Brexit, Parliament and the British Constitution: why a People’s Vote is the only legitimate constitutional means of resolving Brexit.

By Dr Danny Rye, Lecturer in Politics, Liverpool Hope University

The first clause of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty states:

“Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.”

But as has become apparent, in the case of the UK, nobody really knows what those requirements actually are and a significant amount of energy has been consumed over the last two years in disputes over what the respective roles, responsibilities and powers of Parliament and the executive are, what the precise status of the referendum is and who, if anyone, is responsible for interpreting it.  The Miller case exposed confusion and uncertainty even over who had the power to begin the process.  There is no clear constitutional guidance, either, on how or by whom it should be executed, scrutinised or concluded and, crucially, how and by whom the outcomes should be approved or legitimised.

This messiness reflects the UK’s famously uncodified constitution, which means its basic rules are not systematically laid out in a single, document which governs the relationships of key elements of the political system. This means that the UK constitution is very flexible which has served it well in some respects, not least in adapting to European Union membership.  But it means, above all, that the constitution is political.  Above all, sovereignty and power in the British constitution has not been a matter for the courts, as in many codified systems, but has rather been established and maintained by political struggle, which is why the resolution of the question of who should trigger Article 50 by the courts is somewhat problematic in the UK context.

A key principle of the British constitution is the notion of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ – that Parliament has the sole right to make or unmake law in its territory. For many Eurosceptics, it is this that made the British system incompatible with EU membership, which (as confirmed by the Factortame Case in 1991) instituted a higher body of law over that of statute. But this was merely a qualification of Parliamentary sovereignty, and one which Parliament imposed upon itself and (as Brexit perhaps proves) can also remove.

However, even if that qualification is eventually removed, there are, unfortunately for Parliamentary Sovereignty enthusiasts, many more than that. Significant constitutional changes made under the Blair and Brown governments (including devolution and the creation of a Supreme Court), as well as Cameron’s (including fixed term parliaments, the creation of regional mayors and English Votes for English Laws), whilst by no means part of any strategic masterplan, have also de facto altered Parliamentary sovereignty. In some respects it has been strengthened – the Prime Minister no longer has the power to dissolve Parliament against its will. In other respects, it has weakened: it has lost control over key areas of domestic policy, including personal taxation, to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.  One of the more significant changes in recent years, it turns out, has been the use of referendums to endorse or reject many such reform proposals. It means that, as Vernon Bogdanor has pointed out that a ‘new principle … of the sovereignty of the people’ has entered into the British constitution (Bogdanor 2016, 314).

Thus, the age old struggle over sovereignty and power between the Crown (now represented by the executive) and Parliament continues, but now complicated by two other important participants: the devolved authorities and, crucially, the people. Brexit, in particular, the question of how the process should be carried out has exposed the ambiguities in the relationship between these participants and where the boundaries of authority and sovereignty lie. Ultimately, this raises profound, constitutional questions about who governs: Ministers of the Crown, Parliament, the devolved assemblies or the People?

The flexible and political nature of the constitution means that the response of politicians and political parties to the referendum was always going to be crucial in determining the ‘constitutional requirements’ necessary to withdrawal from the EU. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, with both main parties in states of disarray, and unclear how to respond, backbench MPs had a rare opportunity to set the terms of debate, and an analysis of the first six months of debates in Parliament following the referendum, reveals that five distinct positions emerged which have shaped the debate, are still relevant and still being argued over now.

Whilst these are on the whole politically motivated positions, taken because of their perceived advantage to either a Leave / Remain or a ‘Hard’ or ‘Soft’ Brexit position,  have significant constitutional implications at least as profound as the outcomes themselves, and each leave questions about the developing nature of the UK constitutional settlement.

Five Positions: Arguments, Questions and Implications

Position 1: The Executive should make the key decisions and control the process.

Some argued for this on the basis that the referendum was an ‘instruction … given by the ultimate holders of sovereignty in this country—the British people.’1 There is therefore no role for Parliament in interpreting the meaning of the result.  Indeed, some went further and argued that it is simply legally and constitutionally right that the process be ‘a matter for the royal prerogative’ – and therefore ministers – rather than Parliament.3 Many made a more pragmatic case arguing that ‘we need to unbind the hands of our Ministers and allow them to get out there … and negotiate the excellent deal that we know they can get4 but this has a similar constitutional effect. On the one hand, it denies the right of Parliament to meaningfully contribute to the process, thus effectively subordinating Parliament to the executive. On the other hand, whilst the argument for doing that uses the popular sovereignty expressed in the referendum as a justification, it treats the people’s role as a once and for all, final decision, thereby limiting the ‘sovereignty’ of the people to a once only event.  The outcome, therefore, looks something like a power grab by the executive and a weakening of both parliamentary and popular sovereignty.

Position 2: Parliament should set the agenda, support key decisions and steer the process.

In a flexible constitution like the UK’s convention really matters and MPs pointed out that – as demonstrated by the Lisbon Treaty – it is ‘clearly established that a major treaty change has to be triggered by an affirmative resolution of the House’ 5 meaning Parliament must have a significant role. This makes practical sense, too, since ‘we cannot extrapolate from the result of the referendum the specific terms upon which the majority of those in this country wish their relations with the European Union now to be governed’. 6  Whilst both these arguments come from a position that does not deny the validity of the referendum, they assert the importance of Parliament’s role as a deliberative chamber, scrutinising in detail and coming to reasoned, considered decisions which neither the public nor the executive can.

However, this begs some questions: if we accept that Parliament must have a role in interpreting the will of the people how much room for interpretation is there? And when does it become blocking ‘the will of the people’?  What – in other words – are the limits of Parliament’s authority in this respect? If the referendum was an instruction, who was it directed at? Some attempted to address this by simply asserting the absolute principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty, arguing that denying Parliament a vote is ‘a constitutional outrage’ because ‘referendums are advisory and … Parliament is sovereign7 and arguing that Parliament should therefore be free in principle to overturn it. But whilst this may be consistent with a strict interpretation of Parliamentary Sovereignty, it is politically very problematic. It does not recognise the fact of popular sovereignty that – like it or not – has become established practice through the use of referendums to endorse or reject some kinds of decision.

Position 3: Government and Parliament need to work together in order to achieve the best possible outcome.

