We may yet end up with a more ‘continental’ configuration of the left in Britain: two parties, one social democratic and the other reformist socialist with maybe a revolutionary wing.But is there currently a civil war in the Labour party between social democracy and reformist socialism?
In a sense it would be nice if that was what current debates were about, but it does not seem like that. The main debating point in the election was austerity, where the dividing line was between those prepared to follow the economics and those that thought doing so was electoral suicide. The latest fracas was about bombing Syria. Both seem to have more to do with an agenda set by the Conservatives and the media rather than any fundamental divide on the left.
Here is an alternative interpretation. There are these two traditions among MPs, but perhaps the majority of the (far more numerous) social democratic tradition are trying to work with the socialist leadership to formulate a policy platform that both sides can live with. This majority accept the reality demonstrated by the Labour leadership election, which was essentially a vote against the platform and perhaps more importantly the strategy that the other candidates at least appeared to represent. Obtaining this compromise means struggle for sure, but not open civil war.
Within both traditions, there are those who are less prepared to compromise. In particular, there are a significant group of MPs among the social democrats that believe a civil war might be to their advantage. They reason that the quicker it becomes clear that the current leadership are failing in the polls, the sooner party members will see the folly of their previous decision and they can win back the leadership. A civil war can hasten that day. Perhaps they might even be able to stage a coup before then.
A coup would surely split the party. Given the leadership election result, those on the right would lose in any battle to control the party. If that happened, the lessons of the past (which this group draw freely upon when arguing that the current situation is doomed to fail at the polls) suggest that a split would be disastrous in the short term, and those that split to the right would eventually fail. However attempting to openly sabotage the current leadership is also in danger of being counterproductive, as it allows the leadership to use this as an excellent excuse for any failure at the polls. Party members will be rightly appalled that at a time when the mistakes of the current government were becoming increasing apparent others seemed more concerned with overturning their leadership vote.
I think here Colin Talbot is wrong when he writes
History may well judge that [social democrats] missed their opportunity to seize their party back when they had the chance and by the time they did try it was too late.The chances of replacing Corbyn before the election and still winning it appear incredibly slim. A successor to Corbyn has to emerge who can both appear to share the spirit and strategy that led Corbyn to victory, but at the same time is capable of uniting the parliamentary party behind them. They need to have time to establish a personality and media acumen that can enable them to get away with standing against a Labour leader and still win over enough of his original supporters to win a leadership contest. All this, and still have time to unite the party enough to win the next election.
The harsh reality, which some Labour MPs seem unable to accept, is that if their pessimism about Corbyn's chances in the polls is correct, the next election is almost certainly lost. But Talbot implies an urgency beyond this: that somehow as time goes on the position of the social democrats will become too weak. This I just do not see. The programme that will be hammered out between the leadership and its MPs over the next year or so will be pretty social democratic. There is little in John McDonnell's latest speech that is socialist rather than social democratic. For the great majority of Labour MPs, their best strategy for winning back the party is to be patient and let Corbyn fail on his own terms without their help.