With the Corbyn camp sounding increasingly optimistic about the leadership ballot – unsurprisingly, given the boom in new members last week – rebel minds are turning to the possibility of splitting the Labour Party.
There’s no sign of anyone planning to defect elsewhere. While the late 1990s saw various Tory MPs – the Emma Nicholsons, Shaun Woodwards and Peter Temple-Morrises – cross the floor to join other parties, it seems Labour MPs cannot bring themselves to contemplate become a Lib Dem or (horror) a Conservative.
Instead, they are muttering about either sitting as independents or perhaps forming a new party.
If Corbyn is re-elected, and various of his MPs really do decide that they cannot take the Labour whip any longer, they might decide to sit as Independent Labour, or to form a new Labour Party all of their own. If a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party did so they could even bid to supplant Corbyn as the official Opposition (an unlikely circumstance, but the last few months have taught us not to rule even seemingly unlikely events out entirely).
The possibility of a new party which would perhaps eventually incorporate the Lib Dems is evidently being prepared for by Paddy Ashdown, who launched a pro-EU, green-minded and “progressive” funding platform called More United yesterday. At the moment, MU is a kind of American-style PAC, in that it aims to donate to the campaigns of any MP whom it judges to share its views, but it’s clear how that could transmute into a political party if its founders so wished.
What would become of such splitters at the ballot box?
Starting a new party certainly looks healthier for their electoral prospects than going it alone as independents, and some kind of merger or non-aggression pact with the Lib Dems would be an even wiser idea. Take for example Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, an ardent critic of Corbyn who has openly discussed the possibility of resigning the whip if Corbyn wins again.
Here’s how her constituency looked last year, when she gained it from the Lib Dems:
In ordinary times, a 6,595 vote majority is pretty healthy. However, if the Labour vote was split between Jess Phillips (Independent Labour) and Dave Spart (Corbynite Continuity Labour) then the seat would be back in play. In that circumstance in our thought experiment, the official Labour Party would only have to take just over a third of Phillips’ vote to unseat her and let the Lib Dems back in – ie even if Corbyn’s candidate came fourth, Phillips could be out of a job.
Of course, elections are more dynamic than that. Some Lib Dem voters might feel Phillips deserved their support as a show of solidarity, but at the same time the Lib Dems themselves would be throwing everything at them to say “We genuinely could be winning here.” By the same token, a new UKIP leader targeting Labour voters could strip away some of the support Phillips previously enjoyed.
That’s why it would make more sense for any Labour splitters to try to reach some kind of accommodation with the Liberal Democrats – picking up a decent share of John Hemmings’ vote would armour Phillips against almost any Corbynite challenge. But it’s also why the Lib Dems would be sorely tempted not to agree a pact – doing so might bring them more MPs and votes in the longer term, but it’d be hard to pass up the chance to sneak through between Labour’s two warring factions to win some new seats in the short term.