At first glance, a more balanced, pragmatic position recognises the legitimacy of the referendum whilst seeking unity in the ‘national interest’ and to the government’s own desire to make a success of it. Following a relatively close referendum result, Parliament’s role, from this point-of-view is to ensure wider public support – from both Leave and Remain supporters – so that ‘fellow citizens can have absolute confidence in this perilous process’ 8. Besides, the sheer complexity of the issues involved including the ‘citizenship rights, immigration rules, employment and social rights, agriculture, trading relations with the EU and third countries, and Scotland and Northern Ireland’ means that scrutiny of and approval for the government ‘aims, objectives and red lines’ in the negotiations is essential.9  For this reason, it is essential that the executive and Parliament can work together. If they do then the government is ‘far more likely to get a good deal’ because it will have ‘managed to bind both sides of this House and both Houses of Parliament into a strong negotiating position’.10

The implications of this is that there is a division of responsibility based on appropriate areas of competence: the people issue instructions via a vote, Parliament interprets and scrutinises it (including endorsing the timings) and the Executive negotiates and implements it. What this requires, however, is two things: firstly, a level of compromise on all sides which has not really been forthcoming. This has to be at least partly because the control over the process itself has been up for grabs:  who controls the process, gets what they want and therefore it is worth investing energy in doing so.  Thus, secondly, it requires a means of defining and arbitrating between those relationships. If something like this had been in place (in the form of a written constitution, say) then the fight is worth less perhaps we would have had less wrangling over who runs the show and more focus on what the outcome should be.

Position 4: It is right and necessary that devolved assemblies participate meaningfully in the process.

The trouble with the three positions set out so far is that they ignore another fact of the evolving constitution. Whilst the UK is still in principle a unitary system (and the referendum was UK wide), it does in practice contain some features of a federal one, albeit in a quasi and somewhat lop-sided way . There is, at the very least, therefore, a strong argument to suggest that the government needs to be sensitive to the divergent ways the constituent nations and London voted, which perhaps should have meant greater involvement than they have had so far. Thus, whilst there is no strictly legal obligation for the government to consider the demands of the Scottish (or Welsh or N.I or London) government, it may in practice make sense to do so.

On this basis, Scottish nationalist politicians have felt able to argue that ‘the process to exit the EU requires Holyrood’s consent’11 because of its significant effects on what are or may be considered devolved matters and because Scotland claims a level of sovereignty over these matters its own territory.  Taken to its logical conclusion there is a serious case to be made that it is ‘ultimately for the people of Scotland to decide whether they remain in the United Kingdom or the European Union’.12 Whilst this has to be understood through the prism of the SNP’s campaign for independence, a more practical argument for at least consulting with other constituent parts of the UK is that each has its own specific needs and interests that need to be considered and understood in ensuring the best and fairest deal possible. The direct involvement of devolved authorities is vital, for example, ‘so that we can explain to the UK Government how the industries work and how our communities live so that they can ensure that they prioritise them and not just the views of the City of London.’ 13

This illuminates another ambiguity which begs some important questions. Devolution is by now well established: the 2016 Scotland Act recognises the Scottish government and parliament as ‘a permanent part of the United Kingdom’s constitutional arrangements’. Despite this, there are still tensions over the limits and extent of the authority of the assemblies (the current stand-off between the Scottish and UK governments over the return of powers from the EU to the UK is illustrative of this). Would it not, therefore, make sense to have some consistent, transparent and clear rules about what its relationship to the UK Parliament and other constituent parts of the UK?  In short, how can the relationship between the sub-governments and the centre be regularised and transparently governed?

Position 5: Voters should have the right to accept or reject the terms of any deal in a referendum.

In the first six months after the referendum, the idea of having a further referendum on the exit package / outcome of negotiations was a very niche position, articulated by a few on the Labour benches and the remaining Liberal Democrats.  Geraint Davies, who was one of the early outliers on this argues that once the electorate have a clearer picture of a post-Brexit Britain which they had not got from the referendum campaign ‘they will have an increasing appetite for a referendum on the exit package’.14 One might have expected this argument to retreat somewhat as the process went on and opinion perhaps coalesced around a compromise.

However, the argument for a referendum on the deal has not gone away and has in fact gained credibility, articulated in a popular fashion by the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign. Whilst this has been initiated by anti-Brexit campaigners because it is hoped that the 2016 referendum decision will be reversed, there are other reasons why this may be the only satisfactory way of settling the issue of Brexit for now, whatever the result of such a vote might be.

First, endorsing the proposals recognises the reality of how we got here in the first place.  If we accept that the people legitimately voted to set parliament and government the task of working out a way of leaving the EU, then it only seems right that the people should also be able mark their homework and pass a verdict on their efforts.  A ‘guarantee that people will be able to vote on the destination as well as the departure’ would provide legitimacy for the outcome of negotiations on the same basis as the instruction to begin the process, as Tom Brake put it in 2016.15 Secondly, it provides a way to break the impasse and draw a line under the bitter divisions that Brexit has exposed both within the political elite and the wider population. Thirdly, it recognises the fact that our political system in its current form cannot resolve it. We have a minority government in a majoritarian two party system in which both main parties are divided and unable to come to clear agreements between themselves, never mind with each other. Thirdly, it recognises the fact that referendums have – for good or ill – become part of the UK’s constitutional practice and therefore ‘the people’, alongside the Parliament and the Executive, is here to stay as a key location of sovereignty in the British political system.

So, whilst Brexit has exposed some of the ambiguities at the heart of the British constitution about power and sovereignty, it also points us towards a potentially appropriate resolution. What is clear is that traditional ideas of parliamentary sovereignty simply don’t cut it. Referendums, devolution, the changing role of the courts (to name but a few) have all qualified it. The logic of the UK’s evolving constitutional practice and the need to come to a reasoned and reasonable settlement demands,  therefore, a strong role for Parliament in deliberating, interpreting and shaping the response to the referendum, to be carried through by a coherent executive governing with and through Parliament and subject to its scrutiny, with the final result legitimised by a ‘People’s Vote’.  This must all be done in partnership with and with appropriate provisions made for the devolved authorities. This may be wishful thinking, but it perhaps provides the contours for a settlement how the British constitution might work in the future, too, in or out of the EU. Whilst it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss precisely how, central to this is codification. Writing it down into a clear framework so that rules, relationships and responsibilities are transparent and understood by all participants, including the procedures in place for changing it, will be vital to a settled, just and properly functioning system.

At present, it is not clear we have this. What we do have is mess and deadlock. The government is wracked by division and seems congenitally unable to make a clear decision, Parliament has had to fight against being ignored, blocked and bypassed, whilst the struggle is now on for a People’s Vote. Whatever the outcome, what happens next, and crucially, how it happens may shape our constitutional settlement for many years to come.

This article was originally published on Open Democracy.

