Labour Is Heading For Historic Split If Jeremy Corbyn Wins Leadership Election, Owen Smith Warns

Leadership challenger also slams McDonnell
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Labour is heading for an historic split in the party if Jeremy Corbyn wins the leadership election, his challenger Owen Smith has warned.

In an interview with The Huffington Post UK, former Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary said there was not just a “risk” but “every likelihood” that the party would break up into separate parts if Corbyn was re-elected.

His words are the starkest warning yet that the Opposition could end up permanently divided, possibly with some MPs peeling off to form their own version of Labour, after the leadership election result is announced on September 24.

Smith also accused Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell of lying about his own stance on a split, and claimed he and Corbyn would pursue mandatory reselection of MPs to establish their own ‘version of the Labour party’.

He suggested the current Labour leader and his allies preferred to “shout through the railings” of Parliament ,”moaning” about a Tory government in the Commons, rather than actively presenting a programme for power.

And in a reference to the 1984/5 miners’ strike, he suggested that Corbyn and McDonnell were as ‘gung-ho’ ‘egotistical’ and ‘vain’ as Arthur Scargill when he led a divided NUM to defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher.

Jeremy Corbyn at a rally in Brighton
Jeremy Corbyn at a rally in Brighton
Rob Stothard via Getty Images

Several Labour MPs have talked about setting up an independent grouping in the Commons should Corbyn win, and last week backbencher Jess Phillips said she would ‘find it difficult’ to keep taking the Labour whip.

In a new blog, pollster Anthony Wells explains that the public punish parties that are divided, warning a splinter party would get just 14% in the polls.

But Smith told HuffPostUK that Corbyn and McDonnell would be the ones driving the split by pursuing mandatory reselection of all Labour MPs, a move guaranteed to spark further turmoil within constituency parties.

Asked if he believed Corbyn would try to unite the party if he won, or would go down the reselection route, Smith replied: “I think there is every likelihood that the party will split if Jeremy wins this election. I don’t think it’s a risk, I think it’s a likelihood.

“There are some on the hard left of the party like McDonnell, and some on the Right of the party, who have become fatalistic about that. And that has to be stopped. That is why I think people need to vote for me because I’m going to make it my mission to stop that happening.”

Asked if he believed McDonnell would push mandatory reselection, a policy recently approved by Britain’s biggest union, Unite, he replied: “I’m absolutely convinced of that. “

And when asked if Corbyn would give in to such demands, Smith said: “I think Jeremy mentioned reselection in his opening speech in this campaign. At his launch the word reselection came out of his mouth, I think that tells you all you need to know.”

At his campaign launch last month, the Labour leader pointed out that sitting MPs would face reselection contests because of boundary changes to Westminster seats, although his aides insisted this was not a threat to get party members to oust MPs they were unhappy with.

Smith and McDonnell have been engaged in a bitter war of words ever since they clashed in a private meeting with Corbyn at the height of the Parliamentary ‘coup’ against the leader.

The Shadow Chancellor has described on Twitter as “complete rubbish” suggestions that he said in the meeting that he personally was happy to see Labour split.

Asked by HuffPostUK if Smith was suggesting McDonnell was lying, he replied: “Yes he is. Don’t take my word for it. Take Kate Green’s or Nia Griffiths’ or John Healey’s or Lisa Nandy’s, all of whom were in the meeting with me.

“When I put it to Jeremy three times that I was worried that the party was going to split if he carried on and I put it to John explicitly that I thought he was content with the party splitting, he literally shrugged his shoulders and said ‘if that’s what it takes’.

“My interpretation of that is that John meant if that’s what it takes to maintain his grip on power and his version of the Labour Party, his project, if you like.”

Smith said that the flashpoint was what prompted him to stand for party leader himself.

“And that’s the moment at which I thought someone has to got to stand and articulate a desire for Labour to remain a united party and show the country that we can be a credible government in waiting once more. Yes we can be radical, but we’ve got to be credible and we’re not.”

John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn
John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn
Yui Mok/PA Archive

McDonnell faced a backlash last month when it emerged that he had suggested in 2012 that he and other leftwingers could ‘move on’ from Labour. “I’m not in the Labour party because I’m a believer of the Labour party as some supreme body or something God-given or anything like that. It’s a tactic. It’s as simple as that,” he said. “If it’s no longer a useful vehicle, move on.”

Smith seized on the remarks, telling HuffPost that Corbyn and McDonnell believed street protest as important as getting elected.

“There’s a long noble tradition of extra-Parliamentary activity. A tradition going back to Noah Ablett and the miners’ ‘Next Step’ through to the communist leaders in the miners unions in the 30s to Ralph Miliband and his coruscating view of Parliamentary democracy, through to Tony Benn.

“All people who saw ‘The Street’ as being as important as Parliament. I do not come from that tradition. Jeremy does. But I do not. John McDonnell does. I come from a tradition which is about a Parliamentary route to socialism.

“It’s a Bevanite tradition that fundamentally believes we won the franchise, the working man and woman won the franchise and once we’ve won it, Parliament is the fulcrum, and the Labour party is the vehicle first, last, always.

“There ain’t another bus coming along if this one breaks down. John McDonnell would see this as being, you know I’ve heard him say it, it’s a flag of convenience, it’s a vehicle for the struggle right now. Well, he’s completely wrong. It is the only vehicle.”

Arthur Scargill
Arthur Scargill
Ben Curtis/PA Archive

Smith – who marched as a teenager with the miners in his native South Wales – said there were “parallels” between Corbyn and McDonnell’s divisive leadership of Labour and Arthur Scargill’s failure to conduct a national ballot to unify the NUM during the 1984/5 strike.

He said he agreed “100%” with former leader Neil Kinnock that the failure to ballot was the reason for the miners’ defeat.

“You’ve got to command support and you’ve got to start from a foundation of unity and a solid footing. And the problem with the strike? It didn’t start with that,” he said.

“Because of the way in which Scargill was gung-ho, and frankly egotistical, vain. And I fear there are parallels with how we are presently proceeding. Disunited parties cannot win.”

“Because it is an iron rule of politics in this country and elsewhere that unless you are united and have a common sense of purpose you can’t convey to the country what you think the sense of national purpose, national mission should be, and you can’t be convincing in either your critique of what’s wrong with the country or your set of prescriptions as to how you fix it.

“Ever since we’ve had the franchise, it’s not for us to shout through the railings moaning at those in this place about what they are doing. It is for us to seize power in this place in order to guarantee that our values, our belief in equality is implemented, that our values are put into practice.

n“And what makes me furious at the moment is we look far from being able to achieve that. And that some in Labour are happy we are pursuing a sort of purity exercise in terms of the values we espouse.”

Neil Kinnock
Neil Kinnock
Jane Barlow/PA Wire

The former Shadow Cabinet minister insisted he would support Corbyn if he won the leadership, although he would not serve on his front bench.

“Even with Labour as disunited as we are presently, and even with us so badly led as we are presently, two minutes of a Labour government would be better than any period of Tory government,” he said.

Smith added that Kinnock’s famous 1985 conference speech routing Derek Hatton and Militant was a reminder of the “entryism” problems facing Labour today.

“I was 15…He was having a go at Derek Hatton…my family, we were massive admirers of Michael Foot. We were people who believed in the Left of the Labour party in lots of ways.

“But there was a destructiveness, a tribalism in Militant that was just destructive of the Labour party.

“There are some people who have come back into the party who are not just similar, they are the same people, in certain parts of the country.”

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