Political forecasting has suffered a number of embarrassments recently (as another of our magazine’s contributors, Declan Molloy, has written about here), and it is with one of these that our story begins.
Pundits had predicted a Labour victory in the United Kingdom’s 2015 general election, perhaps propped up by support from the Scottish National Party in the event that Labour did not form a majority in its own right. Defying the polls, the Conservative Party went on to boost themselves from a minority government (in coalition with the Liberal Democrats) to a majority in their own right. When Ed Miliband resigned from the Labour leadership the night of his election loss in 2015, no analyst or commentator predicted that the party would enter into an historic split – a marginalised minority leftist grouping of Labour’s parliamentarians would be delivered control of the party by a coalition of hundreds of thousands of party members, affiliated trade union members and registered supporters.
The Labour Party itself has very little ideological character as an institution. It has no fixed doctrine, and it has produced starkly different manifestos at different points in its history – the Labour Party is essentially a hollow vessel in which ideological struggle occurs, with various camps vying for power over it. The only common threads through Labour’s history is that it has been approximately left of centre and has connections to the United Kingdom’s trade union movement. It has housed neoliberals, centrists, social democrats, democratic socialists, communists and Trotskyists.
The leadership election following Miliband’s resignation was a prime display of the party’s eclectic nature. Four candidates ran – Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper were both former cabinet ministers under Gordon Brown and members of the shadow cabinet; Liz Kendall had not been a cabinet member in government but had been a member of Miliband’s shadow cabinet; and Jeremy Corbyn had never been in the cabinet nor shadow cabinet. Burnham and Cooper could both be approximated as social democratic candidates, arguing for the preservation and gradual expansion of the welfare state. Neither made any serious political departures from Miliband. Liz Kendall flew the New Labour standard and offered a different vision, arguing for a return to the political practises of the Blair years in which the Labour Party would tack to the centre in order to perform well electorally. Corbyn, a backbencher and former chair of the Socialist Campaign Group represented the Hard Left, the most radical grouping in the Parliamentary Labour Party. The Socialist Campaign Group have an overtly class-based analysis critique of capitalism, are inherently sceptical of the capitalist mode of production and frequently defied the Labour Party leadership, rebelling most notably against the Iraq War. Their tendency has been most notably represented by Tony Benn, a former Postmaster General, Minister for Technology, Secretary of State for Industry, Secretary of State for Energy in previous Labour governments and himself a candidate for the deputy leadership and leadership of the Labour Party in the 1970’s and 80’s.
The rules for the Labour Party leadership election are essentially one member one vote, with some slight variations. Ordinary party members have a vote, but so do members of affiliated trade unions and so do “registered supporters”. In the 2015 election, any UK citizen could register for a vote in the Labour Party leadership election by becoming a member or supporter for three pounds. At the start of the contest Corbyn was given 100/1 odds from the outset by all major betting agencies. Corbyn was not a popular candidate with his fellow MP’s. He could barely muster up the required signatures (35 out of his 232 colleagues) to stand as a candidate – he received his final two signatures with minutes to spare before the close of nominations. Many who had nominated declared they did not support him, but believed that the party ought to have a wide and inclusive debate. Pundits on all sides said he could not win. He was essentially treated as a fringe candidate, a peculiarity for the debate stage.
Then Jeremy Corbyn began to draw crowds. Corbyn was a well-known figure on the political Left as the chair of the Stop the War Coalition. He was one of the principle organisers of the opposition to the Iraq War, mobilising over a million people for just one of the many demonstrations in the lead up to the invasion. He was a long standing member of Parliament, representing Islington North since 1982. He had made numerous television appearances and had been invited to debate at the Oxford Union. Corbyn quickly took the lead in Constituency Party endorsements, the local member-controlled Labour Party bodies in a particular geographical area. He received a number of powerful trade union endorsements, providing the campaign critical resources and institutional support – the trade union Unite constituted the party’s largest financial contributor.
An overtly left wing vision for Labour appealed to the Labour Party’s membership. Austerity policies of public sectors cuts implemented by the Conservative government in the years following the global financial crisis were politically polarising. Much of the membership disagreed with Tony Blair’s decision to cooperate with the Bush administration and invade Iraq, and many began to resent Blair following his failure to represent the risk surrounding Iraq’s weapons arsenal to world security accurately. Corbyn’s policy positions lined up broadly with what the membership found reasonable – he argued that public investment should be ramped up in times of economic insecurity, not cut. He argued that the railways should be taken back into public ownership considering the privatisation of that service had definitively lead to increasing fares and lower quality service. He argued for a mass social housing programme at a time where the young and the poor find it harder and harder to participate in the property market. He argued for the end of zero-hour contracts while so many workers felt insecure about their jobs. He identified issues and provided potential solutions with very little ambiguity in his rhetoric.
Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party in September 2015 after receiving fifty-nine percent of the vote on the first count. Many in the Parliamentary Labour Party refused to serve in his shadow cabinet. Many MP’s openly contradicted him on policy issues. In a vote on whether to commit air forces to Syria for a bombing campaign, Corbyn argued against military intervention. Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn spoke for military intervention, exposing a party divide on that issue. Corbyn’s leadership was never fully accepted by Labour in Westminster, and the struggle between the membership-backed leadership and the majority of parliamentarians culminated in open rebellion following the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union in June, just eight months after Corbyn’s victory. The Labour leadership had supported a “Remain” vote, but had argued for continuing membership of the European Union to reform it as well as to preserve the EU’s workers’ rights protections and regulations for the UK. Many MP’s argued that Corbyn had not effectively campaigned for a Remain vote – Corbyn’s camp argued that he had delivered seventy percent of Labour voters for Remain, a percentage higher than David Cameron managed with Conservative voters.
Labour’s civil war is, as of August, still an ongoing process. Angela Eagle, the former Shadow Secretary of State for Business and Shadow First Secretary of State was the first to declare candidacy for the Labour leadership, triggering a second election contest. Her campaign was short lived, lasting only eight days before she withdrew in favour of Owen Smith, the former Shadow Welsh Secretary and Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions. The triggering of the leadership contest lead to a factional brawl on Labour’s peak decision making body, the National Executive Committee (NEC), when it became unclear as to whether Corbyn would be on the ballot as an incumbent or whether he would be forced to seek the signatures for nomination again. Had he been required to seek nominations again, it would have been unlikely that he would have received sufficient support from MP’s for nomination. Pro-Corbyn forces prevailed in NEC, however, securing Corbyn’s place on the ballot. Anti-Corbyn forces retaliated by implementing a rules change in which all members who had joined after January 12th under Corbyn’s leadership would not receive a vote unless they paid twenty-five pounds, a sharp increase from the three pounds required to vote in the previous contest. The window for paying that fee and signing up to vote was limited to forty-eight hours. Bucking the pressure, one hundred and eighty thousand British citizens signed up for a vote.
If Jeremy Corbyn wins this leadership election again, which polling indicates is most likely, the Parliamentary Labour Party will have to make one of three choices – they may choose to stop contradicting the Labour leadership, and begin to genuinely support it to the wider electorate and make the case for him; they may choose to continue to openly rebel against Jeremy while remaining under the Labour tent, using everything possible within the rules to marginalise him in Westminster and as leader of the opposition; or they may choose to split, with the eighty percent of the anti-Corbyn Parliamentary Labour Party leaving the Labour tent, forming a new party and declaring themselves the official opposition. Each option means risks for them; if they choose to surrender, Corbyn may or may not decide to force through mandatory reselection (a policy in which all MP’s must seek the support of their Constituency Labour Parties, their local party membership branches, a sphere of the party in which Jeremy’s supporters have significantly more control by way of numbers) and purge them. Surrender seems unlikely but is probably their safest route – a purge would plunge the Labour Party into complete civil war prior to a general election and would hurt its standing with the electorate severely. If they choose to continue to openly rebel but remain within the Labour Party, they put Corbyn in a situation where he has no option but to implement mandatory reselection and have his supporters fight through every individual constituency branch to deselect their local MP and preselect Corbyn supporters instead. It would guarantee a civil war within the party at the very least until the next general election. If they choose to break off and form a new party, and declare themselves the official opposition, they would likely seriously split the left-of-centre vote which could destroy both parties electorally under the United Kingdom’s First Past the Post voting system. Corbyn’s Labour would be likely to fare better than the party formed by the splitting group, as they would be the ones to inherit the Labour name and brand on the ballot papers in a general election, and would have the institutional support and resources of its affiliated trade unions.
If Corbyn loses, it is likely that Owen Smith would marginalise the Hard Left, purge them from shadow cabinet, stack the NEC with sympathisers and implement a rules change empowering the Parliamentary Labour Party over the party and affiliated trade union membership in leadership contests. The disenfranchised membership and the Hard Left would fight on the NEC and in constituency parties but would have had much of their influence on the Party diminished. The party base would likely decline – it has risen from 190,000 to 500,000 since 2014, but a return to the voting systems implemented in the 2010 election in which Miliband was elected could see frustrated members depart en masse, as they did under Tony Blair’s premiership. The membership sees Corbyn as the moderate in this election – democratically elected with a programme for government investment that can make up for a shaky private sector in the post-Brexit economy.
The policies that are being placed on the political agenda by Corbyn, his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and the rest of their grouping are not even especially radical – nationalisation of former public services where the private sector has clearly failed is a mainstream and popular idea. Reluctance to become involved in foreign wars is also. Many high-profile economists are arguing for greater levels of public investment. Labour’s leadership talk about reforming welfare, reducing poverty and responding to emerging changes in the labour market as a result of technological advancement and automation with a universal basic income programme. They’re not talking about reorganising production, distribution and exchange into a system that is centrally planned over five year intervals.
The civil war in the Labour Party needs to be put into context. Few write about the policy implications of his continued success but he, alongside Bernie Sanders in the United States, are rewriting the rule book for social democratic centre-left parties and are making the case that it might be worthwhile electing socialists to positions of state power to manage an increasingly volatile global capitalism. The electorate looks unlikely to stick with the status quo – the UK voted to leave the European Union on the advice of the Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for President of the United States. The controversies and statements made by people like Farage, Johnson and Trump ought to have sunk any politician in years past, but now their statements are accepted and even praised by significant portions of the populations of their countries. A shake up in the agenda of social democratic parties globally may be necessary to prevent radical right-wing political forces from monopolising people’s fears and concerns about their economic security. It is highly likely that we will need active states that are cautious in matters of geopolitical strategy, that are able to provide public investment and services, regulate banking, finance and global trade as well as providing necessary environmental protections to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. The success of insurgents on the left-wing of major social democratic parties may provide an electorate concerned with many real economic problems an alternative to both the prevailing orthodoxies and the radical Right.