2017 Election Reflections: May Blows It, Uncertainty Reigns.

Not unlike David Cameron before her, Theresa May has gambled and lost.  Despite winning the highest proportion of the vote for the Conservatives since 1983, the largely unexpected result (with the honourable exception of YouGov) leaves the Conservatives the largest party but losing their overall majority. This is, in part, thanks to the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn increasing its vote by almost ten per cent on 2015, the biggest increase in share since Clement Attlee’s time.

Within their respective parties, Corbyn is clearly vindicated and strenghtened his authority whilst May’s has been spectacularly undermined by her own actions and her own poor campaign.  It remains, however, that no one has won and we are potentially entering a period of ongoing weakness and instability in government at a crucial time. Precisely the opposite of what May intended to convey in her now slightly risible looking campaign slogan.

It is too early to say what might happen, but there is some suggestion that Theresa May is planning to stay for the time being and she may be able to put together some kind of agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (who have ten seats) and continue in government.  However, it is difficult to see that she can last long. Many Conservative MPs will almost certainly want to see her go after having put them through this ordeal.

Although Labour has been arguing the case for forming a minority government, putting forward its own programme based on its manifesto and challenging other parties to vote against it, this seems very unlikely to fly, at least for time being. May will get the first chance as leader of the largest party to form a government and much will depend on her capacity to carry that through in the face of a huge personal defeat.  It seems certain she will stand down before long, however, perhaps sooner rather than later.

The most serious part of this for the country as a whole is that it is bound to cause problems for Brexit negotiations, unless some kind of cross-party approach can be taken. However what it certainly does mean is that there is less likely to be a so-called ‘Hard’ Brexit (that is a complete break from the single market and the customs union as well as the political and legal institutions of the EU) since there is no majority for it in the House of Commons.

It would also appear that this signals an end to austerity, since a substantial proportion of the population have clearly voted against it.

Perhaps the only real certainty at the moment is uncertainty. It’s going to be an interesting few days!

Corbyn, Labour, and the British Left: prospects for realignment after GE2017

Lecturer in Politics, Danny Rye considers Labour’s future after 8 June, if the party does lose the election and the continuing prospects of a re-alignment of the wider British left under the Labour Party’s tent.

Until recently, the received wisdom had been that in order to win a general election, Labour had to appeal to a moderate ‘centre ground’. In 2015, Ed Miliband had gambled that the centre of political gravity had shifted to the left. His failure to return Labour to government after one term in opposition was taken as a signal that this was not the case and the party needed to tack back to the right. The subsequent election of Jeremy Corbyn suggested that the party’s electorate disagreed with that analysis. The shifts in the polls in recent weeks, seems to suggest that quite a lot of the UK electorate might too.

As I wrote at the time, Corbyn’s election opened up an opportunity to realign politics on the left. A re-engagement of the Labour mainstream with the broader left would help to reinvigorate and refresh the party’s policies and approach – developing not only new appeals in terms of policy but also new ways of organising, building a stronger presence in communities and reinventing the party for the future. This is arguably dependent on Corbyn being able to do two things: pull off a more leftist version of ‘big tent’ politics, drawing together the left, the centre-left, and the left-behind into a coherent alternative to austerity; and reform the Labour Party structures in such a way as to secure the left’s continued ascendancy.

Corbyn has certainly been successful in drawing the wider left into his tent. However, at present at least, much of this appears to be entirely based on his leadership rather than reflecting any general inclination to support the Labour Party. Were he to step down, it is difficult to see how that broad alliance would hold together. It seems also that some see the survival of Corbyn himself as vital to the whole project of the left in the UK – hence the qualified support he has from groups like the Socialist Worker’s Party and the Socialist Party. The failure of the Corbyn project would thus be a setback for the left more widely.

Corbyn has also undeniably been successful in galvanising new support and reawakening old support that had drifted away from Labour in the 2000s. Despite some suggestion that many of these newer members may be less keen to do the hard graft of party activism, there are reports around the country of greatly expanded participation in meetings and the day-to-day grind that is essential to the functioning of an organised political party. Whilst it is true that a good number of those are thought to be older, returning members, many of them are new and relatively young. This may be an important base from which to build for the future. The key again is how much these newer members are specifically wedded to the Corbyn project rather than the Labour Party itself. If he fails, or falls, will they stay on and engage in the debate about how to go forward?

Where Corbyn has been notably less successful is in persuading the bulk of his parliamentary party of his merits. It was clear from the outset that the vast majority of MPs did not support him. Despite a level of acquiescence by some in the wake of his initial victory, there has been more or less consistent hostility, which broke out most spectacularly in the failed so-called ‘coup’ of 2016. Thus, instead of a debate, what we have had is a long period of stand-off, infighting and distrust, followed then by what can best be described as an uneasy  peace, or a kind of sullen hostility. Whilst things have gone remarkably quiet during the General Election campaign, this seems likely to break out into the open again on June 9th. This underlines the division, too, between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the membership, particularly those who have joined or re-joined because of Corbyn. But the membership itself is also divided. In the 2016 leadership contest, Corbyn got a slightly higher per centage of the vote than he did in 2015, but those who were members before May 2015 cast most of their votes for Owen Smith, whilst those who had joined since the general election voted overwhelmingly for Corbyn.

However, there are more serious divisions which animate many of Corbyn’s critics in the PLP: that between the more cosmopolitan, urban Corbyn supporters and ‘traditional’ Labour voters – especially working class voters in the North of England and Wales – who are relatively socially conservative and economically dislocated. Many Labour MPs fear that these ‘left-behind’ voters simply will not vote for the party whilst Corbyn remains leader. But there is at the same time a divide between the pro-European majority of Labour MPs and those very same voters.

For many in the PLP, a trigger for last year’s vote of no confidence and failed leadership challenge (although by no means the only one) was Corbyn’s apparently lacklustre support for the Remain campaign, whilst most voters in key Labour areas overwhelmingly supported Leave. This double whammy of hostility both to Corbyn and Remain-supporting MPs underlines the fear that the Labour Party is in a very deep crisis in areas where support had previously been solid.

In this light, Corbyn’s unwillingness to make an issue of Brexit might be a wise move, but Labour’s electoral challenges do not stop there. On top of this, Labour is making no headway in Scotland, and is already virtually non-existent in most of the South of England. This crisis is not new by any means, but it underlines a conflict about the party’s future, what kind of party it is, and where it should be building its support.

A key aim for the left of the party, and precisely what Corbyn’s opponents would like to prevent, is changes to party rules to their advantage. Much, as ever, will depend on events, specifically the election result and what happens in its immediate aftermath. If he does badly in the election, Corbyn will be under pressure to step down. But, although a bad defeat might on one level make it harder for Corbyn to justify staying in position, it may also ironically make him more secure than before. Analysis by Policy Network found that Labour’s most vulnerable seats tend to be held by Corbyn’s opponents. This means that pro-Coryn MPs will make up a larger proportion of a smaller PLP in the event of a Conservative landslide. In any case, the PLP are unlikely to risk another challenge unless Corbyn voluntarily stands down, since it seems likely that were it to be put to the vote, he would win again.

