The Labour Party Can’t Govern Itself, Much Less Britain

If you thought the Tories were a mess, you should have seen Labour's annual conference.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses conference in his keynote speech on September 24, 2019 in Brighton, England.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses conference in his keynote speech on September 24, 2019 in Brighton, England. Leon Neal/Getty Images

BRIGHTON, England—For four days, this sleepy, rainy seaside city on England’s southern coast was converted into a festival of frenetic leftism. Leaflets with Karl Marx’s likeness littered the table of one anti-Zionist organization at the entrance to the main conference hall. Posters at the booth of another organization, the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, touted the successes of the Castros’ dynastic communism. Across town, a block sculpture that read “SOCIALISM” served as a much-used Instagram background for younger attendees. Scattered throughout were black and white banners from Extinction Rebellion, the climate change protest movement.

This was the annual gathering of the members, activists, officials, and affiliates of Britain’s Labour Party, the largest party in the United Kingdom, held in Brighton from Sept. 21 to 25. Conference season, as autumn becomes for Britain, is always a time for spectacle. At their conference last week, the nation’s centrist Liberal Democrats surged in the polls with their provocative pledge to cancel the U.K.’s departure from the European Union. At another conference next week, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson will rally his Conservative forces to support him despite his recent mishaps. But this week was Labour’s time to shine, to show that the long-neglected opposition was ready to govern, to fulfill old promises, and to offer new ideas.

To some degree, the party did just that. Each day saw the rollout of exciting and important new policies: a four-day work week, the abolition of private schools, free care for the elderly, and, most substantially, a bold target for net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. These are expected to solve the nation’s greatest challenges, rally the party’s constituency, and, Labour hopes, appeal to other constituencies, too.

But ultimately the week dismayed at least as much as it dazzled. Bitter Brexit divisions and a damning coup against the party’s most moderate senior official clipped the conference’s wings before it even took flight. “It was a shitshow,” one exasperated Labour activist told Foreign Policy at the conference’s end. Only a last-minute decision by the U.K. Supreme Court, which ruled that Johnson had broken the law in suspending Parliament earlier this month, could stanch the bleeding and cut the chaotic week short.

These were supposed to be triumphant days for Labour. After nine long years of Tory rule, as power has passed from David Cameron to Theresa May to Boris Johnson, the Conservative house of cards has started coming down. A series of botched Brexit maneuvers by the new prime minister—proroguing Parliament, expelling colleagues, being humiliated by the resignation of his own brother, and, most recently, being chagrined by the Supreme Court’s ruling against prorogation—have left the right more vulnerable than ever before. In turn, it seemed, the left was on a path back to power.

A sense of trouble was evident upon arrival, with the most obvious indication coming from attendees’ clothing. On one side were the ardent Brexit Remainers with their bags, shirts, and EU-blue berets. On the other were the loyalists of Jeremy Corbyn who made their allegiance to the Labour leader and his Euroskeptic inclinations clear on their hats, pins, and more. A third group hoped to bridge the divide with shirts and signs that said: “Remain, Reform, Revolt.” What that meant was not immediately clear.

As has long been the case with the Labour Party, the Brexit divisions at the base of the party were clear at the top, too. Before the conference began, Corbyn, the mercurial Labour leader who has held three positions on Brexit in as many years, appeared to renege on his latest support for “referendum and Remain” by suggesting that the U.K. might actually be better off outside the EU. It was a needlessly unpopular pivot that came just as the Liberal Democrats had overtaken Labour in the polls with their anti-Brexit promise. In response to her boss’ equivocation, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry gave a rip-roaring pro-Remain speech while dressed as an EU flag. Compounding the cracks, Len McCluskey, one of the most powerful figures in the party, harshly suggested that Thornberry and her Brexit-opposing peers “step aside.”

