The Blog

A Rumbling of Tumbrils: What Blairite Labour MPs Need to Do to Avoid the Slaughter

The only answer is to go up to the battlements and look again to the West where, as in the best stories, the traduced brother sit in lonely exile. When will he come? Will he be dressed as Batman or as Superman? Will he be wearing lycra or leather? The last question at least is best left to those who enjoy fantisizing about such matters.

Perhaps it was Batman. Perhaps it was Superman. After so many years it is hard to remember which. Still, the story in the comic was a vivid one. The inhabitants of a futuristic city had got bored with gadgetry, obviously the author had not foreseen computer games, and theydecided to go out and do some technology-free camping in the desert. The trouble was that they all went and that they forgot the golden rule. We all know that the last person to leave a room should turn out the lights. Well, by extension of that, if you are the last person to leave a futuristic city, you need to turn off the defence systems. Otherwise, as you trudge back with your sleeping bag, they will blow you to smithereens. Luckily for the citizens, there was a superhero handy, it was that sort of comic after all, and the problem was duly fixed.

If you look at the position of the moderates in the Labour Party, their predicament is broadly similar to that of the exiled citizens. They haven't left the party yet, of course, but they have allowed control to slip from their grasp and it can only be a matter of time before they find themselves on the outside. Already there are suggestions that a new group "Momentum" will be working to expel all those who do not follow the Corbyn line. Whether that is right or not doesn't really matter because the process is inevitable. Like it or not, Mr Corbyn has a pile of new policies and he can hardly be expected to fight the next election with a whole lot of candidates who say that they don't believe in them. At some stage those who do not "convert" will be told that as they do not support the party line they cannot stand in the Labour interest. The process of deselection will begin.

Of course there will be exceptions. In some cases a constituency association may stand up for a popular MP. In others the MP may be the darling of a particular union. Mostly, however those striving to survive will look for support in vain. In general, local activists tend to come from the extremes of a party rather than from the centre and that is particularly the case when that party has just lost a general election. After all, who is prepared to sit through constituency meetings when any prospect of power seems far away? True believers, that's who. The more moderate supporters flow in as the prospect of electoral success grows more imminent and their involvement becomes more likely to make a difference. No, I don't think I'd rely on the constituency workers as a source of moderate support at the moment.

Then there are the unions, so reactionary in some ways and yet often so very practical. There have been indications that not all of them are happy with the way things are developing. Still, they have been behind a lot of the change and it is by no means clear that they want to turn the clock back. For those trapped in the headlights there is little hope of relief and, although there may be talk of a saviour from the States, of a warlike Miliband arriving like Henry Tudor at Milford Haven and fighting his way through blood to the leadership of his party, that is all it is. Just talk. Without a power base within the party it cannot be done. In the end the choice will be to embrace corbynism or face political destruction. The Cross or the Sword.

So what does your Blairite Labour MP do now? Unless he or she is one of the lucky few whose constituency associations will stand up to party central, the choice isn't very appetising. One possibility is to sit tight, dodging too and fro like a Spanish bull in the arena, fudging a bit here, temporising a bit there, until some policy is so hard to stomach that real loyalties have to be revealed and deselection has to be faced. That is not enormously attractive. The alternative is to move first and to try to find a home elsewhere, either in the Liberal Democrat party or in some centre-left alliance. That option also has its risks but, as will be seen, those risks are not as great when a number of MPs move together as they are when they move separately?

After all, what is a political party? Assuming that that it is not asset rich and that we exclude the party leadership, there are really two components which matter. The first is what businessman called "goodwill", the loyalty to the party name which will persuade voters to support it and will persuade party workers to canvass, distribute leaflets, stand outside polling booths and all the rest of it. If you leave the party you have to give up this support unless you manage to take some of the supporters with you. Of course if you move to the Liberal Democrats, then you may get the benefit of their party machine instead.

Until quite recently the goodwill attaching to a party's name made defection very difficult. Political loyalty of this sort is an example of "cat" goodwill, that is goodwill which attaches to a place or institution as opposed to "dog" goodwill which attaches to individuals, and it used to be said that if Labour put up a monkey with a red rosette in some constituencies the monkey would win the election. Is that still the case now, in this less deferential age? To some extent no doubt but much less than it was. With voters increasingly willing to look at the issues for themselves, the power of party goodwill is gradually fading.

Secondly the party brings funding. British political parties are by no means rich but the Labour party receives funding from the trade unions and there are also a number of individual donors. To leave the party successfully you need to take some of the funding with you or alternatively create new sources of your own.

How then to retain the maximum political goodwill and funding when making a move? Here the trick is to move with others. Move on your own and you will not get the airtime for the explanations which are necessary to "sell" your move to voters, supporters and funders. A move by a large number of MPs is a matter for public debate, giving space for the reasons to be fully explained. Move as a mass and you force funders to make a decision rather than drifting along with the status quo.

In the end the logic has to be in favour of making a move and of making the move together. Obviously the thing will take some planning and there are certainly risks but the course is less unattractive than sitting like stuck pigs and waiting to be picked off singly. The questions are when? and how?

The need to make a move will become more obvious to moderate MPs as the deselection tumbrils begin to roll and the fact that constituency associations either cannot or will not stop them becomes more and more evident. If no early move is made, there will be a steady drain of deselected MPs and, because you cannot form a party on your own, that drain will have to be to the Liberal Democrats. To move decisively now would obviously be better but it will require sure handed confident leadership. Without that it simply will not happen.

Where is the leadership to come from? Surely not from Tom Watson, the deputy leader, whose reputation has suffered from his victimisation of Leon Brittan. Certainly not from Lord Falconer, who has embraced the new leadership like a modern Vicar of Bray. No, there is no one obvious on the ground here. The only answer is to go up to the battlements and look again to the West where, as in the best stories, the traduced brother sit in lonely exile. When will he come? Will he be dressed as Batman or as Superman? Will he be wearing lycra or leather? The last question at least is best left to those who enjoy fantisizing about such matters.