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

Brexit and Political Parties: Challenges and Opportunities

Danny Rye, Lecturer in Politics, Liverpool Hope University ryed@hope.ac.uk

As a result of the vote to leave the European Union, party politics as usual, if there ever was such a thing, has been shaken. The referendum itself and the ensuing debate about Brexit has exposed the instabilities, contingencies and fragilities at the heart of the main parliamentary parties. We do not yet know what the effect of this will be, but British political parties face key challenges and opportunities as a result, and how they respond to them could have major implications for them and for the shape of the party system.

A glance back at British political history tells us that the structure and configuration of political parties has been periodically subject to this kind of flux and instability at times of social and economic change, leading to sometimes significant reconfigurations or reorganisations of the party system. In 1832, for instance, an organised Tory party first emerged out of the process of resistance to and the aftermath of the Great Reform Act, establishing what we would recognise as a two party system, with a government opposed by a ‘loyal opposition’. The ensuing need for competitive appeal to voters and the emergence of ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ labels brought the party system into the modern age. Following the First World War and the ‘confusion’ of parties that emerged from it, the changing social and political landscape, including the emergence of class and the decline of religion as key political dividing lines and the extension of the franchise saw in the 1920s the decline of the Liberals and the rise of Labour as the main alternative to the Conservatives, a rise interrupted by a split in the party over its handling of depression and economic crisis in 1929-31 and the formation of the National Coalition. The collapse of the post 1945 consensus, following the failures of Wilson, Callaghan and Heath governments in the 1970s to address Britain’s economic and industrial problems led to the emergence of Thatcherism, a split in the Labour Party and the formation of the SDP, as well as the emergence of the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties and the Liberal revival in the 70s, giving shape to the politics of the last thirty years.

What each of these developments have in common is that in the face of major political or economic crises, the existing party configurations, allegiances, alliances, positions proved inadequate and some kind of realignment, if not inevitable, became necessary. It is tempting in such circumstance to imagine that the hand of history is at play and that there is little that can be done to arrest the inevitable consequence of it. However, history is not something that is done to us, but something in which we participate. The political world just like our social environment is in ‘constant process and transformation’ a process of ‘perpetual motion’ and history is ‘a series of specific events’ in which we are ‘consciously involved and … can consciously influence’[1]. Thus, outcomes that seem inevitable in retrospect, like the emergence of the two party system in the first place, like the decline of the Liberal Party and the rise of the Labour Party are not necessarily so.  Crucially, the contingencies, the avoidable errors and unexpected successes can be at least as important. The response to such events therefore is crucial to the effects that they have. Thus the political virtuosity with which political leaders and politicians respond to the Fortuna of events can have profound consequences.

For British political parties, then, the aftermath of the referendum may be one of these moments. Brexit presents challenging issues and potential opportunities for parties’ stability and success. It has presented challenges for party leadership and management by exposing or sharpening existing divisions and creating new ones, opening questions about future direction.In this short article, I will briefly outline some of these issues and what they might mean for the parties.

Conservative Issues, Challenges and Opportunities

The first challenge that the Conservative Party faces is trying to find ways to bridge its continuing divisions in the party over Europe. Tensions over Europe in the party are deep and persistent and it was David Cameron’s attempt to do just this that gave rise to the referendum in the first place. The increasingly Eurosceptic make-up of the Parliamentary Conservative Party meant that whilst those who could be called ‘Europhiles’ had greatly diminished in number, the most significant division in the party now emerging was between ‘soft’ Eurosceptics, who supported membership but argued that integration should go no further, and an increasingly vocal band of ‘hard’ Eurosceptics, who advocated withdrawal altogether[2]. Cameron’s attempts to appeal to this arguably stoked the problem rather than healed it. His 2005 leadership campaign promise to withdraw from the centre-right European People’s Party in the European Parliament was fulfilled (after some prevarication), but the pledge of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty was deemed irrelevant following its ratification in 2009. In January 2013, Cameron was effectively forced into conceding a referendum (dependent on a Conservative majority) after 81 MPs defied the party whip to vote in favour of one following a Backbench debate in the House of Commons. It was clear that Cameron’s move had failed abjectly to dampen the growing Eurosceptic revolt when in May, 116 Conservative MPs rebelled on the Queen’s Speech, by voting for an amendment ‘regretting’ the absence of a referendum bill from the government’s legislative programme. Party leaders were forced to allow backbenchers a free vote and even ministers were permitted to abstain.

