What can Labour do if the Corbyn/Momentum project fails?

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24 November
15:45
November
2016

It depends what is meant by the Corbyn/Momentum project and what its aims are. If it is defined as an electoral project, aiming to win a majority in the House of Commons and form a government, it is going to fail – in fact, all of the short and medium-term evidence points to a spectacular failure. But I think Momentum see the project as about transforming the Labour Party into a social movement. On those terms, they may succeed.

I think Labour getting thumped in 2020 is almost a given. However, even then I can’t see Jeremy Corbyn falling on his sword and quitting voluntarily. He and his supporters have already prepared their arguments as to why the failure will be nothing to do with them: it is the MPs’ fault, it is all down to the media, etc.

The past is no infallible guide to the future, but it is worth noting that after the 1983 election defeat, under Michael Foot, it took a further two elections for the Labour Party in general – trade union leaders, and most party members – to recognise that that electoral strategy was a busted flush. It will likewise probably take Labour more than one election to recover from Corbyn.

Momentum may try to organise it that a Corbyn-like figure replaces him, but more likely Labour will do what they did in 1983, with Neil Kinnock, and elect somebody on the left but who is more open to moving to the centre. Before the early eighties it would have been remarkable for Kinnock to get anywhere near the leadership because he was so far on the left of the party. But he was a more pragmatic and flexible member of the left than was, say, Tony Benn.

“Labour might do what they did in 1983, and elect someone who's open to moving to the centre.”

Even then, we have to remember that Neil Kinnock spent from 1983 to 1992 positioning himself as a centrist Labour leader – and he still couldn’t win an election. When it came down to it, he just had too much baggage.

So for Labour now we will probably be looking at somebody like Clive Lewis or even Emily Thornberry: people who are clearly going along with things at the minute, but who may not be so implacably committed to everything that Corbyn and Momentum are signed up to. The post-Corbyn leader will probably be well to the left of where Ed Miliband was, but s/he will need to be flexible and open to positioning himself or herself much closer to where the voters actually are.

The other big question, of course, is if Labour are crushed in 2020 and Momentum remain in charge, will the party split? I don’t think it will. It would be too complicated, they would need money and media backing, which they wouldn’t have, and to whom would the new party appeal, anyway?

At that point I foresee a lot of Labour MPs looking outside of Parliament as have Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham, pursuing media careers like Ed Balls, or heading into the jungle on I’m A Celebrity, but I don’t foresee a split of any real significance. The historical lessons are simply not good. Splits in the Labour Party don’t usually succeed. In fact, they never do.

Steven Fielding discusses class and politics in a new Radio 4 documentary, Period Drama Politics

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