But if Corbyn does well – and the polls are suggesting he might do much better than anticipated – the converse is true. The snap election meant that there was no time to go through full candidate selection processes and most existing ones were simply readopted. Attempts to install Corbyn supporters were unsuccessful except in the odd case like Walton. So, if Corbyn does as well as the polls now suggest he might, he is likely to face a still largely hostile parliamentary party. A key problem therefore will be what to do about his MPs. Yet, many of the objections that MPs hold come down to a concern about electoral prospects, so perhaps a good result will quieten them for now. At the same time, it will give party moderates a stronger hand within the parliamentary party (if not in the party as a whole), which will be crucial when the time comes to replace Corbyn.

The risk for moderates is that this would give the party’s left room to focus on reshaping the party internally in its own image and gradually change the internal dynamics of the party, and the make up of the PLP. However, despite their numerical support, the key problem for the party’s left up to now has been an organisational weakness which means that the leadership has found itself frequently unable to get its way. Moderate groups like Labour First have been very effective at organising within the party and winning key organisational positions such as the Conference Arrangements Committee which makes key decisions about what gets discussed at party conferences. Thus, even if he stays in position, there is no guarantee that the left will get their desired rule changes and the party will be locked into an ongoing internal war of attrition.

The stalemate seems likely to continue for the time-being. The only chance of change in the moderates’ direction is if enough members change their minds. But, in a lot of local parties there is still enthusiasm for the Corbyn project and, if the party can hold onto its vote or improve it, then it seems likely that members will want to stick with him. A relatively successful campaign may well win over previous sceptics, too. Whether this is enough to secure genuine organisational change and sustain a longer term realignment on the left depends ultimately on the capacity to win over the support (or at least the acquiescence) of the parliamentary party and other internal doubters, at least in the short-term. A measure of electoral success may go some way to achieving that.

This post originally appeared on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog

Reflections on the 2016 Labour Party Conference

It may not have been a hot summer, but it has certainly been a long one in Labour Party politics.  The fallout following Brexit, the resignation of almost all of Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench and his crushing defeat in a vote of no confidence amongst MPs was matched by his expected and emphatic victory in the leadership contest that ensued. The culmination of this on Saturday, many would hope, might settle the matter. But Labour is still a party divided.  The trails of sometimes bitter in-fighting are strewn around social media for all to see, the wounds that have opened up in constituency parties around the country, not least in seats like Liverpool Riverside and Wallasey are unlikely to heal immediately. Some of the evidence of the party’s division could be seen on the conference floor and indeed on the podium.  Tom Watson’s combative speech, for instance, railed against what he saw as the ‘trashing’ of Labour’s brand – by downplaying the record of the Brown and Blair governments, Labour’s current leaders were undoing its prospects. Len McCluskey, in a challenge to rebel MPs, quoted from Henry V, calling on those with no stomach for the fight ahead to “depart the battlefields”, a perhaps not so heavily coded reference to deselection. In the hall, both were cheered and applauded enthusiastically.

There is no doubt, then, Labour is still divided. The evidence is there for all to see.  Moreover, it is difficult to see how it will be otherwise for the foreseeable future.  Although it would be too simplistic by far to say that it is about the electability of New Labour versus Momentum movement politics, there is a definite tension between those who see power in parliament as the final destination and those who see it as a staging post along the way to something much more fundamental. Corbyn himself, in a speech which was significantly more assured and confident than last year, sought to argue that Labour could be both of these things: it could be about protest and campaigning and about winning elections. What is undoubted is that the party is now bucking the trend in terms of membership, and looks likely to grow further now that Corbyn has for now consolidated his grip on the leadership.  If that increased membership translates into campaigners on the streets at election time, then that will be of significant benefit to Labour at election time.  Nonetheless, the evidence available suggests that Corbyn’s appeal as a potential prime minister remains very limited.  Despite enthusiastic support from a growing army of activists, in the wider country his ratings are very low as a range of polls have shown and Labour as a party is performing poorly.

Some have asked whether this means that Labour is somehow dying as a party of government.  Of course, no party has the right to exist, and in the short term at least the party’s prospects do not look particularly strong. However, as anyone attending conference would have seen, there is much life left in the party on all sides. On the fringe, debate is lively, ideas are coming from the left, the right and the centre of the party, grappling with practical issues of governing and policy, particularly in local and municipal government.  The forthcoming elections for metro-mayors in Liverpool City Region, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands also open up opportunities for Labour to prove itself in government and victories in London and Bristol earlier in the year are also high profile platforms for Labour in power.  Corbyn appears to be growing into the role of leader, and is demonstrating a level of relaxed confidence and authority that he perhaps lacked in the recent past.  Policy ideas are beginning to emerge and both his and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s speeches showcased some practical and radical ideas.  So the party faces a huge challenge. It has a mountain to climb to get an appealing message across to the wider public, particularly those who have voted Conservative in the past or not voted at all. Next year, hopefully a year without an energy-sapping leadership contest, perhaps we will have a clearer idea of how close they are to meeting that challenge.

Also featured on Liverpool Hope University’s Expert Comment page.

Labour Divided: Corbyn versus the Parliamentary Labour Party

by Danny Rye, Lecturer in Politics, Liverpool Hope University

It has almost become a cliché to say that we have entered unchartered waters following the decision to leave the European Union. Leadership and direction is sorely lacking. The Prime Minister has resigned and the Conservative Party is about to become fixated on who succeeds him. At the same time, many of the main players on the Leave side of the argument appear to have absented themselves from the scene, or else are busy explaining how those who supported them are unlikely to get much of what they want, whilst millions have signed a petition demanding a second referendum. The country is in a state of shock after the result, even – it seems – the winners. Prime opportunity, you might think, for the Opposition to step into the breach, provide the leadership the country sorely needs and start to articulate a way out of this mess, a golden opportunity perhaps to shape the agenda and set a way forward.  Instead, we have – at the time of writing – approaching sixty resignations from the front bench and an emphatic vote of no confidence in the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected only nine months ago by a large majority of members. Why – many have reasonably asked – do this now?

