It somehow seems to have become the conventional wisdom over the last couple of weeks that there will be no breakaway from Labour if Jeremy Corbyn becomes the leader. But then it was the conventional wisdom not so long ago that Corbyn was just making up the numbers in the leadership contest, and was doomed to finish fourth. So conventional wisdom has its limitations. When Tony Blair claimed that he would never walk away and that he was Labour through and through, some people with long memories were probably recalling Shirley Williams saying much the same thing in 1980, just months before she left Labour to found the SDP.
I'm a bit young to remember the SDP split, but judging from what I've read, there were three broad reasons why the Gang of Three (which became the Gang of Four after they joined up with Roy Jenkins) quickly changed their minds and decided their position within Labour was untenable. The first was the introduction of the electoral college, giving 40% of the vote in leadership elections to the trade unions. The second was Labour's drift towards supporting withdrawal from Europe without a referendum. And the third was the return of a full-blooded commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament. (The latter reason was ironic because the new party immediately went into an electoral pact with the Liberals, who were scarcely any more keen on nuclear weapons than Labour left-wingers.)
Although some Blairites are hopping mad about the way in which the new leadership election system has worked in Corbyn's favour, it's going to be a tad difficult for them to use the democratic outrage of a one person, one vote system as a pretext to leave. And Corbyn has also neutralised the European issue by clarifying that he will campaign for a Yes vote at the forthcoming referendum (albeit perhaps with considerable reservations). But as on so many previous occasions in Labour's history, that still leaves unilateralism as an intractable problem. Although Corbyn has shown himself to be collegiate, it's surely inconceivable that any party he leads will not have the abolition of Trident and withdrawal from NATO as official policy. And it's surely equally inconceivable that "mainstream" MPs, who make up the bulk of the parliamentary party, will be able to live with that - even for the two or three years they might think would be sufficient to give Corbyn "enough rope to hang himself". So something will have to give.
I'm wondering if Blairites and other right-wingers may attempt a variant of the ruthless tactic that the Orange Bookers successfully used to displace Charles Kennedy as Liberal Democrat leader in early 2006, when they toured the TV studios making clear that they would refuse to serve until Kennedy stepped down. In a stroke of genius, Kennedy agreed to their terms - but then added that he would be standing again in the subsequent leadership election. Everyone knew he would win, and that any attempts by the Orange Bookers to use his alcohol problem against him would be counter-productive. So they then started touring the studios all over again, this time outrageously insisting that nothing less than a commitment from Kennedy not to put himself forward as a candidate would be sufficient for them. He could still have faced them down, but at that point his unselfish nature took over, and he fell on his sword in the interests of party unity.
To have any chance of displacing Corbyn, I don't think it will be sufficient for the right-wingers to refuse to serve - he'll be able to put together some sort of Shadow Cabinet. The threat might have to be that a new party will be set up unless Corbyn steps down. Unlike the SDP, the threatened split would have to be big enough in scale that what remained of Labour would no longer look credible as the principal opposition to the Tories. That's a tall order, but if the right-wingers did put up a united front it's fascinating to ponder what Corbyn's response would be. He's every bit as much an honourable party man as Kennedy was, but he might have very different ideas about what the most honourable course of action would look like.
If he did stand his ground and a formal split occurred, it would be an unmitigated calamity for Scottish Labour. The Holyrood group would probably fragment, and if by any chance the new party was numerically stronger than official Labour, the SNP would no longer face a serious opposition. It wouldn't matter whether the London media recognised an Alan Johnson-led Progressive Party (or whatever) as the true opposition. There is one reason, and one reason alone, why Labour attract considerable support in Scotland, even after their recent collapse - it's the connection to the past associated with the Labour brand. Stephen Daisley's granddad and all that sort of thing. Strip that away, and Kezia Dugdale might find herself leading a party that gets 10% of the vote next year, not 25% or 30%.
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Labour activist and blogger Luke Akehurst finally lost all dignity when he wrote this on LabourList yesterday -
"Some of us, including me, had grown complacent and soft in our assessment of the Hard Left, and advocated Corbyn being helped onto the ballot because we had come to see them as an eccentric minority to be tolerated rather than an existential threat to Labour’s electability...
We now have the ludicrous and perverse situation where a newly signed up member or supporter has the same say in picking Labour’s leader as an MP who has served for 30 years."
So in the space of a couple of months, Luke has gone from saying 'I want Corbyn on the ballot paper because I know my arguments are superior to his, and he should be defeated in a fair and open contest', to saying 'actually, he can't be beaten in a fair and open contest, so it would have been better if we'd kept him off the ballot paper, or ensured that each right-wing MP has several hundred times as much voting power as a recently signed-up left-wing member'.
This is what the self-styled Labour 'modernisers' have been reduced to after all these decades of noble struggle against the union bloc vote - they're now arguing, without any intentional sense of irony, that democracy is the problem.