The UK Labour Party is facing an existential crisis, so bad has its situation become since 2010. Since the two leadership contests of 2015 and 2016 and the haemorrhaging of voter support, one wonders if the party is now in terminal decline. Across Europe the traditional Left are having considerable difficulties, while the traditional and far right have seemed better able to exploit the unrest since the Great Recession started in 2008. What is this situation for Labour all about?
In the 2015 election defeat, it lost all but one of its Scottish seats to the Scottish National Party (SNP). With the Brexit referendum, it lost its traditional working class base to Leave while its metropolitan liberal wing supported the Remain side. It appears divided, since its leadership and activists have swung over to the Hard Left with the 2015 election of Jeremy Corbyn, while its Parliamentary Party is dominated by moderates. Since the 2010 election in the midst of the Great Recession, it has taken the blame for the Slump since it was in power under Gordon Brown when the Slump occurred in 2008, and it now has a very low poll rating for the crucial indicator of economic competence. Moreover voter perception of Corbyn as leader is also very low. Commentators consider that, barring the unforeseen, it is almost impossible for the party to recover in time for the 2020 election.
However, arguably Labour has been here before. After the 1931 crisis during the Great Depression, the defeat of 1951, or the series of defeats in the 1980’s, questions were raised about the viability of Labour and whether its coalition would fall apart or its working class base would abandon it.
Ideas and ideology
One aspect of Labour’s challenge is what might be called the crisis of socialism. Is socialism today redundant?
Key changes in the political consensus occurred under the 1945-51 Labour Government, which enacted the Welfare State, set up the NHS and nationalised a raft of strategic industries. At that point it was accepted that socialism was about the ownership of the “means of production, distribution and exchange”. The Beveridge Report on Britain’s social and economic condition in 1942, along with the economic theories of JM Keynes had had a profound impact on thinking, and after the 2nd World War ended, the victorious leader Churchill was rejected in a landslide win for Labour under Atlee.
Since then, despite a post-war period of consensus on such matters, from 1979 socialism was challenged by the ideas of neoliberalism. Under Thatcher and Cameron, the state in social and economic life has been rolled back. Even when Blair and Brown were in power, between 1997 and 2010, Labour espoused a “Third Way” under what Blair called “New Labour”, an effort to get away from the internal conflicts of the 1980’s when the Hard Left under Tony Benn had challenged the moderate and “soft left” of the time. It was Blair who persuaded the party in 1995 to drop Clause IV of the party constitution which had committed the party to state ownership of large parts of industry. With the ending of the Cold War after 1989, many saw that the “end of history” was the end of the Liberal Democracy/Socialist conflict that has existed since the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the rise of Soviet Communism.
In any case many don’t consider Labour to be a socialist party, certainly not when compared with continental European parties. Yet people would say that Labour, as a “workers’ party”, favours looser concepts such as social justice.
However, after the 2010 and 2015 defeats there has been a questioning of Labour’s commitment to radical change, there being those who say that Labour’s compromise under Blair with neoliberalism “left behind’ the party’s more traditional working class support. Arguably Corbyn is now heir to that Bennite tradition, the Blairite wing being discredited by Blair’s involvement in the Iraq War and two election defeats in 2010 and 2015.
There are those who say that Labour has lost its earlier ideological inspiration and seems not very different from its Conservative opponents. It is not surprising therefore that the working class “left behind” of the former industrial North, Midlands and South Wales feel abandoned by a “Westminster” political class of a metropolitan middle class liberal elite. These people are often career politicians whereas their predecessors very often came from the unions and were working class in origin.
Labour as a coalition
To understand Labour’s internal conflicts, one needs to know something of how the Labour Party is constructed.
One can generalise that to some extent all parties are “coalitions”, in that they bring together disparate groups around a common cause. These differences can play themselves out in the party’s internal politics.
Labour is often described as federal in nature. It was formed as a coalition between the Independent Labour Party (“ILP”), a group created in 1893 of middle class socialist intellectuals, along with various socialist societies and working class Trades Unions, which by 1906 was called the Labour Party. Later the Cooperative Party affiliated to Labour. Since that time there have been tensions between these wings, in various guises.