At the heart of this are a series of divides that run through the party and that may prove very hard to reconcile.  First, it exposes a huge divide between the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the membership, especially those that have joined or re-joined because of Corbyn. Much was made of the £3 Registered Supporters and the role they played in getting him elected, but Corbyn also won the vote amongst longer-standing members and it seems likely that, if put to the vote, he would win again unless those who oppose him can get new members and registered supporters in to vote for an alternative candidate.  There is a caveat to this, however, since many of his supporters, younger ones especially, were also Remain supporters, if there is evidence that he somehow scuppered the Remain campaign, as has been suggested, then enough of them might turn against him. Secondly, it exposes a key divide which concerns many of those in the PLP, that between core, ‘traditional’ Labour voters – especially working class voters in the formal industrial parts of the North of England and Wales – who are relatively socially conservative and economically dislocated, and many of the more cosmopolitan, urban and left-wing ‘new’ membership who support Corbyn. The fear that many Labour MPs have is that those voters simply will not vote for the party whilst someone like Corbyn is the leader, thus damaging the party’s capacity to achieve anything on their behalf. However, and thirdly, it exposes at the same time a divide between the pro-European majority of Labour MPs and those very same voters.  One of the triggers – but by no means the only one – for many in the PLP has been Corbyn’s apparently lacklustre support for the Remain campaign.  And yet those key Labour areas voted overwhelmingly for Leave.  Regardless of the current struggle, the Labour Party is in a very deep crisis, in danger of haemorrhaging support to UKIP in the North of England, making no headway in Scotland, and virtually non-existent in most of the South of England.  This crisis is not new by any means, but it underlines a conflict about the party’s future, what kind of party it is, and where it should be building its support.

Some have tried to characterise this as some kind of ‘Blairite’ ‘coup’, perhaps with an eye on the forthcoming Chilcot report, but this is patent nonsense. None (perhaps bar one) of the Shadow cabinet members who resigned could reasonably described as ‘Blairites’ – they represent a broad spectrum of political opinion in the party – and very few of them were even around when the decisions under investigation by Chilcot were made.  Even though Corbyn won his leadership election with very little support from the PLP, many were prepared to go along with it for what they saw as the good of the party, and perhaps even in the hope that Corbyn might be able to reverse their decline in some of these areas. That MPs are doing this now is a sign that they do not believe this to be the case and, with the possibility of an election later this year, it was a case of move now or face electoral annihilation. It is also worth remembering that most MPs are in regular touch with their constituents, and if they thought that Corbyn was winning support, they would back him. It is evident that they do not believe this to be the case and, indeed, so much so that they are prepared to take such a risk at such a time. There is no doubt that it is an act of desperation on the part of MPs, and it is difficult to see how this will end well for the party.  If Corbyn stands again (and party rules are ambiguous over whether he has the automatic right to do so) and wins, then it is difficult to see how the party can hold together afterwards.  Indeed, even if he does not win, it is still difficult to see how this can end well. Labour, it seems, is more emphatically than ever, (at least) two parties. As one insider suggested yesterday, unless Corbyn gives way, a split between them is almost inevitable and it looks as if it might simply come down to a fight over which side keeps the party name and brand.

Vote Remain, Take Back Control: A Personal View on the EU Referendum

By Danny Rye

Many of you have already made up your mind: some of you like me are, instinctively, ‘Remainers’, others of you ‘Leavers’. Some of you may genuinely have been persuaded by the arguments of one side or the other. Some of you perhaps have still not made up your minds which way to go. Nearly all of you, I imagine, can’t wait for this to be over.  I have already voted Remain by post, but I have spent much of the time since attempting to formulate why I am doing so. I realise that as I have tried to do so, many of my feelings are contradictory, muddled and inconsistent. I suspect I am not alone in this.

Part of the problem is that the EU, rather like the constitution, is something that our attention has always been deflected from: we have been told ‘people are more concerned about jobs, public services, the NHS’ than issues like Europe or the voting system.  We are told that we should not worry our poor little heads about it, but this ignores the importance of our political institutions, the technicalities of our democracy to the way decisions are made, who makes them and influences them and therefore what the decisions actually turn out to be. In other words, the problem is one of power.

The opportunity of this referendum was that it might open up the possibility to finally address some of such questions, or at least begin talking about them. If this debate is about anything it is surely should be about how we are governed, about our democracy (or lack of it) and our future relationship in and with the rest of Europe, as a European nation (which we will remain, even if we leave). Instead it has descended into a confection of knee-jerk nationalism and cynical utilitarianism, with wild predictions of economic disaster if we leave and virtual invasion if we remain. Thus it still feels as though that debate has not really been had.

The arguments that have dominated the campaign have been profoundly depressing. The arguments of the Remain campaign are centred around an appeal to narrow material self-interest. It is not that these outcomes are not important: our economic prosperity and security should be a vital component of any such decision. It may be that this narrow economistic appeal to the wallet may work in the end, but the suggestion that we should stay in merely because we might be materially better off displays an underlying cynicism and, indeed, ambivalence about European cooperation. Sadly, the Labour Party has failed, despite the clear opportunity, to set out a distinctive, democratic argument, largely riffing on the protection of workers’ rights and similar issues.  This, again, is important but underlying it is a message of despair: that we should stay in the EU, not because there is a compellingly positive reason to do so, but because without it we lack the strength and the will to ensure such protection ourselves.

Similarly, the Leave campaign poses legitimate questions about the EU and democracy with its slogan ‘take back control’.  However, if we leave the EU who will have that control?  And how will they be held to account? In what respect will this renew our democracy? Rather than answer these questions (to which the obvious answer is they will take back control, not us), it has reduced the argument to one of control of borders, implying – without explicitly promising – that there will be a reduction in the number of foreigners coming to live and work in the UK. This focus on immigration has given vent to some very unpleasant sentiments, releasing a genie of xenophobia and hostility within and between communities that will be very difficult to put back in the bottle afterwards.

I am voting Remain because I believe that cooperation with our fellow Europeans within a permanent framework is desirable on principle and because I reject the narrow, nationalism on offer from Leave. But where is this argument? Where is a positive vision of a European future?  A stable, cooperative continent of nations, working to agreed rules and within an established framework is without doubt the best, most constructive way of resolving our differences and we have to be engaged in it. It is vital to peace, security and prosperity in the future. However, the EU has also developed a disdain for national electorates that, if it is to survive, it must seriously address. In the words of the new DiEM25 movement, it has to democratise before it disintegrates. Some might say that it is beyond reform, especially since the Lisbon Treaty which goes further than any treaty before in its integrationist ambition.  But we have to try, and since the EU is the existing framework we have for cooperation, it is the platform from which we can begin to change it. Departing from it or destroying it will not help this process.

