Labour rebels shouldn’t fear the fate of the SDP.

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Could Corbyn’s re-election prompt a split?

On Saturday, Jeremy Corbyn will be announced as having retained the leadership of the Labour Party. I strongly expect that he will have achieved a higher percentage of the vote than in 2015. This is little to do with Owen Smith, rather a reflection of the extent to which the membership of the party has changed since Corbyn’s election as leader.

Once Corbyn is announced as having retained the leadership, talk will invariably return to whether the party will reunite or whether it will split.

For many months, there have been suggestions that the moderates (or Blairites) in the Parliamentary Labour Party are planning to split off if Corbyn continues as leader. Many moderate Labour MPs have been vocal in their concerns about Labour’s electability under Corbyn, and it is clear that they want things to change.

However, up to now one thing that they have all been unequivocal about, is that they don’t wish to see the party split. Generally, when asked the standard question regarding the prospect of a split, Labour MPs have responded by citing the example of the Labour MPs who split from the party in 1981 and formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

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The ‘Gang of Four’ who formed the SDP. 

The SDP was founded by four senior Labour Party members known collectively as the ‘Gang of Four’: David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, and Bill Rodgers. They were joined by twenty-eight other defecting MPs from the Labour Party, and one MP who defected from the Conservatives. However, despite their early success in attracting MPs, the SDP would struggle to retain them in general elections. In the 1983 General Election, the First-Past-The-Post system meant that just six SDP MPs were elected. It is clear today that this failure still haunts Labour MPs who might otherwise consider a split.

Writing in the i on Wednesday, Labour MP and former Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, suggested that in the event of a split, any new party would simply suffer the same fate as the SDP.

Twenty-eight MPs defected from Labour to the SDP back then but just 6 SDP MPs were elected in the 1983 election that followed. That split of the Left was a gift to the Right, which saw 18 years of Tory rule as the consequence. This is why I know of no Labour MP now who wants to repeat the same mistake and doom our country to the same fate.

From this, it would seem abundantly clear that Umunna believes that any split would be unsuccessful, and that this view is backed up by the evidence from 1981, as well as evidence that the First-Past-The-Post electoral system tends to discriminate against third-parties.

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Labour MP Chuka Umunna has suggested that a split would be unsuccessful. 

However, the political landscape is much changed since then. Nowadays, it would definitely be possible to make a success of a similar sort of split.

One of the main reasons for this is the advent of the internet, in particular social media, and its use in political campaigning.

The 24-hour news cycle which exists primarily as a result of the internet, means that any new political movement can gain instant traction all around the country, and indeed all around the world. Recently, we have seen abundant examples of how internet savvy campaigning has brought success to campaigns which experts dismissed as having little chance. Take the example of Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination for President. Trump recognised the power of social media and the internet in order to build his own political movement, and managed to build something which differed hugely from the campaigns being run by his opponents, most of whom were firmly part of the political establishment.

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Donald Trump’s success has been built around the savvy use of social media, and the ability to differentiate himself from the political establishment. 

Similarly, Labour rebels can take inspiration from inside their own party. Jeremy Corbyn’s unlikely rise to the leadership of the Labour Party was characterised by his use of social media to draw young people to his rallies and build a movement in support of his candidacy.

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Corbyn used social media to draw huge crowds to his rallies, and build a social movement from nothing. 

Overall, although it is still desirable to able to call upon a party machine of volunteers to roam the streets and knock on doors when campaigning, it is no longer the only way to gain support. Online advertising and fundraising can reach out to potential voters like never before.

Trump and Corbyn show the way to go. Both attracted the votes of people who wouldn’t normally be voting in their respective elections. Now Corbyn has as good as populated the membership of the Labour Party with these supporters gained during the first leadership campaign. Rebel MPs need to do a similar thing. There will be millions of available voters who want a credible alternative to the main parties, and it is these people who can be targeted when creating a new party. This targeting can be done in a way that wasn’t possible in 1981, and means that a split today could be significantly more successful than the SDP debacle.

Potential rebel MPs also tend to cite our First-Past-The-Post electoral system as cause for concern, by stating that it discriminates against third-parties, and that as such any new party would be doomed to failure. However, although FPTP has historically been difficult for third-parties, it doesn’t have to be. In the 2015 Canadian Federal Election, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party showed that it is possible for a third-party to win an election under FPTP. The Liberal Party began the campaign in third place in the polls with only 26% support, but when the campaign concluded, they had won 39.5% of the popular vote, which equated to a parliamentary majority. In Canada, The Liberal Party proved that it was possible for a third-party to win under FPTP if they were able to appeal beyond their usual base of support, whilst also campaigning on a platform distinctively different from other parties in the election. If a new party formed of rebel Labour MPs were able to follow the blueprint set by the successful Canadian Liberal Party, then they could be successful regardless of our electoral system.