When Cameron won his unexpected majority in 2015, he had to deliver on his referendum promise. However, the effect was to galvanise Eurosceptic MPs by providing both a unifying focus for an otherwise unorganised group with differing aims and motivations[3], and leadership, which it had lacked up to this point. The decision of both Michael Gove and Boris Johnson to support the Leave campaign, brought high profile, mainstream ‘big hitters’ with a strong public appeal and significant communications skills to the Leave side. This was made easier, moreover, by Cameron’s insistence during the referendum campaign that he would not engage in ‘blue on blue’ attacks, a source of frustration for some on the Remain campaign team, as Craig Oliver’s recent memoir on the referendum campaign attests. Nevertheless, much of the media coverage seemed fixated on the divisions in the Conservative Party anyway, a substantial amount of it through the prism of whether Cameron was likely to Remain leader or not afterwards[4]. Thus, whilst the referendum did not create new divisions in the party, it focused, sharpened and exposed them.

Although the party’s claim to be the ‘natural’ party of government is not as strong as it was, the Conservatives were able to find a unity of purpose in its desire and instinct to govern. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, it looked as if the party might have lost sight of this, but in the end it was able to settle the leadership relatively quickly following Cameron’s resignation after the referendum defeat. Conservative leadership election rules give party members a choice between two potential leaders whittled down by MPs. Given the Eurosceptic bent of the party’s relatively small membership of around 150,000, the post-Brexit leadership contest held potential to reinforce a grass-roots revolt by presenting members with the possibility of voting for a vocal supporter of ‘Hard Brexit’. In the end, however, the inheritors would not be the architects of the Leave campaign. Michael Gove’s ‘knifing’ of Boris Johnson ended his candidacy before it even began but it did Gove no good either who was eliminated, just as Liam Fox and Steven Crabb had been in earlier rounds. Members were therefore left with a choice between Theresa May, Home Secretary since 2010 and a Remain supporter, albeit a relatively reticent one (as Craig Oliver’s account of the campaign attests), and Andrea Leadsom who had come to prominence as a high profile and effective advocate for the Leave campaign. Given the orientation of the membership, there was every possibility that Leadsom might win, a potential result that could have put the parliamentary party and the party in the country at loggerheads. However, it was never put to the vote. Leadsom withdrew from the contest stating that she could not justify going to the membership ballot with support from only 25% of MPs. Theresa May, was installed quickly as the new party leader and prime minister on 13 July just a few days after the contest officially began, displaying the strong instinct for survival that characterises the Conservative Party’s staying power and success.

The Conservative Party, therefore, in sorting out the leadership swiftly demonstrated that it had not lost touch with what it has seen as its historic purpose above all, to govern. Leadsom standing down meant, first of all, that the party was spared the possibility of a ‘revolt’ by members which may have created further crises; secondly, that leadership and therefore some direction on Brexit could be established quickly – curtailing the possibility of continued political limbo and uncertainty over the summer period; thirdly, it meant that an impression of strong leadership could be given to contrast with the divisions in the Labour party that had exploded into public view in the aftermath of the referendum and used to the party’s advantage.

