As Angela Eagle conceded defeat in front of TV cameras in the Central Lobby at Westminster, throwing her support behind the “unity candidate” Owen Smith, her aides described the battle ahead as being for the “future of the party” – before disappearing down a corridor in search of a drink.
But what future does Labour have? As the party heads into a long, hot summer holding its second leadership ballot in 13 months, it is hopelessly divided, languishes in the polls and is led by a man who most agree would take Labour to its worst electoral defeat in modern history.
In parliament, it no longer functions effectively. Labour benches sat empty during opposition debates this week, with backbench MPs openly refusing to support front bench colleagues. The party is ten points behind the Conservatives – the Tories have managed to accidentally lose the country’s membership of the EU, but if an election were held tomorrow, they would still double their majority.
Remarkably, though, the worst may still be to come. It’s easy to look at Smith’s leadership challenge as the culmination of a rebellion against Jeremy Corbyn that effectively began on the day of his election as leader.
But few give Smith any realistic chance of victory – so what then? Even with three-quarters of his parliamentary colleagues set against him, it’s impossible to see Jeremy Corbyn resigning. As one supporter put it to me at his campaign launch, Corbyn’s political heroes are Latin American revolutionaries who died for the cause. He will not be moved.
That would suggest a split in the Labour Party is inevitable, and the first question to disgruntled MPs after a Jeremy Corbyn re-election will certainly be to ask if they are staying in the party. A breakaway group of MPs would lose the financial support of the trade unions, but could at least rely on the several equally unhappy Labour donors who haven’t opened their wallets since Corbyn was elected.
One suggestion is that Labour MPs could form their own group within parliament, electing their own leader and asking the Speaker to designate that person the leader of the opposition. They would theoretically be eligible for short money worth millions of pounds, and could name a new front bench to make a show of holding the government to account.
If the anti-Corbyn forces are going to try and force a split, the clock is now ticking. Every candidate will face a battle for re-selection in a boundary review that comes into effect in 2018. The majority of sitting MPs will automatically be placed on the shortlist for a redrawn constituency, but it will be an irresistible opportunity for pro-Corbyn campaign group Momentum to mount challenges to sitting MPs whose voting record they don’t approve of.
Bricks, threats and insults are already being hurled over the battle for the Labour leadership. Imagine what could be unleashed when the make-up of large chunks of the parliamentary party is at stake in dozens of contests across the country.
The likelihood of seeing a new centre-left party emerge is itself fairly remote, however. Memories of the failure of the Social Democratic Party, the last attempt by Labour rebels to quit a party lurching to the left, are still fresh enough to act as a warning.
That scenario also relies on life-long Labour MPs, some of whom joined as teenagers, abandoning the party they have fought all their lives for. They won’t walk away from the Labour banner any more easily than Corbyn abandons the leadership.
The most likely scenario is the least dramatic, but the bleakest for Labour supporters on either side of the debate within the party: that Labour will limp on with Corbyn at the helm until the next general election, possibly not until 2020. The dysfunction within the parliamentary party will continue, as few rebel MPs will be able to stomach taking Corbyn’s extended “hand of friendship”. MPs on the Labour front bench will continue to double up on jobs, making proper scrutiny of government in key areas impossible.
Thwarted rebels who survive re-selection challenges will focus on their constituencies, backing the bits of the Labour manifesto and leadership platform that they support while effectively campaigning as independent Labour MPs. It’s a model that was perfected by serial rebels during the Blair government – including none other than Corbyn himself in his 33 years as MP for Islington North.
Heading into the next election, how low can the Labour vote go? The Tories will be beneficiaries, but biggest threat to Labour in its one-time heartlands could come from Ukip. The party has seen some of its support drift away to the Conservatives following the Brexit victory, but Ukip came second in 120 seats across the UK in 2015. Almost half of those constituencies are held by Labour, and three-quarters of them are in the north of England. There is the potential for considerable overlap with working-class, Brexit-supporting Labour voters who feel disgruntled and abandoned by their party’s campaign in favour of EU membership.
Targeting those voters should be the top priority for Ukip at the next election, particularly if the frontrunner to succeed Nigel Farage – the MEP and immigration spokesman Steven Woolfe – emerges victorious. Born in one of the toughest areas of inner city Manchester, with a family of mixed black and Jewish heritage, he attended a state primary school, won a scholarship to a private secondary, and became a City lawyer.
Woolfe may not have the charisma of his predecessor, but his appeal to traditional Labour voters is obvious, and while Ukip won’t challenge Labour’s status as the second party in UK politics, a breakthrough in even a handful of seats could cripple the Left’s ability to win an election for a generation.
Whatever the outcome of the leadership vote, the next Labour leader looks likely to inherit a party that is not only divided, but also smaller, weaker, shorn of some of its best talent and fighting battles on its left and right. Labour’s bad-tempered summer could last an unseasonably long time.