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.