May, moreover, came through looking like a reassuring, mature, statesmanlike figure. She won appearing to be above the fray, without apparently getting her hands dirty, by sitting back and allowing her rivals to self-destruct. She was perhaps not so much the winner as the last one standing when the firing stopped. She was also in many ways the ideal unity candidate.  She supported Remain, but took a cautious, low profile during the referendum campaign, and on assuming the leadership insisted that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, appointing prominent Eurosceptics to the key positions coordinating the process of exit. Thus, it seemed possible that divisions over Europe might finally have been put to rest in the Conservative Party. Perhaps the party would finally stop ‘banging on about Europe’ (as Cameron had always wanted) and begin to show some unity of purpose behind a new leader with a clear sense of direction. Now that this issue of EU membership had been resolved, the party could come together in the interests of the nation.

However, despite the initial truce, there is, as yet, no sign of the divisions coming to an end. Post-referendum, the distinction between hard Eurosceptics and supporters of membership have transmogrified into an emerging division between supporters of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit which has created some further party management issues for the new Prime Minister. Analysis of recent parliamentary debates[5] reveals that Hard Brexiters have made a range of different arguments, some taking an economically liberal line, based on global free trade and a competitive open economy based on low-tax and low-regulationwhilst others take a more ‘nationalistic’ position more directly resonant with the ‘taking control’ mantra of the Leave campaign, interpreting the referendum result as a vote for control over borders (against free movement), finances (against paying fees) and law (against the European Court of Justice) which rules out remaining in the single market under any terms since it would represent a ‘betrayal’ of what the British people had voted for. ‘Soft Brexit’ supporters on the other hand disagree. The strongest line is taken by ‘single marketeers’ whose arguments are oriented around the economic importance of being part of such a major free market, including a defence of the free movement of labour. Others are more pragmatic, expressing concerns about the impacts that the UK extricating itself from key arrangements and institutions like the single market might have on specific sectors, businesses, and industries, seeking assurances that their needs are fully understood. Thus the referendum has clearly not put the issue of Europe to rest in the Conservative Party and, if anything, the divisions between ‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ Brexiters have become fiercer and hardened by the constitutional dimensions about the role of parliament that are emerging as part of this debate. Hard Brexiters have tended to argue that the referendum result is a clear instruction for complete withdrawal (i.e. ‘Hard Brexit’) and does not require any further interpretation or debate in Parliament,which has in any case delegated its sovereignty to the people in this matter. The latter, on the other hand, have argued that Parliament must play role in providing a mandate to the government as demanded by established constitutional practice and to provide the public with confidence in the integrity of the process. The divisions in the party are only strengthened by these more procedural dimensions and – as contributions to Parliamentary debates show – underlined by mistrust. ‘Soft Brexiters’ are accused of using arguments about parliamentary sovereignty to frustrate the process and undermine the will of the British peoplewhilst ‘Hard Brexiters’ are, in turn, are accused of seeking to bypass Parliament’s ‘historic’ and constitutional role as a sovereign body because it is unlikely to come up with an answer that they would like.

The party leadership has attempted to navigate these continuing divisions by maintaining a reticence on the detail of how it wishes to proceed with Brexit and what the outcome should be. The Government has been accused therefore of having no discernible plan, whilst claiming that revealing its negotiating hand to parliament will weaken its position.  This may be so, but there are also likely to be important party management reasons for this reticence too.  Revealing the government’s position is bound to incur the wrath of one side or another in the debate and may yet precipitate further splits and even endanger her own position as leader. After Thatcher and Major, the issue of Europe has dispensed with a third Conservative Prime Minister. There is, as yet, no guarantee that it will not dispense with a fourth.

Labour Issues, Challenges and Opportunities

An important advantage that the Conservatives have, however, is that the opposition is also divided on at least three levels. Firstly, there are and have been growing divisions within the party between the mainstream majority of the parliamentary party and the party membership which has been most clearly exposed by the election and re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as the party’s leader. He was not even expected to get on the ballot but a campaign by constituency activists to persuade enough MPs to nominate him (he needed 35) in order to ‘widen the debate’ worked.  That he went on to win illuminated the fact that many members and supporters, old and new, profoundly disagreed with the direction of the party and rejected the implied prescription of other ‘mainstream’ leadership candidates that the Labour Party had lost in 2015 because they had, under Ed Miliband, been too strongly associated with an anti-austerity position. Indeed, it appeared that the majority of the party’s electorate felt the opposite and thanks to rule changes made by Miliband, MPs (and trade unions too) lost the weighted votes that the old electoral college system gave them and could now more easily have a leader they did not want imposed upon them.

