For any Labour Kremlinologists, recent weeks have been a fantastic spectacle with factional splits becoming more marked than at any point since, arguably, the 1982 deputy leadership contest.
In that instance Tony Benn took on Denis Healey for what has come to be known as “the soul of the party.” Healey won on the slimmest of margins, following the National Union of Public Employees decision to change their block vote under pressure from stalwarts of the trade-union right.
At the same time the party’s ‘soft-left’, typified by Neil Kinnock and the Tribune Group in Parliament, began to detach themselves from Benn, recognising his campaign for party democracy at all costs would lead to electoral oblivion.
The parallels between Labour’s decision to stare into the abyss in 1982 and today are obvious, indeed many of the characters are the same. Jon Lansman, the far-left fixer who ran Benn’s abortive campaign, is the head of Momentum, Jeremy Corbyn’s praetorian guard. Neil Kinnock, meanwhile, has been touring the committee corridors and giving interviews to any outlet that will have him.
One could argue that the Benn/Healey contest was in itself an extension of the Gaitskell/Bevan and Laski/Attlee splits of the past. Why is it that Labour appears doomed to repeat its battles of the past?
In truth the division runs deeper than process or policy and reflects the very fabric of Labour itself. Does the Party exist as a grassroots democracy in which the lowliest branch feeds up the chain to Parliament in the service of members? Alternatively, does it exercise power from the top-down in consultation not only with members, but also the trade unions and socialist societies, which first formed the Labour Representation Committee?
The abstract-notion of “democracy” is increasingly important. Many members attracted to Corbyn are driven by a desire to shape Labour’s direction and demand a say in how policy is formed. Though Labour’s membership is now over 500,000 strong this is a mere fraction of the total electorate and is wholly unrepresentative. Labour’s membership is increasingly drawn from a narrow pool of London-based graduates and public sector workers. The much-fabled coalition between Hampstead and the Humber no longer holds strong, in part reflecting wider social fissures.
The historical role of the trade unions, which still make up half of the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC), has been to keep the party grounded in the realities of working class life. MPs have also played a key role. All but a handful recognise that the parliamentary path to socialism necessitated collaboration with constituents. They have largely refused to wallow in intellectual abstraction or the ideological purity of members. Under the party’s new ‘one-member-one-vote’ electoral system the respective strength of these groups has undoubtedly been weakened. Increasingly members feel that they have a right to exercise greater levels of control over their party.
Regardless of whether Jeremy Corbyn is automatically on the ballot in any future leadership competition, it will not solve the split described above. It is a paradox inherent in a party that spans socialism, labourism and social democracy while operating within a Parliamentary framework.
Furthermore, in an era when politics, like society generally, is atomised and revolves around individual whims rather than a class-based politics, it seems unlikely that an impasse will be reached in the foreseeable future.
Where then does this leave Labour?
If Corbyn does not make it onto the ballot paper the relationship between MPs and rank-and-file members could be irreparably damaged. However, if he does make it on and, as expected, sees off a challenge, the most likely outcome is a split with ‘moderate’ MPs forming a new Parliamentary unit. At a time when the Tories are uniting and eyeing up the political center-ground, either result would surely see electoral obscurity beckon.
It is a rare thing to witness the death of a political party, but many involved in Labour – from activists to MPs – fear that whether Corbyn stays or goes the end could now be in sight. Riven with division and unable to overcome the paradox at the heart of Parliamentary Socialism it is difficult to argue otherwise.