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Labour's mess

Imagine you're in your office, and someone walks in and throws soup all over your desk. Then they shout at you: "someone with such a filthy desk isn't fit to work in this organisation! You have to resign!"

This is not a perfect analogy for the current mess in Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party. (If you feel like it, add some details so it satisfies you - I'd be amused to hear them.) But it's not really that far from the truth. And it seems to reflect extremely well the view that Corbyn, his team and most of his supporters have of the way things have unfolded.

There are a range of reasons why Corbyn is not a good leader of the party. For many people, he has a trifecta of bad features: he's further left than the actually-correct position on major policy issues; he's much further left than is electorally viable; and he is by and large an astonishingly incompetent manager of media coverage and day-to-day party politics. I count myself in the group of people who think this.

But the most important reason why Corbyn shouldn't be Labour leader right now - as opposed to being replaced in a couple of years' time - is that he's unable to assemble a competent shadow cabinet or preside over a united parliamentary party. That makes him totally unsuited to leading Labour. You cannot lead an effective opposition - whether you're interested in winning elections, changing people's minds, or forcing government U-turns in parliament - if most of your MPs don't support you.

This argument is basically irrefutable, and Corbyn should resign. But you can understand why it sounds a bit dubious when the argument is being made most persistently by the MPs who are refusing to support him. Worse than that, for the most part they seem to be refusing to support him only because they want him to resign. The pretext that the resignations were sparked by Corbyn's poor performance in the referendum campaign rapidly became extremely unconvincing and, as far as I can tell, has now been abandoned. This is the soup analogy: a bunch of Labour MPs created a problem in order to force Corbyn to resign, then shouted that he had to resign because of this problem.

From a tactical point of view, the whole attempt to remove Corbyn has been an unmitigated disaster which it's hard to believe was orchestrated by professional politicians. My view is that there was no immediate need for Corbyn to go and by far the wisest strategy would have been to wait a while - give him more than nine months in the job, at least!

If you really wanted to oust him, I suppose the best way would have been something like this: a less-overwhelming bunch of shadow ministers resign and declare they couldn't work under Corbyn, then keep quiet. Everyone waits a while, then some other shadow ministers ruefully announce that although they would be happy to keep trying, the party really needed a leader who could bring everyone together, and so they thought a change of leadership was needed. I guess this is kind of the role that Owen Smith has been trying to play, but he's completely mangled it. The problem with it is that if you actually have this plan, then most of what you're ruefully saying will be transparently dishonest, and that's clearly the way Corbyn supporters see the "I wasn't part of any coup" line Smith is now running.

So here we are. Having engaged in this patently terrible scheme to force Corbyn out, Labour now has a candidate and is launching into a leadership election which Corbyn will almost certainly win. Then the 170 MPs who loudly announced that they didn't think he could lead the party will be in a tricky position, and the talk about a split will get even louder.

A couple of weeks ago I thought a split would be quite likely if Corbyn won again. I'm increasingly unsure, for the basic reason that it's so obvious that splitting the party would be suicidal that even the most vociferous Corbyn critics might not actually do it. Any serious look at the history of the Social Democratic Party - a similar soft-left splinter from Labour, in the 1980s - makes this extremely clear. Although the SDP won quite a lot of votes, it still won fewer than the unelectably-hard-left Labour Party of the time. Almost all its seats were gained by defections from Labour; at the one general election it seriously contested, in 1983, it actually lost seats. The problem is that in the event of a split, a lot of people will just vote Labour anyway - more or less no matter how far to the left it is or how far left Corbyn runs - so that the new party will have basically no chance in Labour safe seats and a very hard time, given first-past-the-post, in more marginal ones. If these politicians are at all rational, they won't go in for a strategy like this, and will instead sit in the sidelines of Labour railing for at least a few more years. It'll be a complete shambles, but largely one occurring within the existing Labour Party rather than between it and a challenger party.

This pickle, to be clear, is entirely of anti-Corbyn MPs' own making. I'm sympathetic to their complaints. But that Jeremy Corbyn is both stubborn and a firm believer in internal party democracy, and that he has a huge grassroots organisation of loyal supporters, were things everyone already knew beforehand. It should have been clear to everyone that the attempt to force his resignation would be swatted away as the underhanded move it demonstrably was, and that the result would be a divisive leadership contest and an irreparable debacle. All this at a time when the party could easily have been piling pressure on a new Prime Minister who wasn't elected and is facing an extremely difficult challenge which she doesn't even believe in.