by Kevin Meagher
Assuming Labour loses the 2020 election (or any election called before that date), what happens next?
Of course, optimists will claim it’s all still to play for and the future is unwritten. But beyond the faith-based politics of the Corbynite Branch Davidians, the party’s immediate to medium-term outlook is bleak.
This week, the UK Elections twitter feed reported that at its current level in the polls, Labour will lose another 56 seats taking it down to 176 MPs. Much lower, even, than the 207 it managed in 1983, (and from which, it took 18 years to get back into government).
Even so, Labour would remain the second largest party in Parliament and with the left chalking up defeat as ‘eight and a half million votes for socialism,’ as Tony Benn infamously did in 1983, they are likely to learn nothing and forget nothing.
A formal break-away at this point is possible, with the post-Blairites and other moderates having a collective flip-out and trouncing off to set up a new centrist party. However, it is more likely than there will be an all-out civil war first, with the trade unions playing a central role in proceedings.
With the sole exception of the GMB, the main affiliates are currently happy to pander to the left. Tellingly, the GMB balloted its members about who to back in the leadership race, with a resounding victory for Owen Smith, beating Jeremy Corbyn by a 60/40 per cent margin.
The union’s newish General Secretary, Tim Roache, summed up his members’ concerns:
“GMB members cannot afford for Labour to be talking to itself in a bubble for the next five years while the Tories run riot through our rights at work, our public services and our communities.”
As it did in the 1980s, the GMB will be in the vanguard of making the case that a political party needs to be in the business of winning elections. After another few years of public spending cuts, perhaps Unison will also come to its senses.
As the only other union to ballot its members about the current Labour leadership, the omens are good. Among Unison members, Jeremy Corbyn beat Owen Smith but by 58 to 42 per cent – far closer than many would have thought.
While a policy of scrapping Trident – surely forced through by 2020 – may also see Unite shake itself out if its comfort zone, unless, that is, it wants tens of thousands of its members in the nuclear industry to leave and set up a union that will strive to protect their jobs.
As they did from the mid-1980s onwards, the big unions remain the single most important factor in whether or not Labour splits and if a new modernising project can eventually take root in the party.
But one thing is abundantly clear: there will be no Blairite restoration.
Any post-Corbyn dispensation will end up rooted in the centre-left. After all, New Labour was not a response to defeat in 1983. It was a reaction against unexpected defeat in 1992, when Neil Kinnock’s moderate, democratic socialist platform failed to convince enough floating voters.
New Labour was borne from the nihilism many felt at that result. So winning at any cost, jettisoning any unpopular policy and making any accommodation that was necessary became the name of the game. But those hoping for a similarly Blairite approach should come back in a decade or so.
Modernisation is a two stage process. For the sake of party management, there will be an attempt to reform Corbynism in order to avoid a messy split with the left upping and offing. Of course, whether a centre-left platform can succeed where Kinnock failed, remains moot.
So there will be progress from where the party currently finds itself – in a lacuna of agit-prop and impossibilism – but a long way from the whopping majorities of 1997, 2001 and 2005.
But at least the party will be parked on the centre-left, not the hard left and that sort of progress shouldn’t be dismissed, although it may take subsequent defeats for the party to mould a winning offer.
So to answer the rhetorical question: ‘what comes after Corbyn’, the answer, it seems, is a bloody long slog.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut