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.

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