Tom Watson has said there is an ‘existential crisis’ facing Labour at the moment, and certainly the fallout from the EU referendum has caused chaos within the Labour Party. The leadership coup against Jeremy Corbyn, which saw the resignation of the majority of his shadow cabinet, followed by Angela Eagle’s leadership challenge, combine to create the circumstances in which total reorganisation of the left and the centre of British politics can now occur. The Labour Party is indeed “in peril”, but this is probably the best news for the the left in Britain since Tony Blair. Labour’s collapse paves the way for its return as the genuine party of the left, and the chance for the formation of a new party to occupy the underrepresented centre ground.
The recent divisions that have rocked Labour have proven that it is time for the PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party) to break from the workers that the Westminster party has let down since the rise of Tony Blair and ‘New Labour’. I am no socialist, but a vote for Labour should be a vote for Trade Unions, workers’ rights, a national living wage and most importantly against austerity, particularly when Jeremy Corbyn – who represents a genuine attachment to these principles – was elected as the leader of the Labour Party so emphatically, with over 250,000 votes. It must indeed be especially beguiling for Labour’s membership that as the PLP brands Corbyn unelectable he stands as Britain’s only remaining politician with anything like a mandate, as Theresa May walks into No. 10 with just 0.00003% of the country’s support – not even a single Conservative member’s vote but still her party’s united support.
The divide between Labour’s membership and MPs reflects the national schism of Parliament and the electorate.
The PLP’s contention that Corbyn is unelectable is yet more laughable if one considers what could possibly be more unelectable: a Labour party that stands divided against itself. Moreover, when it is Angela Eagle – hardly a juggernaut of a leader – who is leading the campaign to oust Corbyn, claiming that she has all the leadership credentials to reunite the party, the alternative hardly seems grounded in reality.
Many attacks on Corbyn have also focused on his image, perceived scruffiness and appearance of being out of place in the Commons, but to slam Corbyn for this misses the point of his appeal entirely. He is meant to look out of place in the raucous sessions of PMQs, as he represents the people who Westminster currently fails to represent. It may have been David Cameron who told him to “put a proper suit on, do up up your tie and sing the national anthem”, but the actions of the PLP hint at a similar attachment to appearances over substance, an attachment the left should always fight against. Indeed, the divide between Labour’s membership and MPs reflects the national schism of Parliament and the electorate. The fact that we have just voted to ignore the official stance of the SNP, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats to leave the EU underlines this disillusionment with the political ‘establishment’. It is about time that Labour got back to directly representing the interests of its supporters, rather than remaining the least bad viable party of government for the left.
It may be argued that the Labour Party must remain as a coalition of the left to stop a period of Conservative electoral dominance, but this coalition actually causes reduced electoral performance. When Labour exists as a middle ground between socialist and Blairite policies, it loses support from voters who ascribe to each of these two factions. Haemorrhaging seats to the SNP in Scotland in a direct rejection of Blairite Labour in 2015, whilst also perceived as the party of Red Ed in parts of England, Labour’s lack of a clear ideology alienates voters. Even if Labour’s two wings were to rejoin in a coalition government, at least it would be clear what a vote for each wing in an election would represent with a clear difference in ideology and policy.
As for who should actively breakaway, there is no doubt that it must be the same MPs who are trying to oust Corbyn that have to go. Despite their claims to represent workers and their interests, Labour MPs are directly ignoring what their membership want – the membership elected Corbyn as leader and so the MPs must accept that Labour is Corbyn’s to lead.
Blairite MPs should admit that they share more in common with the Liberal Democrats than a Labour Party led by Corbyn. They should look to form a new party distinct from Labour which must follow the mandate of its membership. The thing is, in terms of content there was actually nothing new at all about “New Labour” other than the fact that it was carried out under the name of Labour. It betrayed socialist principles that had before been at the core of the party and was ideologically more similar to the New Liberalism of Lloyd George and Asquith, whilst sharing an emphasis on education that dates as far back to Liberalism as Gladstone, a four-time Liberal Prime Minister. That was the true innovation of Blair: the spinning of an economic acceptance of full capitalism and Thatcherism on a left wing platform, rather than the content of Blairism itself.
Blairism has permeated into dominating the policy of the PLP and the fact that the Labour Party proposed an acceptance of austerity in the 2015 election proves this. This ideological conflict that is at the heart of Labour’s leadership crisis is neatly categorised by Corbyn’s vote against a secret ballot being used for the BMU’s vote on the rules for leadership nomination last week; essentially most of Labour’s MPs believe in the desirability of pure democracy as an end in itself, whereas much of the left (represented by Corbyn’s vote) would prioritise working class interests over pure democracy, if given the chance.
Blairite MPs should admit that they share more in common with the Liberal Democrats than a Labour Party led by Corbyn.
Labour is fundamentally at odds with itself; it is failing to represent the views and interests of any of its supporters, instead existing as a crumbling bridge between two different types of Labour voters. Now that Labour has been taken control of by Corbyn, it must move to the left as its membership demands. Rather than trying to cling onto control the Blairite MPs must break away and form their own party. Such a party could also include Liberal Democrats, who despite only having 8 MPs have seen membership rise noticeably in the last year, and currently are the official party of the centre ground in which Labour’s right rightly belongs.
Moreover, Britain is badly in need of a party to fight for this centre ground, given the demagoguery of Leave campaigners such as Nigel Farage, Angela Leadsom, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and their worrying emphasis on jingoism and anti-immigration rhetoric. Since the Liberal Democrats took such a hammering in the last general election and left government, the Conservatives have tried to massively but tax credits and abandoned many environmental policies (before the position of Minister of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was recently used to marginalise leadership dropout Angela Leadsom) and although Theresa May has already tried to proclaim herself as a One Nation Conservative, we have seen before how different the reality of One Nation Conservatism is from the legislative reality. Whilst some may argue this alternative can derive from the left, I would counter that just as the left should not be forced to vote for a centrist Labour Party as the only alternative, the centre should not have to vote for a far left party either.
It is crucial for British politics that these developments take place before another election, not least because otherwise it seems very unlikely that there would be any coherent alternative to the Conservatives, and also no effective opposition. For all of its negative consequences, the EU Referendum may have at least precipitated the collapse of a Labour Party and a Two Party System that failed to represent the interests of the centre and the left, by trying to represent them both at the same time.