That this happened means there is now also a stark division, secondly, between much of the Parliamentary Labour Party – whose ideological positions range from a small group of so-called ‘Blairite’ reformists, to mainstream ‘soft left’ MPs – and the leadership, which now is effectively in the hands of key members of the left-wing Campaign Group. Any attempts to paper over this division fell apart spectacularly in the aftermath of the Referendum.  Corbyn’s support for the Remain campaign during the referendum was regarded by many party moderates as somewhat lacklustre and equivocal at best and his reported initial response to the result that Article 50 should be triggered ‘immediately’ was greeted with incredulity by a number of Labour MPs who supported the Remain campaign. This division was exposed most destructively in the resignation of over 60 MPs from the front bench and a vote of no confidence by the Parliamentary Labour Party in the leader which took place immediately after the EU Referendum in June 2016. This attempt to force him out failed. Corbyn refused to go and thus a leadership challenge followed in which Owen Smith, although claiming the support of the vast majority of the parliamentary party, went down to defeat by 62% to 38%.

Since then, an uneasy peace has settled over the party in parliament, but divisions are not far beneath the surface and have emerged over the party’s response to Brexit, albeit without the same degree of publicly expressed rancour. Labour has started to shape a more directed response to the government on Brexit, steered by Keir Starmer, which has met with some success in pressing the government to reveal its plans, but Labour’s somewhat nuanced position seems to be hiding some deeper divisions, some of these between the PLP and party leaders (in reported tensions between Starmer and the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell for instance), but also between MPs representing Remain supporting, cosmopolitan constituencies and those in Leave supporting ones.

This exposes a further important division, thirdly, which is the dislocation between the party generally and substantial parts of its ‘traditional’ working class support, especially in the North of England. Labour MPs were overwhelmingly Remain supporters during the referendum (just ten MPs out of 232 supported the Leave campaign), and so were most party supporters, but many of its so-called ‘traditional’ heartlands voted to overwhelmingly leave: although more than two thirds of party supporters voted Remain, seven out of ten Labour held seats voted Leave[6].  Thus, contributions to parliamentary debates[7] indicate that whilst most Labour MPs are inclined to take a Soft Brexit position, emphasising the importance of access to the single market in particular and clarity and reassurance for key businesses and employers, some Remain-supporting Labour MPs have in response begun to adjust their position. Ending free movement for them has become, post-Brexit, a ‘red line’and despite ‘proven economic benefits’ Steven Kinnock argued in a recent Fabian publication that it ‘is not socially and politically sustainable’. Failure to address it, wrote Rachel Reeves in the same publication, would be tantamount to ‘holding the voters in contempt[8] However, at the same time key party leadership figures have argued a different line. Diane Abbot, for instance, in a November 26 interview in The Guardian argued that Labour needs to hold its nerve and maintain its support for free movement and defend immigration, reflecting views expressed by Corbyn himself that immigration is not in itself the issue so much as the resources communities have to cope with it. [9]   

The trick that the Labour Party has to perform is to hold on to its old heartlands in the face of the challenges of Brexit, whilst seeking to build new constituencies of support. Corbyn seems to have made great strides in the latter. His leadership has clearly galvanised a large number of people and membership now stands at over 500,000 (it was 200,000 in 2015) bucking the general trend of decline in party membership across western Europe. This might indicate it seems a strength of appeal in leadership that many political parties lack. However, polls have suggested his appeal amongst the electorate is low and, furthermore, his approach has also raised questions about Labour’s function and focus. Is it an electoral party that seeks office through maximising votes, or is it a mass membership movement that seeks to mobilise opposition to the existing political consensus? A successful political party needs in some sense to be both but in a political system which is heavily centred on the sovereignty of parliament and is likely to get more so in some respects (because of leaving the EU), it is difficult to see how a genuine political breakthrough can be made without control of the parliamentary arena.

