The Labour Party has fared worse from the vote to leave the EU than any other party.
That might seem like hyperbole considering that the Conservatives had their Prime Minister resign less than a year after winning a first election victory for 18 years. Yet political power has a curiously cohesive quality and the Tories are still united – in public at least. The Labour Party faces an existential crisis for which the most extreme diagnoses have already become clichés: the leadership contest is for ‘the soul of the party’; it risks splitting into factions, and they Labour may be ‘locked out’ of government for a generation, or more.
At her majesty’s service
The British parliamentary political system recognises the party with the largest majority after an election as the government, and the leader of that party as Prime Minister. The second largest party are formally known as Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. Currently, that’s Labour, and they have a constitutional role to play: holding the government to account, with shadow ministers prepping for the possibility of walking the corridors of power after the next election. The opposition are meant to be a ‘government-in-waiting’.
Traditionally this has meant that when the going gets rough for the government – which it usually does – the opposition party benefits. Generally that means electoral gains in council elections, by-elections and healthy poll ratings. Despite the current Corbyn-led Labour line that Labour is performing well on these metrics, objectively, that just isn’t the case.
The vote to leave the European Union was the mother of all political errors. It will have huge ramifications economically, socially, politically and constitutionally. None of it was ‘meant’ to happen. It makes the 1956 Suez Crisis which ended Conservative PM Anthony Eden’s career look like a minor error of judgement. It can all be squarely blamed on the Conservatives and David Cameron specifically.
So, how have the official opposition not gained from the gargantuan mess created by the political right?
I wrote at length during last year’s Labour leadership election why I didn’t think the long-term prospects for Labour are good. Several intersecting and mutually reinforcing trends have set a constitutional and demographic trap for Labour. Those issues haven’t gone away as a result of Brexit. Instead the vote to leave has exposed them more rapidly than would otherwise have been the case.
Brexit has split the Labour party. Not might split it, or is in danger of causing it to split – the party is currently subject to a de facto split. This schism was expressed as the coordinated waves of shadow cabinet resignations on the Sunday after the referendum. The attempt to foce Corbyn’s hand has come to be known – amongst Corbyn supporters – as a coup.
That moniker – which invokes images of a hostile, anti-democratic take over at the top – says all that needs to be said about Labour’s predicament. On one side stand the current leadership backed by massed and vocal support from the rank-and-file. Inspired by Corbyn’s unapologetically socialist stance they see an expression of no-confidence in his leadership as a power grab by the parliamentary party. Facing them are the PLP, for many of whom Corbyn was simply a bad manager and not up to the task of running the official opposition to the Tories.
In agreement but bitterly divided
The depth of the bitterness and the recriminations on both sides of the Labour divide have been very well documented. The is now no attempt being made to hide the acrimony, no ameliorating words from either of the candidates for the Labour leadership. The curious and somewhat paradoxical side to the contest is how little divides Corbyn and Smith in terms of policy. Each’s stated positions are far to the left of the platform on which Ed Miliband fought and lost the 2015 general election. Only very recently has the issue of Brexit itself provided a clear difference between the approaches of the two men. Corbyn would seek to leave the EU swiftly, having never had much love for what he sees as a fundamentalist free-market superstructure, whereas Smith would seek to block exit from happening at all.
Where the division really lie is in political approach, strategy and broad political outlook.
Corbyn’s essential appeal is that he appears to his ardent supporters, within the PLP and outside it, as a man of unquestionable, steadfast principle. The ideas that he has espoused may not always have been popular but he has not bent with the wind. Of course, the clinching example is his opposition to the Iraq War. Whilst that was very widely supported across the parties at the time, post-Chilcot the tide has turned decisively. Corbyn is on the right side of history.
Smith, and the part of the party he represents, are more pragmatic in their view of the political landscape. The key aim is to return Labour to power, to be able to pass legislation like that which established the minimum wage, or incorporated the Human Right Act into British law. In order to achieve power, under the current system it is necessary to make compromises with one’s own principles. Toning down socialist rhetoric, appealing to the centre ground, focusing on marginal seats and a professional media strategy are the cornerstones of this approach. Once in power compromises still have to be made: in order to achieve a higher goal some points of principle may need to be jettisoned.
The cliché then is true: this contest is about the soul of the Labour Party. It’s about whether to mobilise and enthusiastic loyal base to rail against the injustices of a entitled and dangerous Tory elite, or hold their noses and enter the political cess-pit, and risk coming out smelling of the same crap.
More than the sum of their parts
The referendum result catalysed, in a spectacular way, this debate within the party, transforming it into an open fight for control of Labour. The leadership contest will provide some sort of answer to whether Labour will be a grassroots, oppositionalist movement, or if it continues along an electoralist path.
The outcome of the race seems clear from the polls – that Jeremy Corbyn will win re-election as the party’s leader. The only possibility for Labour to return to full strength, however, is if both strands within Labour come together and work for a common purpose. Grassroots and the PLP alike will benefit if the hatchet were to be buried, a programme thrashed out and energies concentrated on engaging with the country and in opposing the current May government.
The Brexit vote is a test that the Labour Party must pass. The signs at present are not auspicious.