All is not lost (yet)
Dark times rein in the Labour Party. It’s impossible to move on social media for stories of disgruntled centrists cancelling their direct debit and leaving the fold. I understand – though I disagree. Much metaphoric ink has been spilled, and clicks generated regarding the end of the party. Again, I fully understand – the empirics underlying the argument that Labour is supernaturally screwed are undeniable – but the end result is wrong. We are not in Revelations yet.
Some things need to be made clear. This is a case against abject despair – not against reality. Labour can not in any galaxy remotely close to our own win, or even meaningfully improve its position at the next election. If current trends continue, it is likely to fall substantially below the not-particularly-elevated position of 232 MPs it currently occupies. It will probably be out of power for a decade or more. Its dwindling funds are being squeezed by a particularly petty and pathetic cut in public allocations, and the similarly inclined reforms to union funding. Add in boundary reforms, votes for (largely Tory) expats and you are looking at easily beneath 200 seats and a historically low share of the vote.
So why bother?
4.5 years is the equivalent of the Mesozoic Era in politics. Current trends are unquestionably dire, yet not irremediable.
2. Leading questions
Nobody – not least Jeremy Corbyn himself – expects him to last the full five years. Even if the party is saved by GOTV efforts and low turnout in next year’s Welsh and London elections, there are still the 2017 locals and numerous opinion polls to lose, and cock-ups yet to be devised to construct. As soon as a trend kicks in, a challenge will arise.
The very troubling changes to the denominator of party membership are also not the insuperable obstacle some assume. It is not at all clear that Corbyn would be on the ballot in any event.
The party’s rule book is far from straightforward at the best of times, but its sections pertaining to leadership challenges are notoriously ambiguous. Party precedent set by the 1988 election, as well as the opinion of the party’s primary legal counsel conclude that any leadership candidate would need to solicit nominations to make it on to the ballot. Even if the party’s membership is 99% Bolshevik to 1% Menshevik, MPs remain the primary gatekeepers.
3. Pushing boundaries
Boundary reforms are far from certain of going through. The number of Tory MPs who would lose seats under the previous proposal is greater than the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority. This figure does not even include those who would find themselves with substantially more challenging electorates as a result of changes. Certain Tory MPs managed to prevent certain unattractive seat revisions from going through on the grounds of changes to seats’ geographic fabric – concerns the current commission have been instructed to disregard.
The hope of the party’s leadership is that a sufficient number of those affected will either retire, be parachuted in to available safe seats or added to the full to the seams upper house to ensure that it goes through. However, if the whips’ cigarette packet arithmetic is off by even 5 or 6 seats, reforms are dead. Tory backbenchers knew that by torpedoing Nick Clegg’s cherished Lords reform – somewhat ironically, given the recently assertive attitude towards unelected peers from the Tory benches – that they would be killing boundary reforms at the same time.
4. There is no alternative
The Lib Dems were the population of the Shetlands from losing all of their seats in May and, hashtags and fighting words aside, there is no evidence that they will mount a substantive comeback – even at the local and regional levels. UKIP’s failure to make headway and break through the electoral lock of the plurality voting system, in addition to Farage’s uncertain future, mean that it is likely to represent a lesser threat in northern marginals – and safe seats – than it did. Yes, Labour only needs to hemorrhage a few more votes to the Conservatives to render marginal seats all but a thing of the past, but this still leaves the party merely unelectable as opposed to extinct.
5. The northern lights and southern discomfort
Labour has deep-seated geographic advantages, reflecting real and longstanding social and regional cleavages in British politics. Just as the Conservatives were shielded from annihilation by their southern strongholds and the brutal mechanics of the first past the post system in 1997, Labour will struggle to fall below 150 seats. There are simply too many seats where Labour majorities are so great, that, in the absence of a viable threat from another party, or a different voting system, the party can not lose.
The final reason is, for what it’s worth, why a split would be the worst thing the party’s centrists could do. Not because it would split the progressive vote and hand the Tories victory – they’re assured of that anyway – but because it is doomed to fail. A centrist/centre-left party which is not called Labour and whose flag is not red Will.Not.Succeed.
Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light. But light is still visible; you just need to look – and work – very, very hard for it.