At lunchtime tomorrow, most Labour MPs will be sinking to a new depth of despair. The party will announce the results of a leadership challenge that was intended to either weaken or depose Jeremy Corbyn but will instead make him stronger than ever. The race has been decided by a Labour Party now 70 per cent composed of people who signed up after last year’s general election, delighted with the direction of the Corbyn project and convinced that he’s going to win. We have just witnessed something unprecedented in Western democracy: the takeover not just of a party’s leadership, but of its membership.
It’s not just that Owen Smith will be crushed tomorrow, it’s that the whole premise of his leadership bid was flawed. Just a few months ago, most Labour MPs signed a motion of no confidence against their leader and regarded his election as a freak, a historical burp from the Seventies. Now, they are coming to realise that he is the unlikely face of a very modern phenomenon where radical politics combines with digital technology to mobilise thousands of people who agree to click petitions. And even spend £3 (or, this time, £25) to join Labour, vote for Corbyn and shake things up. This army, once raised, represents a force that is very difficult for MPs to overcome.
In a rare BBC radio interview this week, Mr Corbyn said that things must be going well for Labour because he doesn’t recognise the people he sees at rallies nowadays. He wasn’t joking; for most of his political lifetime, he has been shaking fists with old friends. The hard Left spent decades scattered across Britain feuding with one another and selling (or, rather, not selling) copies of Socialist Worker outside stations. There are no more Trots now than there were then, but the digital era has allowed this happy few to join forces with thousands of “clicktivists”.
This is one of the great gifts of modern technology: the ability to turn a political party upside down without leaving your bedroom. Studies show just one in seven of Labour’s fiery new members are prepared to hit the doorsteps. Two thirds admit they put in no time campaigning in local, mayoral and devolved elections. But it’s amazing what trouble you can cause on a mobile phone nowadays. Before Andrew Feldman quit as Tory chairman, he told me he’d found that the most effective way of mobilising voters – other than doorstep visits – was persuading people to share Tory messages on Facebook.
In this way, the exigencies of the digital age have created a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Corbynites. Some 400,000 have signed up to Labour, in one way or another, since the general election. A YouGov poll of these members found a gulf between their views. The new ones loathe Trident, America and military action. They admire the SNP and the Greens (a party from whom many Corbyn-era members have defected). They think Ed Miliband lost last year because he was not Left-wing enough. The old Labour members tend to oppose all such views, as do most Labour MPs.
If the Labour MPs could run off with the old Labour Party members they’d be fine. This option is discussed. It happened in 1981 when Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers left Labour to create the Social Democratic Party. But these were well-known and substantial figures; a former home secretary, education secretary and foreign secretary whose personal brands embodied the values of a new party. Who does Labour have to do this now? The likes of Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt are ambitious, but not delusionally vain. To have another Gang of Four, you need a four.
The Labour frontbenchers who resigned en masse following the Brexit vote thought they were making a break for freedom. Now they themselves are trapped in a political equivalent of a Sartre play, an electoral hell with no exit. No tactical options are now open to them, but they face plenty of tactical threats. The emboldened Corbynistas can be expected to start a purge of their enemies, which should be easy when so many Labour MPs are having their constituencies redrawn and face reselection battles. Momentum, the hard-Left militia behind Corbyn, can be expected to fight for every seat.
To many MPs, Mr Corbyn’s offer to “wipe the slate clean” after tomorrow’s election result sounds more like a Mafioso threat than a peace offering. Already, Labour’s civil war has moved the jungle of the party’s rules and committee procedures. On Tuesday, Labour’s 33-member National Executive Committee spent eight hours fighting over whether to appoint Scottish and Welsh representatives. It sounds self-indulgent, until you remember that the power balance on the NEC will decide Labour’s future (or lack thereof).
The Labour moderates now have only one option left. They shouldn’t do any more plotting, something they were never any good at. Nor should they set up a splinter party, and abandon the ship to the pirates. They need to stay, if they’re spared, and work out: what do they stand for? What’s the moral case against Jeremy Corbyn, and how to convince people of it? If the far-Left can persuade new people to join the Labour Party, moderates can too – but first they need a cause in which to enlist people. To work out where the Labour Party should fit in following the most extraordinary British political drama for 75 years.
Things look rather bleak for Labour now, but British politics tends not to stand still for long. There are several scenarios for recovery. Imagine, for example, that David Cameron’s progressive Conservatism project, which robbed Labour of a plausible agenda, is abandoned by Theresa May – not because it didn’t work, but because it was his rather than hers. When Cameron occupied so much of the middle ground, Labour was forced to extremes. But if the Tories now edge back towards their comfort zone, abandoning their one nation agenda, Labour moderates would have an obvious opening.
Ever since Mr Corbyn’s first victory, Labour MPs have been walking about in disbelief – obsessing about what trick, or what candidate, might dislodge him. They should have started with a more basic question: why oppose him? Why should people join Labour to back their side of the argument? It’s a tougher question, and one that requires great thought. Their only consolation is that they will, now, have plenty of time to do the thinking.