Labour's left appears to be licking their lips at the thought of Starmer’s ignominious end as leader, something which they now seem to hope will be coming sooner than they could have ever dreamed back in the summer. Should the party do poorly at the May local elections, the plan seems to be to agitate for a change at the top and unite around John McDonnell as Corbyn’s true successor.
If the Labour party was taken over by the far left again, this would leave liberals in a difficult position. Since Keir Starmer took over, most liberals have folded into Labour, correctly seeing that they are the only vehicle for ousting the Tories from government in the relatively short term. The Lib Dems have essentially become a Starmer tribute act since the election, betting their entire future as a party on 'winning where the reds can’t' in order to form a government with the newly centrist Labour. All talk of needing a new moderate party in British politics has faded as a result.
After the fiasco that was Change UK, it is easy to see why British liberals want to park any idea of creating a fresh political entity. They just want to bet on Starmer and hope he comes through in the end. Yet thinking about McDonnell taking over the Labour party leadership, a possibility that is a scarily long way from being far-fetched, does make me wonder whether abandoning all plans for a new party was such a great idea.
One thing is certain: the Lib Dems aren’t the vehicle for anything whatsoever. Not only have they put all their chips on Starmer, but there was also a reason that Change UK happened in the first place; namely that most pro-European liberals in both of the major parties didn’t have any faith that the Liberal Democrats wouldn’t screw up epically were they to become the repository for their political hopes. After Change UK imploded, the Lib Dems were the only thing left and so they flocked there — only to have their worst fears about that party play out in the most tragic way imaginable.
Labour people I speak to tell me I shouldn’t worry — it’s the soft left that really decides who gets to be Labour leader and they’ll never elect a far-left candidate again. Given they elected Corbyn not once but twice, the second time after he’d been awful for a year and the EU referendum had been lost, I think they are being wildly overconfident. It’s also open season on who you consider 'soft left'. Clive Lewis is a name that has been thrown about as someone who could stop the McDonnell train — but one really has to wonder how 'soft' Lewis’s leftism is.
I’m not saying Labour centrists should storm out tomorrow. But having some sort of plan for what happens if Starmer fails and the far left reasserts control of the party wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world. There is a risk that if McDonnell or someone even worse takes over, they will be caught flat-footed, spending years floundering again, probably having to cope with two more general elections in which a far-left Labour leader goes to the polls and gets battered by the Tories along the way.
Yet so long as Starmer is leader, there will be no backup plan whatsoever. The very idea of thinking about what happens in the face of another Labour election defeat, or worse, an ousting of Starmer somehow before a general election, is too painful to contemplate for Labour moderates. Yet they may just have to think again about a split in the party.
Having been through the Change UK experience, they could learn from their mistakes. A big one is that having six or seven or even ten MPs leave won’t work. You need at least forty to make it stick. The Labour party has to properly split, not just fracture slightly. You can also only count on the Lib Dems to follow, not lead.
Again, few will be thinking about such questions while Starmer is still leader. Yet at some point there may need to be a plan B. Yet there is more than an insignificant chance that the next time a party other than the Tories gets a parliamentary majority, it will be an entity that doesn’t even exist yet. Nothing that has happened in the last few years — including the ascension of Sir Keir — has convinced me that this is false. Thinking beyond Starmer is the last thing most people not of the far left who want to see the Tories ousted from government wish to contemplate. It might also be what they need to start considering if they want to avoid another decade in the wilderness.