom have returned already, but also those who backed the Lib Dems to the hilt last time because of Brexit.
In all the negative press Blair has got over the last decade, it is easy to forget how electorally successful Labour can be when it has the right leader and the right message. Some people insist Labour can never win an outright majority unless it gets Scotland back. Yet in 1997, Labour could have formed a majority similar to the one currently enjoyed by the Tories with the seats they had won in England and Wales alone. Yes, ’97 is a massive bar to clear. But if the Labour party ditches the foolish ideas and comes to its senses, there is no reason why this thumping victory couldn’t happen again.
If the left does leave the fold, Starmer would be wise to follow the example of Joe Biden in the wake of Trump’s reaction to losing the presidential election; don’t engage, just get on with the job. Starmer should ignore the left leaving as much as possible if it takes place, barely giving it a shrug. Let people know quietly, ‘good riddance, now we can get on with the task ahead’, all while taking advantage of the element of positive publicity the split would generate.
As for what the left of Labour would do after they split, well, if you thought Change UK was a hilarious car crash, grab some popcorn. Life in a fledgling party is not easy – a merger could prove tempting, in time. But don’t expect the Greens and the Lib Dems to come running; the SWP would be a more likely candidate. And it’s hard to see how this would prove to be a tempting proposition for enough of the electorate to become successful.
In other words, it will go nowhere fast. Ironically enough, the one lasting legacy such a split would have would be to allow Starmer to ditch the baggage and possibly win the next election. They will have enabled another Labour government in a way none of them could ever have imagined, or wanted for that matter. Here’s hoping the split happens. God knows, 2020 could use something to cheer us all up a bit.
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