Under normal circumstances, a leader fresh from election success should be able to look forwards with confidence and self-assurance, if a little unease. But Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is no regular political body. Corbyn recently saw off challenger Owen Smith with 61.8% of the Labour party membership. He has been nominated to remain in the post he has occupied since September 2015.
Now, the party’s outward narrative is one of newfound solidarity, with those who tried to oust the incumbent party leader giving into his demands for unity following what was a bitterly divisive leadership election.
But though the bolstered mandate under Corbyn’s belt may have corralled his dissenters into something of a ceasefire, the leadership election has exposed a fundamental division within the Labour party which signs suggest will continue to consume it for years to come.
If anyone expects Corbyn’s Labour to mount a serious challenge to the incumbent Conservative party anytime soon, they will prove to be sorely mistaken. Consequently, the current government is likely to enjoy something of a smooth ride as far as usual party politics goes, and it is a safe bet that the UK will be an even more drastically different place in five years’ time than one would be given to expect considering Brexit alone.
The Old Versus The New
On the face of it, this division is between old and new, with an exit poll finding that Owen Smith won amongst members who joined before 2015 (when Corbyn launched his unlikely bid for leadership). To some, it looks like a new mode of left-of-centre politics replacing the old guard, but this only tells part of the story.
For a start, the poll also found that the challenger won amongst 18-24-year-olds. Alongside the more radical tendencies of Corbyn’s politics and the nostalgic flavour of his policies, this suggests the “new” could just as well be a return to the old. The likelihood is that it is a mix of both: old souls disillusioned by the relatively diluted centrism of the Blair and Brown years, and younger first-time entrants into party politics, both encouraged by the new direction of the party – both, nonetheless, distinctly on the left of UK politics.
As a result, it is tempting to put Labour’s crisis down to an ideological tug-of-war between slightly more and slightly less left-of-centre politics, but this is far from the whole picture. Crucially, Owen Smith’s campaign had no discernible policy difference to his opponent’s.
Gaffe-prone and with but a fraction of Corbyn’s personal appeal among party members, Smith was little more than a poster boy for those dissatisfied with their leader’s priorities and management style: a vote for the Welshman was a protest vote. Had a blow-up doll with “ANYTHING BUT THIS!” scrawled across its chest been volunteered instead, it would have won just as many votes.
Its Biggest Threat
Despite appearances, it is not the political content of the Labour party which threatens it the most. Corbyn’s message is undoubtedly radical in the context of the last two decades of British politics, but the last year shows how difficult it is to predict which side of it voters will fall across over the coming years.
He now leads the largest party in Western Europe, with pundits putting most of the huge increases in membership during his tenure down to his appeal: over 150,000 have joined since January 10, and 15,500 just since his re-election on September 24. Yet, he is unpopular with not only the wider public (according to YouGov polling) but also with people who identify as Labour supporters without necessarily being party members, who astonishingly rate him less favourably than Conservative PM Theresa May, according to an Ipsos MORI poll.
Since Labour’s recent party conference, pundits and analysts of an economic orientation have been lining up to criticise Corbyn’s policy direction, arguing that the cost plan backing up his long shopping list of investment schemes is either non-existent or economically unsound.
Yet observers of the last few years of British politics may be inclined to balk at the notion that economic scrutiny can have the power to halt a sufficiently sexy spending proposal – re-nationalisation of the railways is supported by a majority of the country, for example, and almost every party’s manifesto has a bucket-load of house-building promises thrown in for good measure.
Re-intellectualising The Left
Perhaps more importantly, by dismissing such criticism as the product of a biased media or conspiratorial establishment, Corbyn has capitalised on something of a political stroke of genius (the same process, incidentally, helping Trump stay seemingly invulnerable against the onslaught of a hostile media in the US). By leading followers to focus their gaze not on the substance of what people say against them but on their critics’ motives, it enables them to transmute truths – that, say, an awful lot of the media does like to criticise Corbyn – into supposedly incontrovertible evidence against nay-sayers.
Finally, Corbyn’s return to ideology, away from the bland technocracy of the Blair-Brown years, has started to re-intellectualise leftism: Labourites appear more likely to see themselves as challenging capitalism itself rather than this or that social injustice, tending more to be suspicious of the “mainstream” economics underlying their critics’ reasoning. What all this means is that Labour’s chances at success cannot easily be written off on the basis of Corbyn’s policy content.
Corbyn’s Ideological Stance
They can be written off, though, once one notices just how pervasively division blights the party. But what is the root of this split? Although the anti-Corbyn faction is perhaps a broad church, its unifying view is that their current leader and the politics he represents is excessively ideological, inward-looking and failing to engage in election strategy and branding.
Those defending Corbyn, on the other hand, insist that right is on his side – that his message can bring him victory by the sheer force of its own value. His supporters tend to view electioneering and dilution of socialist rhetoric (to which those in Smith’s camp credit significantly the election successes of the Blair years) as at best a counterproductive distraction, at worst immoral “spin.”
While the Labour party boasts a sizeable 550,000 members, there remains an electorate in excess of 45 million UK voters from which a majority must be carved, and the party is split on how to go about this. Labour’s infighting tends to shift focus from issue to issue as it comes in and out of the spotlight – whether it is on Corbyn’s management, public appeal, policy direction, or allegations of anti-Semitism – but each boils down to this fundamental tension in the party between pragmatists and ideologues.
