It was Eleanor S. Roosevelt that once said “Divide and conquer! We must not let that happen here.” Labour, in these damaging times, would do well to apply the former First Lady’s words to their own problems.
Whilst painful to frame Labour today as a battleground, it is hard to view it as anything but. The upcoming leadership election can be termed further than Jeremy Corbyn vs. Owen Smith. It is a conflict between over 80% of the PLP who do not have confidence in Corbyn and, if current polls are to be believed, the majority of members who intend to re-elect him as leader. An unreconciled divide between a membership base of about half a million and its parliamentary representatives potentially gives rise to the threat of a split, an outcome no Labour supporter of lucid thought should consider attractive, regardless of the extent to which they dislike the opposing side.
Indeed, no-one should be savouring this upcoming election. It is a product of a protracted attempt at a coup that, like the one in Turkey, was staged by a minority and tried and failed to remove a divisive leader, resulting in a huge outpouring of support from his followers and a threat of backlash to those that staged it. The failed coup both enraged large swathes of Labour’s members and frustrated MPs who have complained despairingly of incompetence from Corbyn’s office in their numbers (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/18/jeremy-corbyn-hired-and-fired-me-while-i-was-being-treated-for-c/). Indeed, it has just emerged that over 500 organisations used the 120,000 strong “free labour” workforce created by punitive Conservative welfare policy (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/benefits-department-for-work-and-pensions-mandatory-work-activity-government-major-companies-free-a7163646.html), an obvious point of attack that could be effective if delivered by a competent, united opposition. As long as Labour stays in this mess, the Tories are sure to be let off the hook for stories such as this.
A process of reconciliation is certainly more feasible should Smith somehow win the leadership election. His willingness to offer Corbyn some sort of presidential position could do well to ease leftward pressures in the immediate aftermath of a victory, although questions must be raised over how this would play with the wider electorate. Indeed, given the anecdotal evidence that many of the new, largely pro-Corbyn membership rarely engage with constituency politics anyway (http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/whats-happened-to-all-the-new-labour-party-members-corbyn) the loss of so-called “Corbynistas” won’t have a particularly adverse effect on the day-to-day running of the party. Despite there being those who view Smith as a Blairite stooge, citing his job at Pfizer as evidence of his incompatibility with the new era on the left, he could certainly reconcile all sides of a party whose struggles have laid cremation to the idea of a broad church.
However, should Corbyn win as expected, proceedings are complicated to epic proportions. His task of carrying on as normal as Leader of the Opposition seems impossible given the PLP has made it clear they do not see him as fit for the task. Attacks on Conservative policies do not carry the same weight if the person delivering them only has the official support of a rump smaller than that of the SNP. If there is a reduced majority amongst members for Corbyn in the leadership election then more challenges are inevitable, another factor complicating his already apoplectically difficult job as time goes on. At the time of writing, only 18% of the public thinks Corbyn would make a better PM than May (https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/07/26/voting-intention-conservative-lead-increases-twelv/), a figure that will remain anchored to the floor as long as Labour exists in this inwardly obsessed paradigm.
What is clear in all of this is that there is going to have to be a peace offering. Whoever wins the election in September must make the effort to offer up some sort of olive branch to those that oppose him, if only to heal divisions in the short-term. Threats of deselection are a prime example of internal rife perpetuating Labour’s status as a wounded, hapless entity to the electorate and must stop if the party wants to start appealing to voters. As long as Corbyn is in charge, with polls indicating unwavering support from the party’s base, the PLP must face their fears and live with the leader. Most MPs believe electoral oblivion is inevitable if things stay the same. However, if a vote of no confidence, mass resignations and a leadership challenge all fail, there is little else that can be done- living with the schism is the only thing they can do to try and stem the losses of the next election.
Eleanor S. Roosevelt was outspoken in her support for the unity of all peoples. Her husband Franklin was too, in saying: “If civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships, the ability of all peoples of all kins to live together and to work together in the same world at peace.”
Labour could do worse than to listen to these words in deciding its own fate.