So, it’s finally, finally happened: the Labour Party has split. Now that it’s gone down, it feels inevitable – yet it really took its time in finally taking place. Anyhow, now starts the questions: will the Independent Group succeed? Will other Labour MPs follow them soon enough? Will Tory MPs quit their whip and join the Independent Group as well? Will this be like the SDP, meaning it ultimately won’t work as intended but will keep the Tories in power for a long time?
What interests me more in the immediate is how Corbyn responds to what’s happened this morning. This is because it is what Corbyn does over the next fortnight or so that will very possibly have the largest effect on whether the Independent Group succeeds as a new political force – and whether the Labour Party survives this split as an electoral force itself.
Robert Peston wrote this morning, before the event:
“The mystery is why today, rather than in a fortnight or six weeks, when perhaps the UK’s EU destiny will be a bit clearer.
“The point is that those running the People’s Vote campaign for a referendum have been desperately trying to persuade Ummuna and Leslie to delay their split – because they think if they were to leave the party now, that would entrench the reluctance of Corbyn and those close to him to back a referendum.
“As and when Umunna and co formally leave Labour, the call for a referendum will be closely associated with those who have set themselves up as the enemies of Corbyn and his socialist project. So the referendum-sceptics around Corbyn will tell him that conceding a People’s Vote would be to capitulate to those who want to destroy him.
“So the big question for Umunna and the Labour refuseniks today is whether in leaving Labour because they want a referendum they are not in practice undermining the prospect of a referendum.”
The Peston blurb above is a classic example of the way everyone has got into extremely short term thinking within the Westminster bubble; there is real tendency to think in 24-hour news cycles and nothing else. Yes, I can see what Peston is talking about emerging: the hard left and those in Corbyn’s immediate circle hardening against a another EU referendum as a result of the split. It just seems to me that this will represent Corbyn falling very neatly into a carefully laid trap set by Umunna and co.
If the Umunna/Berger bunch become the receptacle for both left-wing and centrist pro-Europeanism, then it has a real chance of success. This is a feeling that will only grow over the next few years, whatever happens in the immediate with Brexit. Corbyn setting himself in opposition to this feeling, and in fact, using the split to be more vocally pro-Brexit, would set up a very possible, very real split of the Left that could last a generation.
Corbyn’s best bet now would be to announce he fully backs the People’s Vote and that he will be laying an amendment to that effect next week. This would completely cut the legs out form under The Independent Group and their announcement today. Short term, there would be no point in Labour members or Labour MPs supporting the breakaway if Corbyn takes away the Brexit side of the equation. If Corbyn becomes more vocally Brexity, it gives The Independent Group both more reason for having to exist as well as giving succour to their claim that they had to leave because Corbyn was never going to do anything but facilitate Brexit under the Tories’ terms.
In fact, supporting a People’s Vote as quickly as possible would be such a brilliant move by Corbyn, I’m now convinced he won’t do it and will use his next speech to talk about how Brexit will mean less foreigners on the M5 and how wonderful that will be – or something equally alienating to his base.