The debate over Britain’s nuclear deterrent program, Trident, is a good example. Corbyn, a long-time supporter of disarmament, has been forced to come to terms with his nuclear bête noire. Not long ago, he had been voicing desires to scrap the program. This provoked on the one hand concerns from Labour MPs that their electoral chances would be compromised (a majority of Britons support Trident renewal), to no great effect.
On the other hand, it was met with resistance from the trades unionists in his party, among others, who opposed the job losses that would result. The solution that Corbyn momentarily toyed with as a result – maintaining the submarine patrols without any nuclear weaponry on board – says something important about his approach: he will stand by his principles against the public mood, but not his core base in the party.
The Issues Within
Granted, it was confirmed at the party conference this week that Labour party policy would be to support renewal. But reports that Shadow Secretary of State for Defence Clive Lewis’ speech announcing the policy was altered last-minute by party bosses so as to allow for the possibility of a U-turn, later on, suggests that policy may make a return to his boss’ true desires at some point in the future.
Lewis’ barely concealed frustration (and the hole in a wall which he reportedly punched backstage after his speech) was indicative of what’s to come. Dissenters may grin and bear it for the time being, but it is difficult to imagine things won’t flare up again soon.
Labour’s changing direction on immigration underlines this likelihood. Shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner said that Labour would support plans to control EU migration according to quality once Brexit takes effect (ruling out a cap on numbers).
This would place Shadow Ministers in the awkward position of talking up immigration controls after months of defending free movement in the run-up to the EU referendum. Gardiner justified this as respect for the demands of an allegedly anti-immigration Britain in light of the referendum result, and several high-profile MPs have expressed a similar readiness to capitulate.
They have been somewhat persuasive in brushing off any insinuations of hypocrisy by defending the policy as a democratically-minded compromise but visibly discomforted nonetheless. Furthermore, some of Corbyn’s critics in the party may take this new direction as vindication of their belief that he is not interested in pushing for retained membership of the European Single Market. Given the big role this suspicion played in Owen Smith’s campaign spiel, it is unlikely that the 38.2% of the party that voted for him are going to stay subdued for any great length of time.
Personal Principles Versus Public Will
Now if Corbyn goes ahead with this new direction on immigration, it means he is either genuinely setting aside his principles to try and represent the public will, or wising up to the political game he must play to have a shot at 10 Downing Street. The latter seems more likely, since if he were a true populist he wouldn’t oppose air strikes in Syria or reducing welfare benefits – just two examples from a longer list of stances on which he differs from majority public opinion. It seems that Corbyn is himself beginning to shift from ideologue to pragmatist.
But this does not mean his party is going to see greater success, not least if one thinks through this particular change of tack. The idea is to win back anti-immigration voters (polling suggests that a majority of Labour supporters who voted for Brexit intend to vote for other parties at the next general election).
Yet, this will be beyond their reach if other parties proposing tangible caps on migration numbers prove more tantalising, which would be all the more likely if more principled MPs undermine the party line by clinging on to freedom of movement in and out of Europe.
Add this to the risk of alienating some of the 63% of Labour supporters who voted to remain in the EU, and it looks like they may end up losing a lot more than they gain.
Nor does it mean that the pragmatic camp is winning over the party. It has been reported on several occasions that groups to the left of the Labour umbrella have been pushing for disloyal MPs to be deselected. Perhaps the thought is that picking off Corbyn’s opponents one by one will bring about the unity in the party’s voice that a decisive leadership election victory cannot. But the party conference shows that loyalty in itself is not the real issue here.
Some moderates have begun to make amends, such as Deputy Leader Tom Watson’s olive branch to Corbyn support group Momentum, but despite this their leader has yet to rule out deselection attempts to any meaningful degree and the rhetoric against his opponents shows no signs of calming, with henchmen such as union big dog Len McCluskey continuing to threaten “traitors” even on the party conference stage.
It does not seem there is any sign of turning back: the toxic aftermath of the leadership challenge is enough for each faction to want to keep fighting until they win outright. It matters little whether moderates stop undermining Corbyn on public platforms, too.
The mere fact of their betrayal and the baring of their fundamental political differences from the Corbynists is enough to make the latter camp stop at nothing until the “traitors” are ousted, while Labour’s continued poor performance in the public sphere will motivate the already tribally loyal moderates to cling on even harder.
McCluskey, touching on this exposed fault line in the party, said:
“Now I’ve heard people lecture us about the futility of principles without power. But comrades, we’ve also seen where power without principles leads to.”
The trouble for Labour is that it is in a deadlock over which way to swing harder.
Nothing will break it save for either dramatic victory or annihilation in the polls, and neither seems likely for the time being. What this means is that there will be no strong opposition to the government for a long time to come. It may not be the total disarray we have become used to over the past few months.
For instance, Corbyn says he is preparing to fight a general election in 2017 – he is surely not naive enough to expect victory, but perhaps hopeful that it might galvanise support around him to reinforce his position. Public appetite for a snap election seems small, however, and even if it does come about it will be little more than a momentary distraction for the Tories.
All this doesn’t mean business as usual, though: the set of politicians now in charge of the government is very different to the pre-Brexit Cameron cohort, more driven by ideological conservatism. The vacuum created by the protracted lapse of Labour’s sanity is likely to fan the flames of change brought about by the EU referendum result.
The simultaneous distractions and opportunities offered by Brexit negotiations, added to the fact that no opposition force will be able to mount enough of a parliamentary or rhetorical offensive against the Conservatives for a good while means that this government will have a carte blanche for reform that is rarely seen in Western democracies. It is difficult to tell in which direction this will lead, but the next few years will see more rapid changes in the UK than has been seen for decades.