On Monday, this crisis came to the fore as the party held a formal debate on its Brexit position. The question was whether Labour would call for both a second referendum and campaign to remain, or whether it would stay neutral and only call for the referendum. The speeches on both sides were impassioned, angry, and eclectic, but ultimately useless. For reasons unbeknownst to attendees, the chair of the session decided to count the votes of the packed room by a show of hands. After initially announcing that Labour would indeed campaign to remain, the chair then ruled that the vote had failed and Labour would only support the neutral motion to have a second referendum. In effect, three long years into the Brexit saga, Labour still lacks a position on Brexit. First came the boos and heckles for a proper tabulation of the votes. Then, and overwhelmingly so, came the chants of “Ohhh, Jeremy Corbyn!

Unfortunately for Labour, the divisions run deeper than Brexit. The party also remains locked in a decadeslong struggle to define just how left Labour really is. Can the party still be a home to the “new Labour” moderates of the last decade, the Blairites who endorse market-oriented solutions to most problems? Or must the party be as avowedly socialist as the current leadership claims, with their calls to nationalize core industries and abolish private institutions?

Increasingly, the answer seems to be the latter. On the first day of the conference, one of the most prominent activists in the party put forward a proposal to abolish the position of deputy leader. Coming the same day that Corbyn was found to be the most unpopular British opposition leader in recorded history, the move to undercut his deputy was certainly daring. But it was not surprising. The reason to abolish the post was that its current holder, Tom Watson, is cut from the moderate cloth of the party and at odds with its leftist direction. For Labour’s far-left, which embarked on an aggressive campaign last year to “deselect”—or, in American parlance, to “primary”—their moderate colleagues, Watson has long been on the hit list.

For now, the effort to push out Watson and the party’s remaining moderates has come up short. Rather than stripping Watson of his post, Corbyn decided to kick the can, and his deputy’s fate, down the road by determining that the party would merely “review” Watson’s position. The membership, however, has already had its say. Fliers were passed out on the morning that Watson was due to speak. “SHUN TOM WATSON! SUPPORT JEREMY CORBYN!” they read. However, the speech and the walkout would never come about. With the Supreme Court having ruled against the suspension of Parliament, members of parliament were told to report to London on Wednesday—the same day that Corbyn was supposed to speak. As a result, Corbyn decided to take Watson’s time on Tuesday and boot his embattled deputy to next year.

After Corbyn’s speech Tuesday afternoon, the four days of internecine warfare of Labour’s Leavers versus its Remainers and its leftists versus its moderates happily came to a close. The Supreme Court’s explosive decision had stolen the spotlight from Labour’s chaotic conference, put Parliament back in session, and sent the party membership packing.

Much would be missed when Labour’s members (and Britain’s media) went home. For one thing, the party didn’t have to endure the crisis of a protest and walkout during Watson’s canceled speech. Nor did the late-night rally put on by Labour Against the Witchhunt, an anti-Zionist fringe group that is dedicated to defending people who have been accused of anti-Semitism, attract much attention. Another event late Tuesday night hosted by Labour for a Republic, a group that is calling for the abolition of the monarchy, also went ignored.

There is little doubting that Labour lucked out this week, much the same way it has lucked out over the past few weeks. As the Conservative Party continues to be ripped apart by Brexit, there has been much less attention paid to a similar civil war playing out in the Labour Party. The handful of MPs who have quit the Labour Party in recent years attests to the crisis that is consuming the party, as does the party’s continued indecision over Brexit, the defining issue of the day. So too does the noxious fight over anti-Semitism—as many Labour MPs, members, and activists continue to deny and propagate the party’s problem—show just how far away the party is from being a functioning and inclusive organization. Most damning of all was last weekend’s unexpected resignation of Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s senior policy advisor, who blasted the party over its “lack of professionalism, competence, and human decency.” Despite the near-total collapse of the current Conservative government, Fisher declared: “I no longer have faith we will succeed.”

But British politics is a seesaw. The two sides cannot be on the ground at the same time, even if they are both pushing themselves down. This week, despite Labour’s race to the bottom with its botched conference, it was the Conservatives that dropped first—and so Labour was sent soaring.

As Parliament returns to session, however, it is unlikely that Labour’s time on top will last very long. Without a clear position on Brexit, without a firm commitment to a no-confidence vote, and without much party cohesiveness, Labour and its fortunes will continue to seesaw.

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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