Are Labour MPs Regretting the Corbyn Split?

12/07/2016 10:13 | Updated 12 July 2016

As Angela Eagle prepares her leadership bid, there are reports that certain members of the Parliamentary Labour Party are regretting their decision to resign from shadow government positions.

For some weeks now, rumours have trickled out of Twitter that individual - always unnamed - MPs had been bullied into resigning by some more hardline Corbyn opponents, and now regret their decision. Diane Abbott claims that some non-Corbynite MPs have been brought almost to tears by the vehemence and the personal nature of the abuse that the leader has faced at PLP meetings. Corbyn himself articulated this theory on Sunday's Andrew Marr Show in relation to Lisa Nandy; this immediately sparked an angry backlash from his opponents, with Lucy Powell tweeting that "strong, independent women" like Nandy could not be put under pressure of that kind.

If the rumours are true, then they offer a glimmer of hope for those passionately hoping that Labour will be able to reunite without a schism after the leadership election. While Corbyn opponents' scorched-earth strategy of declaring no confidence in their leader would be bizarrely short-sighted if they were entirely unwilling to split from the party, since failure to oust him could only trap in a terrible limbo, there is nonetheless some evidence that the soft left, at least, is not enamoured of the idea: according to James Lyons, Deputy Political Editor at the Sunday Times, Nandy made her decision to resign precisely because Corbyn told her that he was willing to see a split.

There are a few ways in which Labour could reunite in the event of a Corbyn win. The most peaceful would be for Labour MPs to accept defeat and return to shadow government positions with gritted teeth. It will make a few uncomfortable interviews and a lot of wounded pride, but it would also greatly augment the profile of their leader, who would look immeasurably tougher at their expense. Corbyn himself would have to be magnanimous in victory, and accommodate their demands for more consultation with the PLP and with individual MPs.

If they choose not to accept this loss of pride, Labour MPs could find themselves in a difficult position. They have argued that a party leader in a parliamentary democracy cannot be effective without the support of parliamentarians. However, it stands to reason additionally that an MP cannot be effective electorally without the support of their activists. If the Labour membership votes for Jeremy Corbyn over Angela Eagle, with the latter clearly a proxy for the rebellious PLP, it will amount to a vote of no confidence in the rebel MPs, who surely must consider resigning their seats.

They will argue in turn that their mandate derives from Labour voters, and not from the membership, which fair - just as Corbyn's mandate derives from members and not MPs. However, the argument that Labour MPs have an individual mandate from Labour voters is in fact a flawed premise, as their own logic concedes. For their mandate to be an individual one, it would have to be the case that Labour voters in their constituencies overwhelmingly voted for them as an individual candidate, rather than for their party label. However, if this is true, then their concerns over the leadership of the Labour Party make no sense: if the majority of the electorate votes for a candidate rather than for a party, the appearance of the party at a national level is an irrelevance. Their concerns over electoral defeat with Corbyn at the helm make a nonsense of their claims to have an individual mandate from Labour voters. In reality they have a mixed mandate: partly individual, mostly according to their loyalty to the party whose name they used to lift themselves into the Commons.

If they argue that it simply isn't practical for so many MPs to resign and to hold so many by-elections, it might be countered that they have some experience in organising mass resignations.

Of course, the outcome of the leadership election will partly depend on the Conservatives' contest. If Theresa May calls an early general election - and she surely must now that she has been put in place without the vote of a single member of the public - the PLP might decide to keep the Labour Party paralysed for the few months until its inevitable defeat at that election, and then use the chaos and demoralisation among the membership to get rid of Corbyn. While Labour members seem broadly to agree that the current crisis is the fault of the PLP, in the aftermath of a general election defeat it must be the leader who takes the blame. Alternatively, it might force Eagle to call off her own bid, at which point Labour MPs would have to decide whether to return to the shadow cabinet and try to win the election, or remain in opposition to the leadership and allow the party to go down to a crushing defeat in a final attempt to remove the Corbyn influence through amputation.

If some Labour MPs are truly regretting their part in the coup, then there may be some hope for the re-establishment of unity in Labour under Corbyn. This would certainly be the best scenario, if not an ideal one. If they accept the logic of their own arguments, then they ought to resign in the event of a defeat, but this will never happen. Most pundits seem to believe that split is inevitable. Whatever happens, Labour's future looks grim indeed.