The UK Labour party is currently stuck in a fierce civil war, as leader Jeremy Corbyn is being challenged by Owen Smith for the future direction and character of the party.
The Labour party is in an unstable place. With the ongoing leadership battle between incumbent Jeremy Corbyn and challenger Owen Smith, the party is conflicted. Furthermore, this battle represents a struggle that could render it ineffective for years.
What is happening?
Following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, the country was plunged into political chaos as both the Labour and Conservative parties turned in on themselves. While the governing party was able to overcome instability, the Labour party found itself in a quagmire. Following mass resignations from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, with up to 2/3rds of the group resigning their seats, the opposition was paralysed. To top things off, the party voted 172 to 40 in a motion of no confidence in Corbyn.
As a consequence, a leadership contest was launched. Owen Smith emerged as the main challenger. After a ruling by the High Court, Corbyn, as the existing leader, was allowed to run in the contest without needing nominations from Labour MPs.
Numerous additional legal battles have followed concerning who can vote in this contest. This has included debates over whether those who have joined the party within the last 6 months are eligible to vote; for which the Court of Appeal has recently ruled that they cannot. It all adds to the bitterness, division and tension.
The party is set to vote for their leader with the result announced in September.
Why is it happening?
This question is complicated, but there are some common themes that can help explain Labour’s struggles.
It is clear that Corbyn is a polarising figure – a socialist in the traditional British 1980s mould. For some, particularly the younger generations, this is inspiring and refreshing in a country that has experienced years of Blairism and One Nation Conservatism. For others, it is a return to an old fashioned approach that was annihilated in the struggles of the 1970s and 80s by Margaret Thatcher and co. That difference of opinion is seen in the Labour party itself, and both sides are fiercely entrenched.
Corbyn and his supporters want to return to the old Labour party of the 1980s, while his opponents want to keep hold of the new Labour party that saw them win 3 general elections in a row. The socialist membership of the party now clashes with the centre-left parliamentary wing.
Arguably, this battle began as soon as Corbyn was elected leader. Many Labour MPs, such as current London Mayor Sadiq Khan, only nominated him for leadership in an effort to ‘widen the debate’. They did not expect him to win and many did not vote for him in the end. Corbyn found himself elected with the support of the wider expanded membership, while the support of the existing MPs and some of the membership went elsewhere. Consequently, a divide was formed.
Many in the party lent their reluctant support to Corbyn for the sake of party unity or in the hope that his leadership would be short-lived. However, that compromise was broken after the vote for Brexit. The majority of the Labour party were strongly campaigning to remain in the EU. Corbyn, on the other hand, was sceptical at worst and lukewarm at best to stay in the EU. He himself admitted that he was only ‘7 out of 10’ in favour of remaining. His history of opposing the EU was also significant.
Once the Brexit vote was revealed, Corbyn was the target of much of the blame for Labour’s ‘loss’, particularly as many who voted to leave were from the Labour heartlands of the north of England. His rather weak campaigning was a source of much ire. It was the trigger and excuse the MPs needed to launch their campaign to oust the leader.
A final explanation can be drawn from the fact that Labour has a history of division and conflict. The battle between the socialist left and the moderates occurred in almost exactly the same way in the 1980s. Challenges to the leadership, claims of Trotskyite entryism and sacrifice of electability for ideological purity are common features. 30 years apart, the conflict is frustratingly similar.
On the surface there are only two results: a win for Corbyn or a win for Smith. However, in reality, both outcomes have huge potential repercussions. A win for Corbyn results in largely the current situation with Labour gaining more members and support from the left but losing support on a national scale; continuing on the path to electoral defeat with a potential split to boot. A win for Smith results in the loss of support on the left, trouble from Corbyn loyalists and a continuing civil war.
On the other hand, there is the potential for the party and its members to unite behind the chosen leader, with those upset with the result leaving the party altogether.
At this point in time, the leadership battle could have any number of outcomes, both positive and negative, but it is significant either way. The Labour party is currently the official opposition to the Conservative government. A strong parliamentary democracy needs a strong opposition in order to function correctly, but Labour has not been able to do that as of late. Too busy fighting each other, Labour has let the government control the message on the EU referendum, the subsequent Brexit and other important policy choices.
Labour needs to get its act together to make sure that the government makes considered, balanced decisions. The inevitable uncertainty of the next two years requires everyone in Parliament to be focused; Labour’s plight means that will not be the case. The future of the Labour party, the country and subsequently the EU is currently uncertain and needs to be solved as soon as possible.