Liberal Democrats

Another party in desperate need of a breakthrough is the Liberal Democrats. The first challenge the party faces is their weak parliamentary position and, thus, relatively low levels of influence. They were almost destroyed as a parliamentary force at the 2015 general election. They lost large number of voters, not least because having been part of the Coalition government with the Conservatives from 2010-15, the party could no longer rely on being a repository of protest votes. However, they gained no reward from elsewhere either, least of all their coalition partners. Indeed, they lost all 15 seats in their South West ‘heartland’, almost all of them to the Conservatives who ruthlessly targeted their seats. Overall, the result of that election was catastrophic, being reduced from a total of 57 MPs to just eight. Despite being the most Euro-enthusiastic party of all, and not long out of government, the Liberal Democrats were, due to their much diminished status, largely absent from the referendum campaign, and there were a distinct lack of significant roles for the party leader, Tim Farron, in key debates or on Remain platforms.

However, in the post-referendum landscape, their clear pro-European position has presented them with an opportunity, especially in the face of division or lack of clarity coming from the two main parties. They have cultivated and emphasised this pro-European voice in Parliament and their decision to oppose the (amended) Opposition Day motion in Parliament on 7th December which set a date for triggering Article 50 has set them apart as taking a strong anti-Brexit, or at least anti-Hard Brexit line on which it shares common ground with the Greens, Nationalists and a small number of Labour MPs. They have also sought to emphasise democratic credentials by developing this into a campaign for a further referendum on the outcome of negotiations. This is a distinctive line of argument taken by the remaining Liberal Democrats and their leader, Tim Farron, underlining their emergence as a clear, pro-Remain voice in the current political landscape.  This appears to be attracting significant new membership (the party currently claims around 80,000 members) and growing support which has culminated in a stunning by-election success at the Richmond Park by-election on 1st December. Thus although severed at the head in 2015, the Liberal Democrats appear to be growing back at the roots.

UKIP

UKIP was founded for the express purpose of agitating for, and winning, a referendum on membership of the European Union, and its unity of purpose in this respect at least was not in doubt. Despite only having one MP, UKIP has, in terms of setting the agenda, framing the debate and achieving political goals, been just about the most successful and effective political party of recent times. Both the staging and the outcome of the referendum represents the fulfilment of its founding purpose, which is something not all parties can claim, and underlines the perceived and real threat they have posed to both main parties. It is therefore an unequivocal success for UKIP as party and its members and leaders could be forgiven for basking in its success.

Leadership has clearly been vital to UKIP’s success. The achievement of its goal is in no small measure down to the skill and astuteness of Nigel Farage as a political operator and communicator. The pressure that the party’s success under his leadership has put on the main parties is what led to the promise of a referendum in the first place and the sharpening of the divide between Labour and its once taken-for-granted Northern heartlands. What he and UKIP have successfully done is, first, frame the impacts of the financial crisis as a problem of immigration and, second, linked the question of immigration to the European Union. Europe had for a long time been low down on the priorities of voters, but immigration and the economy were both high. To link all of these together in a way that exploited the political and economic fallout for the purposes of achieving a specific long-held ambition was a skilful piece of political campaigning

At the same time, despite their low parliamentary representation they attracted almost four million votes (12.6%) at the last election which has put them in a strong position electorally, too. They were remarkably consistent in their level of support across the country (except for London) meaning that overall it achieved 120 second places: 44 to Labour and 75 to the Conservatives (the other being the Speaker’s seat).  At the same time, the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote, particularly in the South West of England means that it is UKIP which arguably provides the most potent threat to the established parties, competing with Labour in much of the North, and the Conservatives in much of the South.