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The success of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party provides a blueprint for success for a new third party. 
With the Conservative Party having shifted to the right under Theresa May and Labour having lurched to the left under Jeremy Corbyn, their is a large enough space in the political centre for a new party. With such a large gap in the centre, it would easy for a new party to campaign on a platform reasonably distinctive from the offering of the two main parties, and as such they could be successful regardless of FPTP.

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Theresa May has shifted the Conservative Party to the right, leaving a space in the centre. 

In any case, Labour MPs would have absolutely nothing to lose by splitting off and forming a new party. Although they may feel a great degree of loyalty to their current party, they certainly won’t feel the same degree of loyalty to Corbyn. As such, it is hard to see many of the moderate, centrist Labour MPs will be willing to pledge allegiance to a Labour Party run by Corbyn and John McDonnell. It increasingly sounds as though any Labour MPs who chooses not to support the leadership will be deselected at the next election, whilst many more could lose seats through a combination of the boundary review and Corbyn’s unpopular policies.

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It’s difficult to see moderate Labour MPs pledging allegiance to a party run by Corbyn and McDonnell, meaning many will be deselected. 
As a result, many of these Labour MPs could lose their seats anyway. Therefore, why not split off and try and save themselves, and their ideals, from extinction. With the political landscape in such a state of flux, there should be little to fear from splitting off. Rebel MPs should take the plunge and give it a go, because the way their party is heading it could be just about the last chance they get to ensure their values continue to be represented in the House of Commons.

Could Open Britain be the beginning of a new political party?

If you have been following the aftermath of the EU Referendum then you may have heard of an ostensibly new group Open Britain, a cross-party group made up of politicians who backed the losing remain campaign.

Open Britain was officially launched with a article in yesterday’s Sunday Times written by Conservative MP Anna Soubry, Labour MP Pat McFadden, and Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb, whilst the group is also backed by several other high profile MPs including Nick Clegg, Dominic Grieve, and Chuka Umunna. Effectively, it is a relaunch of the Stronger In campaign and is aiming to pressure Theresa May into a deal which puts the UK as close to the EU as possible, without actually being members.

In their article in yesterday’s Sunday Times; Soubry, McFadden, and Lamb argued strongly that the referendum result didn’t reflect a desire to shut Britain off from the rest of Europe:

We do not believe that a vote to leave the EU was a vote for a closed Britain. We believe that we are at our best when we are open — open-minded, open for business, open to trade and investment, open to talent and hard work, open to Europe and the world. That is what we are campaigning for.

It had already been suggested in early July that senior pro-Europe figures across the three main parties were openly debating the idea of a new pro-Europe and pro-business political party, a so-called ‘party of the 48 per cent’. However, this was back when there was still a chance of Andrea Leadsom becoming leader of the Conservative Party, which would have led to both major parties being in the position of having a leader with views at odds with the majority of their party’s MPs. Since the ascension of Theresa May to the office of Prime Minister, talk of a split in the Conservative Party has calmed significantly. However, there is little doubt that the Prime Minister made some enemies in the process of her Cabinet reshuffle, with most of the Conservative modernisers sacked from government. Although all is calm at the moment, who knows what could happen once the Brexit negotiations properly begin. As for the Labour Party, when Corbyn wins in September (clearly Owen Smith has absolutely no chance), the splits in the party will simply be exacerbated further, and it is difficult to see the current Labour Party ever properly reunited.

Potential rebels from these parties would have little appetite for simply joining the Liberal Democrats. Many Labour MPs have particular animosity for the Liberal Democrats following a series of bloody by-election fights over the years. In any case, the Liberal Democrat brand remains significantly tainted following the five years of the Coalition Government and despite Tim Farron’s best efforts, the party look to be making little headway in changing this. Therefore, the only option would be to form a completely new party.

Although Open Britain has been launched simply as a grassroots campaign to get a good deal for Britain in the upcoming Brexit negotiations, there seems a decent chance that it could develop into something much more. There were stories during the referendum campaign of how progressive politicians from all the main parties had enjoyed working together during the campaign, and that the prospect of further cooperation in the future had been mooted.

With Jeremy Corbyn set to remain as Labour Party leader, it looks inconceivable that the Labour Party will avoid a split. Whilst although the Conservative Party is currently relatively calm, Theresa May has the unenviable task of balancing the Brexit negotiations so that they aren’t seen to favour the Remain or Leave side of the debate. If the deal she negotiates favours the Leave side, then don’t bet against some of the keener pro-EU Conservative MPs to defect to a new pro-EU grouping in the House of Commons. The UK political system is somewhat unique in that all of the parties are relatively big tents, with the effect of this meaning that there is always potential for defections.

Ultimately, although Open Britain begins as a grassroots campaign group, it may yet morph into a new political party.