One thing for sure (to borrow from the Leave campaign) is that the status quo is not an option. If Remain wins, as I hope it does, the debate about our future as a European democracy must not end here. Both the critique of the EU – along with the language of democracy and self-determination – and pro EU arguments have been too easily conceded to right-wing, elitist narratives that display very little interest in actually extending democracy very much. For Remain, staying in means following the same corporatist, undemocratic path; for Leave ‘taking back control’ means giving that control to our Westminster elites, not the people.

Whatever happens on Thursday, this ground has to be reclaimed. Democrats need to contest the lexical terrain on which the right has planted itself and begin to articulate a response that addresses the concerns of ordinary people – not just by appealing to their wallets or by blaming foreigners – but by addressing the very real problem of power. This problem is not just a national one, but one that concerns all the people of Europe and it thus means fighting both for a more democratic EU and a more democratic UK.

In other words, let’s vote remain and perhaps then we can start to take back control.

Election Reflections: Who Should Be Most Satisfied?

By Dr Danny Rye

On May 5th 2016, UK political parties were subjected to the biggest electoral test since the general election last year.  Local council elections in England, devolved assembly elections in Scotland and Wales as well as Mayoral elections in London have provided an opportunity to assess the state of the parties and their prospects. What did we learn?  Some have suggested that there is something for everyone.  All parties can point to good news and highlight bad news for others, but overall, it should probably be the Conservative Party who are most satisfied with the results.

The Labour Party did not make the gains that an opposition arguably needs to make at this stage of the so-called ‘electoral cycle’ but neither was it subject to the level of meltdown that many were (gleefully in some cases) predicting.  They lost a net of 11 seats in total, held on to key councils including important bellweathers like Crawley and Nuneaton (the symbolic scene of Labour’s failure to reach into the middle ground in 2015) as well as winning back the mayoralty of London by a significant margin and in Bristol for the first time (where they also took control over the council). However, at a time when the Conservatives appear to be having yet another collective breakdown over Europe, and major policy intiatives are being dropped by the government under pressure from its own backbenchers, it has been widely suggested – not least by the Labour leader himself – that this is not good enough.

Labour failed to significantly eat into the Conservative vote – who made a net loss of one council and 49 seats – and were able to keep things relatively steady despite the distractions of Europe and significant tensions in the party over key policies, including a row over George Osborne’s flagship policy on academies announced only a few weeks ago (uncermoniously dropped the day after the polls closed). At best, then, the two main parties are electorally marking time in England, which is better news for the Conservatives than Labour.

Despite the continuing hegemony of the Scottish National Party (SNP), standing still is certainly not the order of the day in Scotland, where Labour have not only slipped behind the Conservatives, a position they have not been in since the 1950s, but in doing so found themselves in third place , which has not been the case since 1910 (before universal adult suffrage). The Scottish Conservatives, under their undoubtedly charismatic and appealing leader Ruth Davidson, have carved out a clear identity for themselves, in opposition to the SNP’s brand of moderately leftist nationalism they are becoming the clear go-to party for middle class voters who retain a unionist outlook. In doing so, they have made a chink in the hitherto impenetrable armour of the SNP, perhaps pointing to further interesting shifts in the political landscape north of the border. It may be that the Conservative ‘brand’ is finally being detoxified. Devolution has provided the party with the opportunity to shape a more specifically Scottish unionist identity which they have finally been able to take advantage of. This spells great danger for Scottish Labour who at times give the impression of being unable to decide which side of the fence they are on. Doubtless this rise in Conservative fortunes has much to do with their leader, an exceptionally talented politician by any standards,  something that the Scottish Conservatives (and Scottish Labour) may have lacked up to now, but it is ekeing out political space and contributing to shaping a political landscape that Labour may find itself squeezed out of.

In Wales, Labour continues to dominate despite losing Rhondda to Leanne Wood, the leader of Plaid Cymru.  It is a significant breakthrough for Plaid, although Leanne Wood’s claim that it represents ‘a new dawn’ may be stretching it a bit.  For the time being Labour in Wales remain one of the most successful and formidable election machines in the country. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats in Wales have slide further into insignificance, retaining only one seat, whilst UKIP has replaced them as the fourth party in the assembly, coming from nowhere to gain seven list seats, which will provide them with a significant voice in the assembly. The Liberal Democrats in general will hope that their fortunes are bottoming out.  Elsewhere, they made a few modest gains in England (around 30 councillors), where they also successfully defended three councils and even gained one and held their seats in Scotland, where they slipped into fifth place behind the Green Party. They have only one remaining London assembly member and came a distant fourth in the mayoral election there.

So whilst Labour can argue, as its leadership has been doing so quite forcefully, that this represents a solid basis on which to make progress, and the leadership must be somewhat relieved that they have not been significantly pounded in England, there is little – as most analysts have argued – to suggest that Labour is ‘on course’ to win in 2020. Arguably, it has stabilised Jeremy Corbyn’s position as leader for now, but further obstacles no doubt lay ahead and there are plenty of people waiting for him to stumble.  London remains a bright spot, but it is a place that seems increasingly out of tune with the rest of the United Kingdom (as the General Election results demonstrated).  Moreover, the party should be very concerned that its diminishing electoral relevance in Scotland makes the imperative to improve performance in England even greater. It is the Conservatives who are probably most relieved and have most cause to be satisfied.  Despite the government’s significant problems, even disarray at times, they have not been significantly damaged. They also will be celebrating the return of the party as a significant force in Scotland. Whilst this may not translate into seats at the next general election thanks to the vagaries of First Past the Post, it lays a foundation on which they can build and, significantly, gives them a more legitimate voice in Scottish affairs as the official opposition. This can only benefit the party.

There is one major blot on their copy-book, however.  That they were so resoundingly defeated in London is put down in part to Zac Goldsmith’s (or rather Lynton Crosby’s) somewhat racially tinged campaign, attempting to link the Labour candidate (and eventual winner) Sadiq Khan, a liberal Muslim, with ‘radicals’ and ‘terrorists’ and other unsavoury elements . It has attracted severe criticism amongst senior figures in the party and may more seriously have damaged the party’s standing amongst minority communities both in London and the rest of the country for some considerable time to come.  Given the importance the party has placed in recent years on attracting minority votes and attempting (often successfully) to overcome their Powellite legacy, this is a major failure and perhaps the one piece of bad news on an otherwise relatively good day for the Conservatives.

This post was originally published on Liverpool Hope University’s Expert Comment Page

Labour’s Registered Supporters Scheme Should be Seen as a Success

by Dr Danny Rye

Since the 2015 election defeat the Labour Party has attracted many thousands of new members  and supporters, largely it seems as a result of the enthusiasm generated by the current leadership contest. What initially promised to be a very dull contest of triangulating centrists was electrified by the unexpected explosion in support for Jeremy Corbyn. As a result around half a million people or more will be eligible to participate in the contest to lead the party. On the face of it, this seems to buck a trend to which nearly all political parties in the Western World have been subject, that of disengagement and declining participation and membership. House of Commons Library figures suggest that in 2013 all significant parties in the UK – Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Greens, UKIP and the SNP – had collectively less members than those now taking part in the Labour leadership contest.