The unions were and are the chief sources of finance, paid until now via the “political levy” as part of union dues paid by each worker to his or her union. Members could “opt out” of this payment but now the Conservatives have committed to changing this to an “opt in” payment, which is reckoned to radically reduce Labour income by the 2020 election. Moreover since the 1980’s, trade union membership has shrunk massively, from a peak of over 13 million in 1979 to 6.4 million in 2014, part of a pattern of decline in Western countries.
Tony Benn placed great emphasis on changing the party constitution to ensure greater grassroots democracy and to make the Parliamentary party more accountable to the other parts of the party. Thus conference became the main policy-making body, in which Benn was strong, MP’s would face mandatory re-selection between each general election, and the leader was to be elected by an electoral college. Until Miliband changed the system for the 2015 election the leader was chosen by a college consisting of one third each of the Parliamentary party, the Unions and the local constituency parties. This has also figured in the passing of policy measures at the party conference and in the make-up of the ruling National Executive Committee (NEC). Under Blair, the role of conference was reduced.
To understand how Labour works, one has to pay attention to its internal structure and how its politics works itself out through this structure. Thus power battles are often seen in who gains control of which body. Thus at present, the Unions are mostly in the hands of the Hard Left, led by the Unite boss Len McCluskey, and they support Corbyn. He has a very narrow majority in the NEC.
Thus, to the outsider, Labour can seem a very inwardly-focused party which, as Blair frequently pointed out, distracted it from the more important tasks of being an effective opposition to the Tory government, winning power and conducting a reforming government.
Labour has historically been known as the party of factions. Indeed under Blair it achieved a relatively rare degree of unity. However during the time of Benn, the soft and hard left wings of the party had been at war, Benn arguing for a more “grassroots-led” conduct of the party, where his strength lay, and supporting more radical policies such as state planning, more state ownership of industry and nuclear disarmament. Under the leadership of Kinnock considerable efforts were made to purge the party of what were called Trotskyist “entryists”, supporters of Militant, who had joined the party while belonging to another one and were taking control of local party organisations. Some claim that these people or their heirs have re-joined under Corbyn. Len McCluskey is a former Militant supporter.
Blair, PM 1997-2007, has been Labour’s most successful recent leader, winning three general elections in a row. He helped create a winning coalition of liberal metropolitan and large-town middle class voters with the more traditional working class of London, the Midlands, South Wales, the North and the Scottish Lowlands. He was strongly focused on “making Labour electable” and his pitch was more strongly towards the centre ground of politics and, despite their constant feuding, with Gordon Brown achieved considerable improvements in the position of the poor and in the provision of public services. Capitalism could be made to work for the public good too. He built up a strong support in Parliament of “Blairites”, a faction now opposed to Corbyn.
Defeat and the rise of Corbyn
Under Brown, who replaced Blair as PM 2007-10, Labour quickly lost popular support, especially after the Slump of 2008, which did so much to damage Labour’s perceived competence in the crucial area of management of the economy. After the election defeat of 2010, Miliband replaced Brown and introduced a change in the election of the leader, now to be “one member, one vote”, with votes going not just to party members but also to registered supporters, who could vote having paid a small fee of £3.
The result of this rule change, along with the reaction to the failure of Miliband’s “soft left” attempt at winning power in 2015, saw Jeremy Corbyn win the leadership election in 2015. Corbyn was an almost accidental candidate, put forward by some who did not support him to give some Hard Left representation and ensure a more balanced field in the contest. Large numbers joined, tripling and quadrupling party membership, and elected him by a massive margin. A lot of these new members then joined a new organisation called Momentum, which was organised by Jon Lansman, set up to support Corbyn.
One could say that Corbyn has galvanised the Labour membership, when before many local parties were moribund, with 100 or less members. Set against that, general elections often are accompanied by increased party membership. However many consider this to be different in scale and nature, a reflection of the broader “insurgent” reaction reaction against the elite “political class” seen in the Brexit referendum and across Europe, such as with Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.
It is debatable whether this change has been due to Corbyn or to what he represented. A major part of the new membership has been young voters, often from metropolitan and university areas, and it has been suggested that such people are more from a radical liberal middle class “intelligentsia” and have little in common with the traditional socially conservative white working class voters from the former industrial heartlands.
