Since the selection of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party last summer, pundits across the spectrum have mused of a potential split in Britain’s main leftwing party.
Nowadays there is a stark divide between Labour’s centrist parliamentarians and the party’s leftist leadership, with the general party members siding with the latter.
There is also precedent within living memory of a split, Britain having seen an iteration of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) spin off from Labour in the early 1980s.
With a new leadership contest in which Owen Smith takes on Corbyn for the leadership title, the possibility of the flat-capping wearing hard leftist cementing his control over the party seems to provide Labour MPs with a good opportunity to leave.
But will a split happen under the leadership of Corbyn, and before the next general election?
The Outside View
Party splits in British politics tend to be rather difficult affairs, owing to the existence of the first-past-the-post electoral system, which assigns Commons seats based on who has the most votes in each constituency, rather than the country as a whole.
Others on the Internet have more detailed explanations of how the process works, but the important thing to note here is Britain’s first-past-the-post system favours incumbents and parties with voters concentrated into a small number of constituencies.
The last general election provided two extreme examples of these tendencies: the Scottish National Party (SNP) nabbed 56 seats out of 650 with just 4.7 percent of the national vote, while the UK Independence Party (Ukip) attained only one seat with 12.6 percent of the vote.
These figures show the difficulties that outsider parties face without localised campaigning (although they also show the increasing tendency of voters to disregard the tactical voting that first-past-the-post is supposed to encourage).
Because of this system Labour MPs (and indeed rebellious Tories) have a huge incentive not to split off from the main party.
Even so Labour MPs have formally split the party at least three times since its formation in 1900: in 1931, 1932 and 1981.
Of the two in the 1930s, the first saw Ramsay MacDonald form the National Labour Organisation as part of a National government reacting to the Great Depression, and the second saw the Independent Labour Party peel off from the main body.
The 1980s featured the rise of the SDP, as mentioned above.
On average then, Labour has split in 2.5 percent of the years it has existed, an ideal base rate for us to begin our forecast with.
The Inside View
What the basic rate does not take into account is the strife that has engulfed Labour since Corbyn was elected.
Such is the strength of feeling against Corbs he has already faced a spate of mass resignations from his cabinet – ostensibly spurred on by his perceived failure to vigorously campaign for the “remain” side of the EU membership referendum. 172 of Labour’s 229 MPs also voted for a no confidence motion against the leader.
These events precipitated a formal leadership challenge in which first Angela Eagle and then Smith sought to replace him, with Eagle dropping out after it became clear Smith was the more popular candidate among MPs.
Since late July, Corbyn has been the favourite to win this contest by some margin, even if the odds indicate there is more than a 10 percent chance that Smith could win.
If Corbs wins the right of the Labour party has two options: stay within the party or break off within the House of Commons and form a new outfit.
(If Smith wins many of the general members that joined in the wake of the 2015 general election or after Corbyn’s election may decide they do not want to be part of the Labour party – although there has been no indication that likeminded MPs would take the same view.)
Even with the slight chance of a Smith victory, given the problems in the party we can still raise that 2.5 percent baseline forecast of Labour splitting under Corbyn, probably to about 10 percent.
For the past few months there have also been murmurings in the press that a group within Labour was considering the move. Already some are trying to work out who owns the party assets, according to a report from the Independent.
Janan Ganesh, a political columnist for the Financial Times, explains roughly how this would work, and even suggests a merger with the 8 MPs that still submit to the Liberal Democrat whip:
“The 170-plus MPs who repudiated their leader last week would resign the Labour whip and sit as a new party of the pro-European centre left under leadership of their choosing. As the largest non-government group in the House of Commons, they would constitute the new official opposition, with all the privileges that entails.”
It all sounds simple, but this scenario does require that a significant chunk of Labour agree to leave at the same time. Even the MPs who expressed no confidence in him could not necessarily be relied on, and that’s without looking at councillors, general members and funders.
At the same time forming a new party would require a rebuilding of infrastructure – or scaling of it if a Lib Dem merger was on the cards. This is quite a task for any party.
In other words, there are significant risks associated with such a move. There is also plenty of evidence that Labour officials feel emotional attachment to the brand and would be unhappy to leave it behind even for sound strategic reasons.
Hear former Labour leader Neil Kinnock bellow: “Dammit, this is our party!” That is how many centrist Labourites feel.
For these reasons it seems preposterous that the political scientist Tim Bale of Queen Mary’s University believes there is an 80 to 90 percent chance of a Labour split. Too many factors need to align for it to be that high, and as Bale acknowledges there are significant risks because of first-past-the-post.
But 10 percent seems too low. The risks for centrist Labour MPs is that they find themselves trapped in a party incapable of winning general elections. Many will presumably conclude that the short-term disruption of a split will be offset by improved electoral prospects in the medium to long term.
In my judgment, Labour probably has about a 17 percent chance of splitting under Jeremy Corbyn and before the next general election.
Bearing in mind the baseline rate (2.5 percent), the troubles with first-past-the-post, the need for a critical mass of Labour MPs and backers to leave at the same time, the short term disruption and many people’s emotional attachment to the idea of Labour, the odds have to be low.
At the same time there is clear evidence of sustained rebellion plotting in the Labour ranks, and there are sound reasons why some would believe splitting was less risky in the long term than remaining under the red banner.
Why 17? Because 15 percent feels too low and 20 too high. At least for now.
Image Credit – Withered Rose, December 2014 by montillon.a