What has made this possible, of course, is a key reform to the party’s internal election process put in place under Ed Miliband which were a response to bad publicity over the Falkirk selection process (involving Unite apparently recruiting members en masse in order to ensure the adoption of their favoured candidate). The outcome of the ensuing Collins Review was the abolition of the party’s electoral college and its replacement with a system of one member one vote, including individual trade unionists who signed up as ‘Affiliated Supporters’ and enhanced with the enfranchisement of a new category of Registered Supporters, allowing individuals who registered by signing a declaration of support and paid a small fee to participate in the ballot for leader. This, the report said, meant ‘the final realisation of the … process that was begun by John Smith thirty years ago’ towards One Member One Vote in leadership contests.

One might think that the fact that the effect this scheme has had on participation levels would be something for those concerned with the state of participatory democracy to celebrate. However, there has been a growing strand of commentary in the British press and media (now thankfully being countered by some such as Tom Baldwin) which suggests that somehow the groundswell of supporters and members that have signed up to Labour since the election defeat in May should be seen as a disaster and that they are ‘killing the party’. Whilst the scheme is not perfect, this kind of response strikes me as overdramatic. Political parties have been struggling for decades to identify ways in which they can attract new supporters and members, largely without significant or sustained success. Although some ‘insurgent’ political parties have in recent months had some impact in terms of membership – UKIP claim well over 40,000 members, the Greens over 60,000, whilst the SNP claims over 100,000 – these (with the exception of the SNP in its specific national context) represent small numbers compared with the large memberships the main parties claimed in the past (3 to 4 million between them by some estimates), which have been in inexorable decline. Political parties seem to have been at a loss of what do about it. The Conservative Party, seemingly giving up on the idea of membership altogether, have even experimented with open primaries, allowing anyone to participate in selecting candidates for Parliament  which involve making no commitment to the party at all (although the resulting selection in Totnes of an independent-minded MP in Sarah Wollaston may have given them cause to think again).

Labour’s experiment with the registered supporters scheme in conjunction with a high profile leadership contest has been in many respects, therefore, a potential breakthrough. There has been much hype and hysteria about so-called infiltrators or ‘entryists’ from either the hard left or the right, including a Tory MP, and clearly the party might need to think about how it polices its borders, but a certain amount of ambiguity is going to be inevitable if parties are to be genuinely more open and engaged with the public beyond the usual, and dwindling, band of activists. In its favour, the scheme provides a simple and easy way in which people can indicate their support for a political party and their willingness to get involved on some level. It is thus a pool of potential new members, activists and donors. The fact that they have to sign up and pay a small fee to join up gives the party the opportunity, by widening support, to then deepen it.  Certainly not all of these supporters will make the leap into membership, perhaps even a majority will not, but the most important question for Labour is whether – whoever actually wins the leadership election – the party can hold on to enough of these new members and supporters and convert them into activists and participants.

It would be a mistake therefore to unravel the scheme completely, although some adjustment, for example to guard against systematic infiltration by hostile groups or individuals, may be necessary.  However, handled correctly, it could be a positive boon for the future of the Labour Party, firstly by bringing a wider range of voices into debates about the party’s direction and, secondly, by harnessing greater potential for electoral mobilisation and the growth of more committed members and activists, which was the point of the Registered Supporters scheme in the first place.  It might even be a model that other parties would consider emulating in order to arrest the decline in participation.

As I have suggested elsewhere, for the Labour Party in particular, the opportunity is to finally have a proper debate about what its response to so-called ‘austerity’ should be and to engage a wider movement of participants in that process can only be a positive thing.  A wider range of voices and participants in this debate, then, is surely welcome. Together, and with the involvement of many thousands of new supporters, members and activists, they might be able to produce a coherent, genuine and realistic response to austerity with popular appeal that is rooted in centre-left ideas and has the backing of enthusiastic grass-roots supporters across the Labour family. If so, this will be in no small part due to the life that the Registered Supporters scheme has injected into the party. That should be celebrated on every wing of the party and perhaps be watched closely by officials and analysts of political parties in general.

This post was originally published on the Political Studies Association website here

A victory for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership race could bring about a realignment of British politics

Jeremy Corbyn looks set to win the Labour leadership election, despite initially being pegged as a no-hope also-ran. The conservative right are cheering him on, seeing the Islington North MP as ushering in a period of Conservative Party hegemony. But is he being underestimated? Danny Rye argues that a Corbyn-led party could see a realignment of not just the Labour Party, but British politics, in a way which brings the traditional left back into the mainstream. 

The unexpected ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership campaign has clearly been a boon for the press, the commentariat and academics. What was looking like a dull and predictable contest has been electrified, and many column inches have been filled with speculation on what it all means for the left, the Labour Party and British politics. With some notable exceptions, much of what has been written suggests bad news for the party: stories about ‘entryism’, warnings of internal strife and electoral catastrophe echo the travails of the 1980s. However, I may be a hopeless optimist, but this is not the 1980s and it is possible to take a more positive view without buying wholesale into the Corbyn phenomenon.

Whether he wins or loses, an opportunity exists to revitalise and reinvigorate the centre-left, by reconnecting the Labour Party with the left more broadly and challenging it to refresh its ideas. There are three aspects to this: the effect of this development on the broader democratic left, the effect on the Labour Party in particular and its impact on the key lines of debate in British politics.

Firstly, it could mean a revitalised left wing voice in mainstream British politics. The Corbyn campaign has clearly galvanised activists both inside and outside the party, and has the potential to reconnect the broader democratic left to the political mainstream. This appears to be made up of two elements: those on the left in the Labour Party and those on the broader democratic left outside it. The former – many of whom are the most active, engaged and loyal members who regularly attend meetings and are out on the doorstep making the party’s case – have become revivified and are less willing to moderate their views in the electoral interests of the party, as they had been during the New Labour era.

This may explain why Corbyn has done so well in terms of constituency nominations. In those nomination meetings, the sound of yearning for a Labour Party more true to itself and its members has been heard quite clearly. The latter, including former members and activists who had given up hope that it would ever provide a home for them again, are increasingly enthused that they might actually have some kind of voice in political debate and have thus rejoined, or signed up as Affiliated or Registered Supporters in order to vote for Corbyn. Added to that are, it appears, some who may never have voted Labour before (perhaps supporting other left-wing parties at previous elections, or who have not voted at all), but who would be willing to engage in a party they felt to be more clearly distinguished from the Conservatives and more robust in its opposition to austerity.

