Chris McLaughlin and Paul Donovan
The Labour Party is on the verge of a fundamental split as it faces what members and MPs believe is the biggest crisis in its history.
As party officials finalised plans for a two-month leadership contest between Jeremy Corbyn and challenger Owen Smith there are fears of an historic and irreversible rift between the party members at large and MPs in Parliament.
Anti-Corbyn campaigners are hoping that a fervent drive to recruit new registered members on a £25-per-vote basis,
and an unquantified shift among full members away from the party leader, could overturn the huge majority he won just
ten months ago. Corbyn entered the race as firm favourite
with newly registered supporters also flocking to shore up
MPs on both sides of the leadership issue expressed the view that the current dispute is much more significant than the SDP breakaway in the early 1980s because it potentially splits the party into two irreconcilable parts, with major implications for parliamentary funding, trade union affiliations, policy, local campaigning and reselection of MPs.
In spite of intense pressure from MPs to stand down – and another high-profile policy clash with backbenchers, this time over trident renewal – Corbyn sees the move to oust him as an insurrection by MPs opposed to his concept of a new politics and a challenge to the democratic wish of party members who elected him last year.
Former shadow Welsh Secretary Smith – the MP for Pontypridd who emerged as the sole challenger after Wallasey MP Angela Eagle was forced to withdraw for lack of parliamentary support – proclaimed he was “just as radical as Jeremy”. But he claimed he was more able to lead Labour back into government and “put principles into practice”.
First elected in 2010, he was among those who quit the shadow cabinet in the wake of the referendum result which triggered a mass revolt against Corbyn’s leadership. Smith immediately came under fire for his role as an advocate for controversial pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. He was also forced to deny that he was in favour of part-privatisation of the NHS because of his past support for the Tory policy of greater “choice” within the service.
The result of the leadership contest will be declared on the eve of the Labour conference in Liverpool on 24 September. Dagenham labour MP Jon Cruddas, a key policy strategist within the party, warned that the result could mean Corbyn leading one part of the party while the right went off in another direction. In a speech to the National Justice and Peace Network he predicted that a fragmented Labour would open the way for UKIP to transform itself into a mass party sweeping up the working class vote. “Neither Corbyn nor the right of Labour are appealing to the working classes,” he said, declaring that Labour had “lost its soul” and “ethical base of approach”.