Like all “Big Tent” political parties, the Labour party is a coalition of different groups with different interests, from the working class traditional voters that support the party to the educated metropolitan middle class voters who have bolstered the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Within the party itself there is an even starker divide between the centrist social democratic/third way supporting wing of the party aligned partly with the “Blairite” ideology and who support a more centrist and pragmatic approach, and the more ideological and dogmatic socialist wing of the party typified by Jeremy Corbyn and the socialist campaign group.
Under a first past the post system these two disparate groups have been forced together by the fact that, if they do not cooperate, they will both face electoral annihilation. Under our present electoral system if two left wing candidates ran against one right wing candidate the vote would be split (this is called the spoiler effect) and as a result even if combined the forces of the left got more votes than those of the right, the right wing candidate would still win as long as they acquired more votes than either left wing candidate did individually. This generally leads to the emergence of two ideologically broad parties (one on the left and the other on the right) in order to prevent their opponents from winning power.
The problem that has arisen in the UK, however, is that the increasingly fragmented Labour party has reached a point where many on the right of the party are ideologically closer to those on the left of the Conservative party, and many on the left are closer to other parties such as the Greens. That is all to say that for many in both factions of the party, their internal opponents present a set of policies that they wouldn’t want to see implemented, rendering a coalition in order to further shared objectives useless. If the two groups think that each other’s policies are worse than those of other parties then remaining as one party makes almost no sense.
The conflict between the Blairite and Corbynite groups (internal factions on the hard right and hard left of the party) shows just how senseless this party grouping is. Whilst both have similarities to the “Soft Left” faction in the centre of the party they have nothing in common with each other – to Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn one another’s policies and goals anathema and their supporters are openly at war for the soul of their party. If asked to form a party tomorrow these two groups would say no, so why does it make sense that they hold one together today?
Labour today is essentially a Frankenstein’s Monster – it is politically unnatural, cobbled together from parts that do not fit with one another. Across the world we see countries with a distinct social democratic and socialist party, both arguing for a more progressive world, and often entering into coalitions together, but remaining distinct forces able to advance their own ideology and capable of disagreeing without tearing their party apart. If this were to occur in the UK then the splits between different factions would not be healed, but that isn’t the point – whilst now any dispute between the two groups leads to the opposition collapsing and entering into Civil War, a falling out between two parties would lead to a lack of cooperation temporarily, but would not lead to the opposition turning on itself so thoroughly as Labour has done over the last few months.
There will of course be some obstacles in the way of forming separate centre left and left wing parties, most notably (as I have already discussed) the current electoral system in this country. In order for the left to remain credible, Labour must therefore abandon its current commitment to maintaining an undemocratic first past the post system. For far too long the Labour party has supported maintaining this totally unfair system because they benefit from the Conservative/Labour duopoly on power in our current two party system, indeed despite promises to the contrary by Tony Blair, Labour has made no substantial efforts to make the electoral system fairer as it believes it stands to gain from maintaining it.
Labour should immediately, therefore, begin to advocate for a proportional electoral system (such as the Additional Members system, the Closed Party List system or the Single Transferrable Vote system) before it begins the process of splitting. In doing this, Labour would be doing a service not just to left wing politics, but also to the British people and British democracy by making democratic reforms that are long overdue (having first been proposed seriously in 1917 but narrowly defeated).
Obviously any split would not be in the mould of the 1981 split between Labour loyalists and the centrist SDP; such a messy scenario is totally undesirable and would only result in a bitter enmity between the two and the kind of electoral annihilation that was seen in the 1983 General Election. Instead the Labour Party should pursue what is dubbed in geopolitics a “Velvet Divorce” – an amicable split based on a shared decision (as opposed to the splitters of the 1980s, whose decision to break away surprised many on both the right and left of their party) based on a carefully arranged plan designed to reduce the damage any such break could cause.
The road ahead for Labour is going to be difficult no matter what, at present the Conservative party presents a more effective, pragmatic, and competent alternative and has the distinct advantage of being the incumbent government. Despite this the future of the left is not entirely bleak; if Labour can overcome the protracted and foolish internal struggle it faces then it will be able to win back power eventually, and upon doing so, if it implements a proportional electoral system (as it should) will be able to commence the split between factions that it must now undertake. Division does not seem like the best route to power, but for Labour it is the only option – if the same kinds of divisions persist in the Conservative party as they do at present then it may be the future for both right and left. Whatever the outcome, the old two party system is in its dying days.