Labour Can’t Escape Britain’s Omnishambles

Deep internal divisions and a looming Brexit will mire Corbyn as much as May.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at the party’s annual conference in Liverpool on Sept. 26. (Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at the party’s annual conference in Liverpool on Sept. 26. (Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)

For most of the British Labour Party leader’s speech at the party conference in Liverpool last month, the crowd was cheering, chanting, and on its feet. After nearly a decade in decline, Jeremy Corbyn announced, the left was “ready to win, ready to govern.”

There is every reason to believe that Labour is indeed “ready to win.” Despite a better-than-expected party conference in Birmingham last week, the Conservatives remain in disarray. With threats to Theresa May’s leadership from all sides and solutions to a “no-deal crisis” nowhere in sight, Labour has been picking up steam in a nation increasingly dissatisfied with Conservative rule. New polling shows just how far the left, out of power for close to a decade, has come in recent months, as the parties are now projected to capture an equal share of the vote in the next election. With May reportedly planning a snap election and Labour pressing for one, too, the keys to No. 10 Downing St. may soon be in Corbyn’s hands. Yet while Labour may be ready to win, it’s a lot less clear that it’s ready to govern.

As the clock now ticks on Brexit, Britain barrels ever closer to the no-deal crisis that may vault Labour to power. But with May’s overtures pulling moderates in and with Corbyn’s supporters pushing moderates out, the seeds have been sown for potential confusion for a Labour Party unable to come together, to rule, and to govern.

On the one hand, the party has arrived at its most promising moment since Tony Blair swept John Major’s unpopular government out of power in 1997. A tired Tory Party, then as now, has lost its claims to strong leadership and economic stewardship as Britain slips closer and closer to a simultaneous financial, housing, and food crises. But at the same time, the party has arrived at a grave moment of internal division as Labour and Corbyn loyalists fight each other for the future of Britain’s left.

Last month, the Corbyn-led party took a significant step in the direction of “deselection,” making it easier to remove and replace Labour’s more moderate members of Parliament with left-wing insurgents. Traditionally, Labour MPs have only had to face off against primary challengers if 50 percent of local party branches have approved the contest. That threshold will now be reduced to 33 percent, and the door to more intraparty conflict—to more far-left challengers squaring off against rank-and-file incumbents—will be opened.

The deselection debate in Liverpool reflected a larger, more fundamental, and more painstaking battle to restructure the party. And as May led the weekend papers with an op-ed entreating Labour loyalists to “look at my government afresh,” it is clear that these divisions will play a decisive role in the future of Britain. The question will be whether Corbyn can pull the party together or whether May can tear it apart.

Within Labour, the push to the left is both top-down and bottom-up—with only a small but committed group of Labour MPs holding the center. From the top, we see Corbyn’s front bench, the most radical in the party’s history. In his closing remarks at last month’s conference, he advertised this fact as he announced Labour’s “radical plan to rebuild and transform our country.” And given Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell and Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott’s headlining of a panel titled “Towards a Socialist Government,” it is clear that Labour’s leftward push has significant additional support at the highest levels, too.

At the same time, the push is coming from the grassroots. The main group behind this is Momentum, a far-left political organizing coalition that has had tremendous success in deploying tens of thousands of volunteers across the United Kingdom and in reaching millions of voters online. Momentum has become pivotal to the left’s electoral efforts and powerful within the party, but it remains wholly and unapologetically outside (and to the left) of Labour.

Last month, Momentum put on a conference in Liverpool concurrent with the Labour Party’s. The relationship between the two events demonstrated the relationship between the left’s two factions. “Over here is for the cool kids,” one young attendee explained. “Over there is for the party hacks.” At Momentum’s conference—called The World Transformed—participants cursed Labour’s alleged neo-liberalism and plotted about “the opportunity, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we have with Jeremy Corbyn.” This contrast between loving Corbyn and loathing Labour was apparent at every turn. In one session, an “Eco-Corbynism Reading Group,” a woman made a hush-hush announcement of a planned protest at the Labour conference over the party’s support for the expansion of Heathrow Airport. “We’re going to throw little paper planes,” she said conspiratorially.

But even as the Momentum conference was scorning Labour, the party was embracing it. Over the course of the week, the conference enjoyed the support and attendance of numerous Labour representatives, including Abbott, McDonnell, the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, and Corbyn himself.

With Momentum growing in size and strength, Corbyn’s ability to unite Labour has diminished greatly. Many of the voters who were once part of Labour’s coalition are now turned off by Momentum’s perceived extremism and its cult of Corbyn, which was well on display in sessions such as “Eco-Corbynism,” “Acid Corbynism,” and “Artists4Corbyn.” As the walls close in on Labour’s moderates, Blair, the last Labour prime minister, has taken to speculating about the creation of a new party altogether for his moderate, beleaguered “Blairites.”

A Corbyn cabinet might end up an ironic mirror of May’s own problems. Just as May has had to endure policy challenges and leadership threats from Jacob Rees-Mogg’s far-right European Research Group, so may Corbyn have to counter the same from the moderate MPs who passed a damning no-confidence motion against him two years ago. The internal instability of May’s cabinet—the jockeying of such figures as Boris Johnson and David Davis—seems likely to be repeated in the well-known tension between Corbyn and his deputy, Tom Watson.

And the clouds of Brexit that have hung over May from the start seem unlikely to part for Corbyn in the near future of his rule. The Labour Party’s equivocation on how to leave the EU—with Corbyn declaring all in one speech that he will support a good deal, oppose a bad one, potentially call for a second referendum, and definitely call for a general election—will breed the sort of uncertainty that can only leave party faithfuls dissatisfied, especially considering that 35 percent of Labour voters supported Leave.

Despite all these obstacles, Labour was able to produce a policy package that is strong and appealing. At the end of the four-day conference, the popular new platform briefly stole the spotlight from Brexit with its calls to create “employee ownership schemes” of large corporations and to renationalize Britain’s water industry. Aside from expected pushback—“Row erupts,” a Financial Times headline announced; “draconian,” a prominent lobbyist called it—Labour’s socialism-lite proposal of an “inclusive ownership fund” is likely to receive broad party approval with a beneficiary list in the millions, public revenue generation in the billions, and a working model to boast in the furniture company John Lewis’s democratic governance structure. And considering the 40 percent increase above inflation in the price of water since the industry was privatized in 1989, it is likely that Labour’s renationalization proposal will be able to score public support as well.

But a no-deal Brexit—or even a poor deal—could sabotage all of this, leaving Labour inheriting a tattered economy and a chaotic country. So could an inability to actually pass legislation, if, as polls suggest, Labour scrapes at best a narrow victory and ends up dependent on moderate MPs or even another party to govern. Right now, the only thing that seems certain is the triumph of the left inside Labour—not within Britain.

Stephen Paduano is a journalist based in London, and an associate of the IDEAS Institute at the London School of Economics.

 Twitter: @StephenPaduano

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