A faction within the Labour Party is looking to use the Co-operative Party as a vehicle for an opposition group to Jeremy Corbyn if he is re-elected as leader, according to reports.
The Sunday Times claimed that as many as 100 Labour MPs are considering the formation of a new group in parliament if Jeremy Corbyn is re-elected as leader. It suggests rebels are looking at the potential to become Co-op MPs to consolidate internal opposition to Mr Corbyn.
If they have more seats than Labour MPs, the paper said that rebels will ask speaker John Bercow to recognise the group as the official opposition. The speaker has reportedly said that in such a situation he would only consider an established party that is registered with the Electoral Commission.
But the Co-operative Party said it was “not a vehicle to be used by one political faction or another to advance their own agenda”. In response to the rumours, the statement added: “The Co-operative Party has worked with Labour under each of its leaders since 1927 and remains neutral on the current leadership contest within the Labour Party.”
The Co-operative Party has had an electoral agreement with Labour since 1927, which enables it to stand joint candidates in elections. As an independent political party, it maintains its own membership, staff, national executive committee (NEC) and policy platform, all of which are independent of Labour’s.
The Co-operative Party has said that most Labour MPs are individual members, but there are only 25 Labour & Co-operative-sponsored MPs.
Traditionally, Labour & Co-operative MPs are selected by both their local Co-operative Party and Labour Party to stand as an ‘official’ candidate. Candidates are selected from a National Parliamentary Panel, which any party member can apply for. The party does not have a formal procedure for converting Labour MPs into Co-op-sponsored MPs.
In a statement, the party added that its NEC has had no discussions about changing the way the party operates following the outcome of the Labour leadership contest.
Professor Steven Fielding, who leads the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham, believes that Labour MPs are more likely to consider forming a distinct group within the party, rather than forming a new political party.
“They don’t want to leave Labour, but they want to create a distinctive identity from Corbyn’s leadership,” he said.
“There’s nothing stopping individual Labour MPs from joining the Co-operative Party and then refer to themselves as the Co-operative Group of the Labour Party. The Co-operative Party has a long history of association with the Labour Party so this would give them greater legitimacy.”
However, the Co-operative Party said that Labour MPs could not unilaterally declare themselves as Labour/Co-op MPs, since MPs have to go through a certification process with the party.
The academic believes the group of rebel MPs could choose a different name if the official group of 25 Labour/Co-op MPs disapproves of the “co-operative” name being used.
There have been instances in the past where MPs have created groupings within the Labour Party to assert a distinct identity from the party’s leadership.
In 1964, a group of MPs formed the Tribune Group within the party. The group acted as the main forum for the left in the Parliamentary Labour Party, but split after Tony Benn’s bid for the deputy leadership of the party in 1981.
The MPs backing Mr Benn formed the Campaign Group (later the Socialist Campaign Group) in 1982. Both the Labour leader and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell were members of the Socialist Campaign Group, which currently includes only five MPs.
Ideological divisions within the Labour Party also led to the formation of the Manifesto Group within the party in 1974. The MPs who established the group went on to create the Social Democrat Party in 1981.
Prof Fielding thinks that at this moment in time not many MPs would consider creating a new party to be “a viable option”, but does not exclude the possibility on the long term.