Scarborough, 1960, and a conference vote, against the leader’s wishes, has committed Labour to a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament. Defiant, the party leader, Hugh Gaitskell, declares that he will ‘fight and fight and fight again to save the party we love.’
Gaitskell’s biographer describes Labour’s deep division in 1960 thus,
“It was a conflict about the party’s character; whether it was to be a protest movement or a prospective government. For one wing, it was about control from below by the dedicated activists. For the other wing, the party must seek political power to put principles into practice.”
You don’t need to alter one word to describe Labour’s travails in 2016.
The commitment to unilateralism was overturned in due course. It came to be seen as a Cold War spasm. The party moved on.
Except for Jeremy Corbyn – only a lad at the time – who on Monday demonstrated that he was still in lock-step with the CND politics of 1960.
In 1960, a moderate leadership had to fight back against an ideological hard left. This time, the problem is bigger. The moderates have lost the leadership. Control has swung to the puritans, backed by newly enfranchised party members, and sustained by a handful of hard left union executives. The bulk of the Parliamentary party has been cut adrift from the party’s base.
The contest between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith will be the playing out of Labour’s culture wars.
– It’s the liberal-minded internationalists versus the anti-Western – and especially anti-American – unilateralists.
– It’s the consensus builders, aiming to win elections, versus the cause crusaders, measuring efficacy by banner size.
– It’s the pragmatists versus the puritans.
Corbyn clearly aligns with the latter in each category. That’s where he has always been, as Monday’s Trident vote reminded us. His odyssey has been an unwavering path through Militant, Stop the War, and now Momentum. He’s an extra-parliamentary protagonist.
This is why the vast majority of Labour MPs have not taken long to come to the conclusion that he is incapable of leading – as they see leadership.
But Corbyn’s coalition is dominant through the party’s structure. To many of his supporters, the attempt by MPs to unseat him only further confirms their belief in him. To them, it’s proof of an irredeemably corrupted establishment.
Owen Smith can do no other than position himself as on the party’s radical left. To be anywhere else – as Angela Eagle would have been – would ensure defeat in this contest.
But this carries significant risks for Smith. Members will question whether he is sincerely of the faith or not, or whether this is opportunistic positioning. Smith’s pitch will be – keep the Corbyn policies, but hitch them to an electable leader. The problem for the puritans is they don’t really care about the ‘leadership’ question anyway. And so Smith’s problem could be, after all the weeks of campaigning, why vote for Corbyn-lite when we can have the real thing?
So what happens under the two possible outcomes in September?
Smith wins. At the moment, not the most likely outcome. But if it happens, huge relief amongst the MPs. The small band ‘Corbynista’ MPs will revert to the Parliamentary guerrilla war that has been their daily diet for as long as anyone can remember.
Hard left activists will be angry, feeling betrayed. Most will probably drift away, having only recently drifted in. There are plenty of left causes they can join instead. Some may seek revenge on ‘heretic’ MPs who led the charge against Corbyn, and there could be some bruising re-selection contests.
Hard left unions may threaten to pull funding, or end affiliation, but Smith, who will almost certainly be stealthily dragging his party back to the centre, is unlikely to be too bothered by that.
Labour would in all probability lose an election, but might not be obliterated.
Corbyn wins. MPs will despair. Few will favour a full break away. The SDP of the ‘80s is a stark reminder of what would happen. Some may give up. Others would settle for a prolonged bout of thumb twiddling, hoping that Corbyn won’t last too long anyway. Although no further challenge would be likely, there would be attempts, through internal rule changes, to limit the leader’s power.
The activist base will be enthused, and will probably remain intact. With a double-mandate, Corbyn would begin shifting party policy further left. He may even re-enact Scarborough.
Labour would be heading for a smash defeat at the polls.
Fight, fight and fight again is back.
Labour’s culture war will leave corpses across the political battlefield, while more and more of the electorate turn away from the dismal spectacle in disgust.
Labour Leadership Election: The Process
– The current procedure in which the Labour Party elects its leader, have been in place since the implementation of the Collins report in February, 2014.
– The review fundamentally altered the structural composition of Labour’s leadership elections:
– ‘One Member, One Vote’ system of voting with each vote weighted equally.
– Party members, registered supporters and affiliated supporters each given one vote.
– Elections (as with previous Labour Leadership contests) held under the alternative vote system.
– Former Shadow Business Secretary Angela Eagle MP triggered a contest by securing nominations from 20% of Labour’s MPs and MEPs. Eagle was subsequently joined as a candidate by former Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Owen Smith MP.
– The Labour Party NEC (governing body) convened on the 12 July, to determine the timescale and clarify the processes of the leadership election.
– The NEC ruled that an incumbent Labour Leader would not have to seek the re-nomination of Labour MPs, in order to be on the ballot.
– The NEC also ruled that all members who had joined after 12 January 2016 would not be able to vote in the leadership election.
– There would however be a two-day period to sign up as a registered supporter, this time for £25 rather than £3 as in 2015. This would also be open to those who joined as members after 12 January 2016.
– Members of affiliated trade unions and other affiliated organisations can register for a vote by 8 August 2016, provided they were a member of that organisation before 12 January 2016.
– Corbyn and Smith will engage in a series of hustings events around the country between now and September.
– Ballot papers will be issued by post (to party members only) and email the week commencing 22 August. They must be returned by 21 September.
– The result of the Leadership Election would be announced at a special conference on the eve of Labour’s autumn conference on 24 September.
Who is Owen Smith?
Owen Smith became the Member of Parliament for his hometown of Pontypridd in 2010. He was quickly elevated to the frontbench as a Shadow Wales Minister before moving to the Shadow Treasury team as Shadow Exchequer Secretary. In 2012 he joined Ed Miliband’s Shadow Cabinet as the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales and in 2015 was promoted to Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions by Jeremy Corbyn.
Before becoming an MP, he served as a Special Adviser in the Wales and Northern Ireland Offices under former Secretary of State Paul Murphy. Between 2005 and 2008, he worked as Head of Policy and Government Relations for Pfizer Global Pharmaceutical’s UK communications team. He began his career at the BBC where he worked on programmes including Radio 4’s Today programme.
Smith is considered to be on the moderate-left (or ‘soft left’) of the party. His relative inexperience in Parliament was considered by some as an advantage over his rival Angela Eagle, as he did not vote for unpopular decisions of the last Labour government, most notably the Iraq War (as he wasn’t an MP at the time). He has promised to put any Brexit deal the UK reaches to a second referendum and has also so far set out plans for a £200bn ‘British New Deal’ investment fund to spend on improving infrastructure, new colleges and hospitals. Smith has sought to present himself as “just as radical” as Jeremy Corbyn but with greater leadership skills and electability. He has also pledged to offer Corbyn a new role as Labour Party President or Chair, in a bid to persuade Corbyn supporters that their man would not be jettisoned.