Contrary to conventional wisdom, election wipeout for Labour won't leave the party as a socialist rumpby Philip Cowley / August 31, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
What happens if the next British election reflects today’s opinion polls and Labour is wiped out—slumping from today’s 350 MPs to 200 or even fewer? The conventional wisdom is that moderates and Blairites sit for the more marginal seats, and leftist old Labour types for heartland safe seats that would survive a disaster. The result, it is claimed, is that the party would implode. The parliamentary Labour party (PLP) would become a socialist rump, with the moderate minority splitting to form a new party, or perhaps to join the Liberal Democrats.
As often with conventional wisdom, there is something in the underlying assumption. Labour’s very marginal seats are disproportionately held by party loyalists. If Labour were to lose its 44 most marginal seats, for example, it would lose just one MP who backed the left-wing John McDonnell for the leadership against Gordon Brown last year. And seats held by Labour with a majority of 10 per cent or less are disproportionately held by MPs who have not cast one dissenting vote against the government since 2005.
Yet anyone hoping for a leftist takeover of the PLP will be disappointed. For one thing, the effect is not very strong. For example, of those Labour MPs who are currently committed to fighting the next election, around 62 per cent have not voted against the party whip since the last election. If Labour loses every seat up to, say, a majority of 5 per cent, then 70 per cent of those who fall are loyalists, 30 per cent rebels. So loyalists go faster than rebels, but mainly because there are more of them; any disproportionality in the rate of defeat is marginal.
Moreover, there is nothing at all in the belief that a catastrophic result will produce a rump PLP dominated by the left-wing Campaign Group. Most of these effects even out after the most marginal seats have fallen: once Labour has lost every seat with a majority of 15 per cent or less, rebels and loyalists go in roughly the same…