Secondly, the consequences for the Labour Party might be that it finally has the debate that it badly needs to have. During its dark days of electoral failure and internal conflict in the 1980s, Keith Waterhouse pointed out that, however bad things looked, there was too much life left in the party for its decline to be terminal. Indeed, the conflict between left and right, between power and principle has been part of what seems to give the party energy as much as disables it. The catastrophic rift with MacDonald in the 1930s, the battles with Bevanites in the 1950s, and those with Bennites in the 1980s were all desperately damaging to the party and yet presaged significant electoral and political successes. However, in recent years, it appeared that with New Labour, the right’s ascendancy within the party was so complete that there was no longer any serious debate left to be had. Ed Miliband’s defeat only strengthened the argument that any move towards the left, however small, would be electoral suicide.

But the problem for the right was that their very ascendancy has arguably made them complacent and devoid of new ideas. Thus, despite much talk about the party needing to have a ‘debate’, the mainstream candidates singularly failed to engage in one. Rather than addressing the question of what actually had gone wrong for Labour Party in any meaningful way or addressing the question of what the Labour Party is actually for, the response appeared to be simply that the party’s platform was not ‘right wing’ or ‘centrist’ enough, a response at least as simplistic as one which says it was not ‘left wing’ enough. Some MPs lent Corbyn their nominations despite not supporting him in order to promote ‘debate’ and they have perhaps got more than they bargained for. Nevertheless, the party badly needs to have it and, for good or ill, perhaps that debate might finally begin. It is heartening that there does still appear to be life in the party and that there are enough people who still care on both sides of the debate to get involved. Thus, what was consequently looking like a routine and very dull exercise in choosing who might be the least offensive candidate to Conservative swing-voters, now looks like something much more important, or at least more interesting.

If this debate is to be productive, however, it needs to be inclusive of both the left and right of the party. Name calling and making personalised accusations will not produce anything other than bitterness. The left, revitalised by the campaign, can no longer be ignored in the party, whatever the result. But it will need to draw in new ideas, energy and expertise if it is to produce a more broadly appealing vision and maintain momentum beyond its most enthusiastic supporters. Although some of the more closed-minded elements of the left might not welcome it, something that will help this process is the somewhat belated recognition by party centrists of their own failures. Hence, Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna’s recent call for the right and the ‘soft left’ in the party to cooperate on ‘Labour for the Common Good’, with the aim of articulating a coherent political vision for a moderate, electorally oriented Labour Party.

Suddenly the future of social democracy and the centre left is up for grabs and there is an opportunity to both produce new ideas and galvanise enthusiasm and engagement amongst activists of all stripes in the Labour movement. The danger is that this energy will be wasted on bitter infighting. The opportunity is that the creative energy this generates could be galvanised and turned into something that can respond in innovative ways to the Conservatives and their ideologically driven ‘austerity’ agenda.

The great risk is that a prolonged period of internal debate means that the Labour Party will be out of power for an extended period of time. The consequences of this could be a repeat of the 1980s and 1990s in which Labour was locked out of government and a long Conservative hegemony ensured that any version of the left’s agenda would not be implemented. This, indeed, is the fear of many mainstream Labour members and leaders. From this point of view, the ascendancy of Corbyn could be seen as a boost for the Conservative Party and its political strategy. However, and this is my third point, the opportunity is that, rather than simply attempting to navigate a landscape fashioned by its political enemies, the Labour Party can seek to reshape the terms of debate. Out of the clash of ideas, perhaps a fresh, distinctive response to austerity can be fashioned, backed up by a new generation of activists which reconnect it with the broader democratic left in British Politics. This might have the additional positive effect of helping to stem at least some of the decline in political engagement and participation.

Thus, an optimistic view might be to see this as an opportunity for all strands of thought in the Labour Party – left, right and centre – to respond to the austerity agenda, not by chasing the tail of Conservative political strategy but by actually developing a coherent critique and appealing alternatives of its own. In other words, challenging orthodoxy rather than simply moderating it, producing distinctive ideas, rooted in centre-left thinking and traditions, rather than moderating right wing thinking with the odd left-ish idea.

It is possible, therefore, that this could represent an important moment for the left in Britain – a realignment of sorts which brings the broader left back into the political and Parliamentary mainstream by providing it with a legitimate voice within a mainstream political party. One which forces the Labour Party to reassess what and who it is for and stimulates ‘moderate’ voices on the left into more imaginative responses that engage with a broader spectrum of left-wing ideas and traditions whilst maintaining the potential for a broad appeal.

Or it may be that I am just a hopeless optimist.

This post originally appeared on the Democratic Audit blog here

George Osborne’s Clever Politics

Dr Danny Rye, Liverpool Hope University @dannyrye

If there were ever any doubts about George Osborne’s credentials as a political operator (and I confess to being one who has questioned this wisdom in the past), following his recent Summer budget they should be dispelled. There is no question that the budget was regressive in its effect, hitting the budgets of low income households more than others, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out and that it cemented the Conservative agenda to reduce the responsibility of the state for welfare and what used to be called social security and shift it to individuals. Whilst reducing welfare payments to working-age families by £12 billion, tax thresholds would be raised, relieving the tax burden of many lower and medium income people and families, and taking many of the lowest paid out of taxation altogether. Businesses would have to play their role in this too by paying a so-called ‘national living wage’ (in fact a rebranded and increased minimum wage). In addition, banks would have to pay a ‘super tax’ on profits, and ‘non-doms’ would no longer have the same rights to maintain and pass on their status.

Whilst some of these measures were clearly in line with Osborne’s declared vision for a ‘high wage, low tax, lower welfare’ economy, and contained a distinctly Thatcherite tinge (abolishing maintenance grants for poorer students for instance, limiting benefits to only two children), some could easily have been measures being delivered in an alternative universe by a Labour Chancellor (and in fact, according to the same IFS report the budget raised far more in taxes than it gave away). The result of all this is that Osborne has made it difficult to respond and laid a trap for the opposition. The trap for Labour is that in attacking a government for reducing working age benefits which has at the same time introduced a ‘living wage’ and increased tax thresholds makes it very difficult for it to be seen as anything other than the ‘party of welfare’. This is a position which, given the almost endless talk of ‘aspiration’ in the leadership contest, an incoming Labour leader will not relish. The first task of the new leadership come September will be to formulate a coherent strategy in response and attempt to outmanoeuvre Osborne. I cannot say I envy them.

This post was written for the Liverpool Hope University Expert Comment webpage

e-mail: ryed at hope dot co dot uk