And yet, despite – or perhaps because of – this success, UKIP finds itself at a crossroads and a moment of introspection. Farage’s leadership is arguably what held the party together and stepping down leaves a gap that could be hard to fill. The infighting (literally in the case of two MEPs: leadership hopeful Steven Woolfe and Mike Hookem) and squabbling that followed the referendum and the debacle of Diane James’ short-lived leadership exposed this to a great extent. Indeed, even the Referendum itself exposed divisions in the party over the campaign, which may contain some clues about the lines of debate opening up as to its future as a political party. The more optimistic, relatively liberal side, represented by people like Douglas Carswell (the party’s only MP) and Suzanne Evans were aligned with the mainstream Vote Leave campaign, whilst Nigel Farage represented a populist, more explicitly anti-immigration campaign through Leave.EU, including the notorious ‘Breaking Point’ poster.  Paul Nuttall’s election as leader provides UKIP with an opportunity to find a new, post-Brexit path. In his acceptance speech, he set UKIP the aim of replacing Labour as a patriotic working class voice. It remains to be seen if he can pull this off, but Labour MP Frank Field described his election as a ‘game changer’ for Labour.[10]

Scottish National Party

Sixty-two per cent of Scotland’s voters supported Remain in the referendum which has provided opportunities for the Scottish National Party to further its campaign for independence. The party are in a strong position to do so and this is down to a number of factors.  Firstly, strong, effective leadership which was on display in the immediate aftermath of the referendum. In contrast to other politicians who appeared in a state of shock at the result (including some of the winners), Sturgeon decisively pressed Scotland’s case. This is combined with the party’s straightforward clarity of purpose on the issue of independence, its large, motivated membership and its stunning electoral success in 2015 (when it gained 56 out of 59 Scottish seats). Thus its parliamentary position as the third largest party, which gives it rights in terms of asking questions, organising debates and populating committees, has enabled it to bring its own distinctive arguments to the Brexit debate. It has enabled it to press for a central role for the devolved administrations in negotiations as well as to push another constitutional dimension to the debate in the form of the argument that Brexit requires consent from Holyrood.Ultimately, much of this should be interpreted through the prism of the SNP’s campaign for independence, which underpins arguments that Scottish voters are sovereign and the vote for Remain needs to be ‘respected’. [11]

Although the huge difference in support for European Union membership in Scotland might appear to make another referendum on independence inevitable, it is notable that the party has been reticent about committing to this and a key question for the SNP is the extent to which Scottish voters would be willing to sacrifice a 300-year-old union with England and Wales for a European one. The SNP, in short are in a delicate position between the electorate and its membership and so the ‘threat’ of a second referendum is a weapon that has to be handled carefully.  Support for independence does not seem to have grown dramatically, if at all, since the referendum, and the party will not want to initiate one if it is unlikely to win. Furthermore, polling suggests that most Scots would prefer not to have a second referendum for now at least.[12] At the same time, however, those who identify as SNP voters are overwhelmingly in favour of independence and need to be kept happy too. So far, the SNP has proved adept at maintaining the balance between these two and continuing to get the balance right is likely deliver continued and sustainable success for the SNP.

