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Editorial Watson’s faction should beware the electoral law of unintended consequences

LABOUR’S right-wing factions have gathered their scattered forces to form a new grouping under the leadership of Tom Watson.

In denying it was a faction, Bristol MP Darren Jones said: “As Neil Kinnock, our former leader was saying this evening, and Peter Mandelson, this is a coming together of previous factions into the mainstream Labour Party.”

He added: “We are not a party within a party.”

The open emergence of this factional alliance follows the short-lived flurry of speculation that the formation of the Independent Group fronted by Chuka Umunna might deal the death blow to the prospects of a Corbyn-led Labour government.

Watson dresses up his enterprise as the reassertion of a Labour tradition of pluralism and tolerance but his words have more menacing meaning than his emollient tone suggests for they carried the threat of “a schism bigger than any we have experienced in our long history.”

Such is the climate of fear and intolerance within Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet that only 14 of its present members felt able to attend the meeting.

The attendance of 13 former members reminds us that departures from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet have so far resulted not from any disciplinary action but more from a series of self-mutilating bids to bring down his leadership.

In fact, Corbyn’s serene tolerance rests on the deep reservoirs of support that his leadership has among Labour’s membership and it is this that compels Watson’s new faction to manoeuvre beneath such clouds of hypocrisy.

This latest iteration of Labour’s deeply embedded right-wing reminds us that Labour has always contained a tension between tendencies that could find a compromise with capitalism and those that would rather see its end.

Drawing on his little-used lexicon of sweet words, Watson said: “Jeremy, to his credit, kept the voice of his tradition alive through the Campaign Group during the New Labour years, so he understands the need for those from the social democratic and democratic socialist traditions to give ourselves the strongest voice we can.”

Traditionally the Labour right was able to counter an occasionally rebellious constituency-based left wing with a firm grip on the machinery of the party underpinned by the organisational muscle that the trade union leadership provided.

This left the parliamentary party to choose the leadership and disregard any conference policies with which its majority disagreed.

But the topography of Labour politics has changed. One by one the unions elected new and more combative leaders while any illusions about the system’s benign character that Thatcherism and then Blairism left intact were destroyed by the 2008 crisis of financialised capitalism.

This is why the right wing finds it difficult to emulate the Labour left in combining loyalty to the party with sometimes sharp policy differences but rather seeks to overturn the leadership with a series of unprincipled manoeuvres and parliamentary coups.

We have to acknowledge that this long-standing offensive has scored some successes in blunting Labour’s renewed appeal to its electorate as well as destabilising sections of its membership. Voters lose confidence in a party that is constantly characterised by infighting and disunity.

The reconfiguring of Labour’s politics that has seen long-standing critics of the EU joined by right-wing MPs from strongly Leave constituencies suggests that electoral realism has the capacity to drive a new kind of unity.

While it is unlikely that very many of the forces presently gathered by Watson would willingly follow Umunna into obscurity they should be aware that the electoral law of unintended consequences could find them jobless in Britain’s poorly regulated labour market even if they survive reselection.

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