“A democracy is nothing more than mob rule.” This saying, attributed to the United States' third president, Thomas Jefferson, rests uneasily on the ears of all who call themselves democrats. Yet in times of crisis, like those currently lived by the Labour party, it bears the ring of authenticity. Supporters of the different leadership candidates have succumbed to a mob mentality in their blunt and unrelenting attacks on one another. Hundreds of thousands of newcomers have joined the fray seeking to push the party into new and uncharted territory.
Infinitely worse, however, is the mob boss-like way in which the Labour party bureaucracy has reacted to this massive influx of supporters: by enacting a cack-handed purge of new joiners, many of whom genuinely want to see the party succeed: albeit only under one particular leader.
Naturally, it has been a disaster.
It is not just the sheer hypocrisy of promising a massively open, participatory leadership election and then turning around to say: "no, sorry, on second thoughts we’ve decided that's a terrible idea." It’s not even the way in which it undermines every leadership candidate’s rhetoric on reaching out beyond the party’s base to people who don’t traditionally affiliate with Labour. All candidates, except maybe Jeremy Corbyn, who seems to have no interest in winning over former Tory voters, want to reach out to people on both the left and the right to form a winning electoral coalition. If we can’t achieve this within our own party without top brass losing their cool, how can we expect to do so across the country? Yes, I am aware that the evidence suggests the vast majority of new supporters and members are from the left, and in many cases the hard left, but the point still stands. We should be able to assimilate these radicals without falling apart.
No, my problem with this response is that it increases the chances the party will self-detonate on September 12, when the new leader is announced.
Scenario one: Jeremy Corbyn is elected by a huge margin. His grassroots supporters, emboldened by his staggering victory, and with the memory of the party’s attempted – and in some cases successful – exorcism of many of their number, turn their ire immediately on the party infrastructure, demanding emergency elections for the National Executive Committee and other internal bodies. Following a number of fraught debates at the Brighton conference, Corbyn’s supporters get their way. In the subsequent internal elections, the party returns almost exclusively far-left officers. The party’s swing to the hard left becomes entrenched. Labour is out of power for twenty years.
Scenario two: Jeremy Corbyn is elected by a razor-thin margin after a last-minute change of heart by hundreds of the soft left propel Andy Burnham to a close second. As it is already public knowledge that the party is wide open to a legal challenge for failing to adequately vet new joiners, supporters of Burnham, Cooper, and Kendall all start agitating for someone – anyone – to launch a lawsuit. And why should they hold back? Modernising MPs who have spoken out against Corbyn today face a generation on the backbenches at best under his leadership; deselection at worst. Faced with such a fate, why shouldn’t they, or anyone else who wants to see a Labour government elected in 2020, not just press the big red button? The party is embroiled in a series of messy legal actions. Labour is out of power for twenty years.
Scenario three: Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper are elected leader, also by a razor-thin margin. The legion of Corbyn supporters cry foul at the perceived injustice, and stories start doing the rounds of how he would have triumphed had it not been for the party’s culling of his would-be voters. The hundreds of thousands of Corbyn supporters agitate for their robbed leader and his handful of MPs to secede and establish a new socialist party. Labour splits, and is out of power for twenty years.
No matter what occurs in three weeks’ time, I cannot foresee a scenario in which the Labour purge does not come back to haunt the party. By then, though, it would be too late to make amends – both within the party, and between the party and the wider electorate.
Louie Woodall is a Young Fabians Executive Committee member