At present, Labour’s second leadership election since the surprise electoral rout of May 2015 looks like it will end as the first one did: with Jeremy Corbyn triumphant.
This will likely prompt a great deal of despair amongst those who want Britain to have a strong, viable centre-left alternative to Theresa May’s Conservatives. And the despair is well-founded: Corbyn’s embrace of the hard left certainly invites electoral annihilation at some point between now and 2020.
Yet focusing on the specific problem of Corbynism misses the broader point. Even before his surprise leadership victory, Labour was in deep trouble.
Simply put, it had been becoming clearer since the party lost office in 2010 that the electoral coalition built up under New Labour no longer existed. Its three pillars – the mainland Celtic nations of Scotland and Wales, the North, and metropolitan middle-class liberals – were pulling in very different directions.
In 2015 Scotland provided the most dramatic example of this, when all but one of Labour’s MPs north of the border lost their seats, most on spectacular swings. Since then, Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives have overtaken them in May’s devolved elections and are solidifying their hold on second place, as Scottish politics solidifies around a Unionist-Nationalist axis to which Labour are superfluous.
June’s Brexit vote, delivered by the mass defection of white, working-class Labour voters from the party’s official position, may presage the next disaster. Across the north of England and Wales, millions of these voters ignored their Labour MPs in favour of messages almost exclusively articulated by Conservative and Ukip politicians.
Either of those parties could be well-placed to hoover up a soft Labour support in these areas – Ukip might be especially well-placed to pick up voters in places like the Welsh Valleys that, for cultural reasons, may never vote Tory.
Local factors in Wales may make it worse: the party has been in power there since devolution began and Carwyn Jones’ administration is now limping unhappily into a fifth Labour term, in collusion with the solitary Liberal Democrat and the Nationalists. The Tories and Ukip may be the only parties untainted by his government’s many problems when the inevitable reckoning arrives.
Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have blown a hole in Labour's hegemony north of the border (Getty)
Owen Smith, for all that he is Welsh, seems unlikely to be the answer to these problems. His pitch has been resolutely aimed at the third pillar: middle-class, metropolitan, liberal voters. No further evidence of this is needed than his making a re-run of the EU referendum the central plank of his campaign.
That will delight Labour MPs, who are almost uniformly hostile to Brexit, and a big and very vocal section of the party’s well-off, socially privileged supporters. But it amounts to a bare-faced repudiation of the decision taken by a huge number of Labour voters, and they will not appreciate it.
Labour’s coalition worked so long as elections could be framed in terms of increasing public spending, as all the various components agreed on that. But as our financial circumstances turned the taps off and politics shifted towards cultural considerations, Labour had nothing to offer.
If either May’s boldly centrist Tories or a recast, more working-class Ukip manage to make serious inroads into the party’s disaffected working-class support, Labour risk becoming the Lib Dems writ large: a ‘liberal’ party, confined to an archipelago of well-heeled constituencies across the cities and university towns of England.
That is not the basis for a nationally viable centre-left alternative, and dethroning Corbyn will do nothing to change that. In fact, it might just prevent the destruction of an obsolete party and thus smother the emergence of whatever will replace it.