With Labour MPs voting 172-40 for a motion of no confidence in Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and Corbyn resolutely staying put, citing his solid majority when he was elected leader by Labour party members, we have a stand-off between the leader and the party’s MPs when unity is needed to form an effective opposition and to fight the next general election properly.
On one side we have the bulk of Labour MPs who say they’ve lost confidence in Corbyn, accusing him of a lack of leadership, and who are afraid Labour will lose the next general election with Corbyn at the helm.
On the other side we have Corbyn and his supporters claiming that he has the backing of the party’s membership, that it would be a betrayal of the members for him to step down and that his opponents within the Parliamentary Labour Party have organised an unconstitutional coup against him.
This conflict can only be resolved if one side concedes defeat to the other, and the longer it continues the less impressed voters are likely to be with the party. How might a stable resolution of this conflict come about? I see only the following possibilities for a stable solution:
- Corbyn resigns, opening up a new leadership contest. For this to happen, Corbyn and his supporters would need to be convinced that he would lose if he were to contest a leadership election should one be forced on him. In this context, this means that there would need to be solid evidence presented that the party membership has deserted him. How that evidence would be gathered without a leadership election is unclear.
- Corbyn contests a leadership election and is reelected with a solid majority, ideally (for Corbyn’s side) with an increased majority of the party’s members. Those seeking to oust Corbyn would then have to concede defeat at least until the next election. It would however make for a difficult period for the party, as it would open the party up to attacks from the media and the government based on the fact that the bulk of the PLP have expressed no confidence in Corbyn.
- Corbyn contests a leadership election and is comprehensively defeated. This would allow the party to unite behind a new leader and put the Corbyn era behind it. But if Corbyn is correct about his support amongst the members how likely is it this will happen?
- The PLP decide not to mount a challenge to Corbyn’s leadership after all and to back down and see how he does at the next election. This will leave those MPs looking foolish and weak. Corbyn’s position in the party would be stronger, but he wouldn’t have an effective parliamentary team – who’d take them seriously?
Only possibilities 1 and 3 would really minimise damage to the party. 2 would at least make it clear Corbyn has the confidence of the party at large, but would leave the parliamentary party with a bit of a credibility problem or alternatively might see the party split in two. 4 would be leave the parliamentary party looking like a complete joke.
Any outcome that doesn’t comprehensively resolve the issue would mean the battles will rumble on.
This conflict thus risks the party splitting as it did in the 1980s or otherwise being seriously damaged, but with greater peril since this time round Labour’s already lost Scotland and has UKIP breathing down its neck in both England and Wales. If there is a leadership challenge and a resulting election fails to produce a decisive majority either way, that could actually make things worse.
I conclude therefore that it is not looking good either for Labour or for Corbyn.