Conclusion

Brexit and the aftermath of the referendum presents a number of challenges threats and opportunities for the political parties and how they respond to them may have a significant impact on the party system and its configuration for some time to come.  In order to maintain its unity, the Conservative Party leadership faces the significant challenge of overcoming the divisions between supporters of ‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ variations of Brexit, which appear to be increasingly entrenched, whilst at the same time providing a positive way forward for negotiating a settlement with the European Union which satisfies both sides. Labour, meanwhile, needs to find ways of bridging significant gaps between its MPs, its leaders, its members and its voters and faces the difficulty of maintaining a coherent response to Brexit whilst seeking to rebuild a potential election winning coalition. For both main parties, these divisions are reflected in their responses to Brexit which are strongly influenced by party management concerns.  The Conservative leadership retains an air of ambiguity and secrecy so as not to antagonise the fragile relations between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexiters. The Labour Party, although ostensibly more sympathetic to ‘soft Brexit’ takes a somewhat nuanced position which masks the divided response the party has to it. Should they fail, however, to meet these challenges, other parties will be waiting to exploit the opportunities it offers them. The relative strength of UKIP as a voice for hard Brexit under their new leadership and their capacity to attract votes from Labour and the Conservatives is likely to have an important effect on how those parties’ overall positions develop. The same applies on the other side of the issue. The Liberal Democrats are emerging as a clear, pro-Remain voice in the current political situation and their recent success in Richmond Park has opened questions as to whether Conservatives are under threat from pro-European voters if they continue to take a relatively ‘Hard Brexit’ position. The SNP are also unequivocally pro-EU as a party and, given Scotland voted to Remain by a substantial margin, have carved out a clear role to defend Scotland’s interests, seek to influence the process and possibly use it to leverage further support for independence.


[1] Carr, E.H. (2001) What is History? (Basingstoke: Palgrave), 129

[2] Heppell , T. (2013) ‘Cameron and Liberal Conservatism: Attitudes within the Parliamentary Conservative Party and Conservative Ministers’ in British Journal of Politics and International Relations Vol 15, 340-361.

[3] Lynch, P. and Whitaker, R. (2013) ‘Where There is Discord, Can They Bring Harmony? Managing Intra-Party Dissent on European Integration in the Conservative Party’ in British Journal of Politics and International Relations Vol 15 317-339, 335

[4]For example, see: Philip Johnston ‘The Conservative Party may be destroyed by this European madness’ The Telegraph www.telegraph.co.uk Accessed 30 November 2016; George Parker ‘Conservative party infighting on Europe referendum escalates’ Financial Times May 23 2016;

[5] Hansard Online https://hansard.parliament.uk/ [HC Deb 11 July 2016 Vol 613 cc 23-35; HC Deb 5 September 2016 Vol 614 cc 38-74; HC Deb 10 October 2016 Vol 615 cc 40-69; HC Deb 10 October 2016  Vol 615 cc 70-71; HC Deb 12 October 2016  Vol 615 cc 314-415].

[6] Chris Hanretty, ‘Most Labour MPs represent a constituency that voted Leave’. Available online: https://medium.com/@chrishanretty/most-labour-mps-represent-a-constituency-that-voted-leave- 36f13210f5c6#.fu9zvch6u (accessed 2 December 2016).

[7] Hansard Online https://hansard.parliament.uk/ [HC Deb 21 July 2016 Vol 613 cc 428-454 WH ; HC Deb 5 September 2016 Vol 614 cc 38-74; HC Deb 10 October 2016 Vol 615 cc 40-69]

[8] Facing the Unknown: Building a Progressive Response to Brexit Fabian Society Policy Report, 13, 17

[9] ‘Labour will not win a general election as Ukip-lite, says Diane Abbott’ The Guardian Saturday 26 November; ‘Jeremy Corbyn: I will not put a limit on immigration’ Politics Home 24 September 2016Online at: https://www.politicshome.com Accessed 1 December 2016.

[10] ‘Ukip leader Paul Nuttall is ‘game changer’ for Labour, says Frank Field’ The Guardian 30 November 2016

[11] Hansard Online https://hansard.parliament.uk/  [HC Deb 21 July 2016 Vol 613 cc 428-454 WH; HC Deb 10 October 2016 Vol 615 cc 40-69; HC Deb 12 October 2016 Vol 615 cc 314-414]

[12] ‘Scots don’t support a second independence referendum’ You Gov 1 September 2016 Online: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/09/01/davidson-now-more-popular-sturgeon-scotland/ Accessed 28 November 2016.

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.

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