Ten months to the day after Jeremy Corbyn’s astonishing election as leader of the Labour Party came a make-or-break moment for Labour’s resurgent left, and one of the biggest in the party’s post-war history.
Plagued throughout his tenure by seditious rumblings from prominent members of his own party, which exploded into an all-out mutiny after the European Union referendum, the rebels tried to prevent Corbyn from being on the ballot paper for a second leadership election.
The results on Tuesday of the secretive vote – coming at the end of an exhaustive seven-hour meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee – blocked their attempts, allowed Corbyn onto the ballot in the leadership election to be triggered by rebel former frontbencher Angela Eagle.
The Labour politicians who have been complaining about bullying from Corbyn’s side, whilst attempting to ‘break him as a man’ seem oblivious to the idea that the party that they want ‘saved’ is one that many, until last year, felt wholly excluded from. Yet with 100,000 new Labour Party members joining in the last two weeks, and the Labour Party membership having swelled to 600,000, it is clear that the reason why much of the PLP attempted to keep him off the ballot in a new leadership election is because they knew that he would likely beat any potential challenger.
The efforts to exclude Corbyn were anti-democratic, and would surely have plunged the party into an even more fractious civil war than the one it is already in. Yet the motion was defeated 18-14, and Corbyn has now been guaranteed a place on the ballot. In the overwhelming probability that he wins this contest and secures a second mandate, many in the PLP will be faced with a question: do my views still align with those of my party? And the resounding answer, it seems, will surely be no.
Given the current wider political context, their situation looks increasingly bleak.
With Tory centrist Theresa May in Number 10, the neoliberal doctrine of much of Labour’s right and their ‘soft-left’ allies will become increasingly difficult to adhere to, as the centre ground will be commandeered by the new Prime Minister attempts to appeal to the broader electorate.
But this is where it gets interesting.
If the Liberal Democrats hold to leader Tim Farron’s promise and fight a general election on a ‘pledge to stop Brexit’ ticket, it may become too much for centrist, EU-supporting Labour figures to resist forming some type of alliance. Already, Farron has urged Labour members (and presumably MPs) to join them. Who can say that marginalized, angry and virulently pro-Europe politicians such as Chuka Umunna, Chris Bryant and Vernon Coaker would not be seduced by this prospect?
This potential new coalition could represent a significant threat to the left in future general elections, as the foreseeable message of ‘stability’ and ‘security’, on which they would run would no doubt play well to the electorate in today’s uncharted waters. Deserting Labour MPs may lose the Labour ‘brand’, but this will be of minor consequence when compared to the potential gains they could make.
There is a precedent, of course. In 1981, the so-called ‘gang of four’ – a group of rebel Labour MP’s – split from the party citing concern with left-wing leader Michael Foot’s plans to withdraw from the European Economic Community and campaign for unilateral nuclear disarmament. The defectors formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which in turn allied with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats, who went on to poll relatively well in the general election two years later.
Although many conservative commentators are describing Labour as a ‘spent political force’, the irony of portraying Corbyn as unelectable whilst simultaneously fighting tooth-and-nail to keep him off the ballot paper due to his popularity is there for all to see. Yet some critics imply that another breakaway would damage the left of the party, pointing to the fact that Michael Foot’s Labour were comprehensively beaten by the Tories in the 1983 general election following the fallout from the split two years earlier.
But the circumstances then were vastly different to now. The Thatcher government was benefitting from the surge in patriotic fervour that came courtesy of the Falklands invasion, and the weariness with the political establishment did not extend as far as it palpably does today in the post-referendum political climate.
Today, all corners of society can be said to be disillusioned, and resentment towards politics exists in different forms across boundaries of class, race, age and location. The 1980s binary opposition of left/right, Thatcher/miners did not make for the incredibly fertile landscape we are experiencing now. Aided in large part by the proliferation of ideas that the interconnectivity that globalization has enabled, anti-establishment movements such as UKIP and the SNP have seen dramatic successes in recent years. For this reason, a split may unshackle Corbyn, pruning the intransigent Blairites to allow the young left of the party to blossom. Cat Smith, Kate Osamor and Clive Lewis are amongst the promising young MP’s who could take up the mantle. Likewise, the CLP’s are brimming with energetic young political talent inspired by Corbyn’s socialist renaissance.
Unencumbered by the need to temper his socialistic ideals, Corbyn could refloat policies which the majority of the public support, such as renationalization and nuclear disarmament; and could fight more vociferously for workers rights and protecting public services whilst proposing more innovative, groundbreaking schemes such as universal basic income and breaking up the big media cartels which control the political debate.
This vision of an entirely different Britain is one the establishment are not too keen on.
The referendum result was a political manifestation of the anger that five years ago sparked riots; an anger that speaks of austerity and the subjugation of the working class, of job-losses and the deindustrialization of towns reliant on manufacturing, of fury at the foreign wars and corporate greed that has defined the previous decade-and-a half. It is infuriation with scandal, bribery and phone-hacking; with the London-centric media and aloof political elites. It is a rage whipped up by fears of immigration and terror.
Against this backdrop, there is a need for a potent left; for a compassionate message that recognizes these fears and fights for the majority who feel them. Not only that, but for the first time in a long time, the left’s message is resonating, and without the endless internecine conflict, Corbyn’s Labour Party could actually hope to win power.
In the wake of the Brexit vote, hope for real, powerful, progressive change can only be provided by a strong left. If the Labour Party has to split for this to exist, then so be it.
What you can do to help
- Significantly, at the NEC Committee the meeting also passed a freeze date blocking Labour Party members who joined after January 12th 2016 voting in the new leadership contest, meaning that 120,000 or so will be ineligible to vote unless they can afford to pay £25 before an unclear date in the near future. Although the new rules may well be subject to a legal challenge, another way to circumvent them is by joining a union or another Labour-affiliated organisation such as the Fabian Society.
- You can follow the links below to find out more about how to join the Unite union:
- You can also sign and share this petition for all full members of Labour to be allowed to vote in the leadership election regardless of join date.