Corbyn and the Parliamentary Labour Party
Thus a new division has emerged within Labour, added to the conflict between Corbyn and his much more moderate MP’s. As regards the latter, it must be stressed that Corbyn was elected by a large party membership on a “one member one vote” basis, as opposed to the former electoral college system. Thus Corbyn, a serial rebel under the recent Labour governments, was a Hard Left leader of a moderate, predominantly Blairite Parliamentary party.
This conflict led, after a lacklustre performance in the Brexit referendum, to an attempt to unseat him in 2016, which was defeated by an even bigger margin that his win in 2015. Since the 2016 election, Corbyn has won round some former opponents and at the time of writing has produced some degree of reluctant acquiescence from his rebels. In part the fear is that these rebels will be faced by de-selection attempts as the Hard Left build up their support at the constituency level. However, many say that Labour’s current leadership has been ineffective and lacking in punch and drive where it matters, in the cut and thrust of Parliamentary life.
A key difference for the Corbynites and the Momentum supporters was Labour’s performance in the 2017 General Election. It had been expected that May would trounce Labour but against all the odds, it seemed, Labour under Corbyn performed very creditably and while not winning a majority returned a much improved share of the vote in a more two-party contest. For a while it seemed that Corbyn was safe and the policies in the 2017 manifesto held out hope for a resurrgent Labour going forward. Criticism of his leadership became much more mooted and in turn pressure was on more moderate MPs to be more supportive.
Set against that has been a pattern amongst Labour moderate backbenchers led by people like Yvette Cooper to take the lead in opposing Brexit and forcing May to take Parliament more into account, while Corbyn has appeared ambiguous over Brexit.
During 2017 to 2019, Labour has been split over accusations of anti-semitism and of an apperent reluctance to root it out. Whistleblowers have complained that their efforts to address the issue have been undermined. There is an old pro-Palestinian, anti-imperialist tendency in Labour that can surface as close to or even completely anti-semitic, as also be supportive of post-Soviet Russia and left-wing dictators.
The struggle over the party’s position on Brexit, and especially whether to fight for a second referendum has left a small clique around the leader seemingly at odds with the bulk of the membership over Remain. The Bennite heritage has been hard to let go of.
The leadership crisis is just one manifestation of a much bigger crisis: what is Labour’s future, if any?
A major change that resulted from the 2015 general election was the loss of all but one of Labour’s Scottish MP’s. In the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014, Labour had supported remaining in the UK. Yet much of the support for independence had come from the Labour heartlands of the Scottish Lowlands, such as Glasgow. Here was another example of the “left behind” working class revolt also seen in the Brexit referendum. Having been frustrated in 2014, such people turned their wrath on Labour and deserted them for the champions of independence, the SNP, who won almost all Westminster parliamentary seats in Scotland in 2015. No longer could Labour rely on its Scottish “fiefdom” to win and hold power.
The Brexit referendum has also exposed a older white socially conservative English and Welsh working class voter who is now, it would seem, prepared to abandon its tribal, family loyalty to Labour for a more “authoritarian populist” orientation. Thus Labour is faced with the loss of a major chunk of its English and Welsh base.
Too add insult to injury, the Tories under Cameron have made two important changes that affect Labour’s election chances. The switch to an “opt-in” to the union political levy for the party, as a part of a member’s union dues, seriously hits Labour’s income (It should be said that no parallel restriction on big donor contributions to the Tories is being planned). Under the boundary review, made necessary by population movements, Labour will lose its current over-representation in Parliament.
Crisis of social democracy
Thus Labour are faced with a perfect storm, a weak leadership, a divided and ineffective parliamentary party at odds with its leader and activists, funding constraints, a loss of its traditional voting base and an ideological loss of direction. Over and over again, enquiries and commissions have been set up to review policy but no new inspiring idea has emerged behind which people can unite. What has to many seemed exciting in the rise of Corbyn and Momentum has become mired in factional in-fighting.
From the perspective of the UK’s politics, this is arguably nothing sort of disastrous. Just when the UK is faced with a momentous change thrust upon it by Brexit, when politics already looks very fractured, when the government proposes that “Brexit means Brexit”, and when the outcome could seriously impact those who most depend on Labour for support, the poor and “just about managing”, or JAMS, to use Theresa May’s term, Britain currently has no effective Parliamentary opposition from what is still the largest opposition party.
It might not be the largest for much longer