Labour's dilemma began long before Corbyn

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The Labour leadership contest is hard to call – but it’s not just because of present conditions. The past has a big role to play.”

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The Labour leadership contest is hard to call – but it’s not just because of present conditions. The past has a big role to play.

It was back in the 1980s that former Birmingham Labour MP and Weekend World presenter Brian Walden warned of the problems raised by the Party’s new system for choosing its Leader. As the Liberals had already done, and the Conservatives would later do, Labour in 1981 put the decision as to who should be Leader and Deputy Leader mainly in the hands of its members outside Parliament. Walden condemned this as “the stupidest and potentially most dangerous change the Labour Party ever made”, because it made possible the election of a Leader rejected by most MPs.

This problem remained a potential one whilst Leaders like Kinnock, Blair and Miliband could bridge any differences in the Party and had substantial, even if minority, support amongst MPs. But the election and re-election of Jeremy Corbyn on a more radical platform than any of his recent predecessors led to his suffering a no-confidence vote by 4-1 amongst his MPs. His successor needs to avoid that fate whilst winning support from Party members and showing some consistency of values if not policies.

Then came Brexit, splitting the Labour vote and the loyalties of its leaders. The Party split between Leave and Remain, north and south, old and young leaving the leadership with a Solomon-esque dilemma, and which (along with his own weaknesses) fuelled press antagonism to Corbyn. The other constitutional challenge – of Scottish national ambitions – had already cost Labour most of its seats north of the border, and continued to present an open flank in the Party’s electoral armour.

Today’s leadership candidates and their supporters have sought to cauterise this wound with hopeful slogans referring to ‘progressive patriotism’ and a ‘red bridge not a red wall’ and the Brexit issue has, in principle at least, gone away. However, feelings cutting across traditional left-right lines remain strong about responsibilities for Labour’s failure here, and will continue to move votes in the contest.

Those feelings are heightened of course by the catastrophic result for Labour of this year’s elections – European, local and General. These reflected poor leadership, division over policy and organisational failures acknowledged privately (except when Jon Ashworth was recorded for the Guido Fawkes website) by Shadow Cabinet members during the campaign. Thousands of party members in 60 seats lost by Labour, and hundreds of loyal long-serving councillors, will want to hear from the leadership candidates what will reverse this dramatic decline.

However, Labour’s hardest problem is longer-standing than any of these. Whilst the Conservatives were the first party to suffer the election of a Leader unloved by their MPs – Iain Duncan Smith – they had a mechanism for removing him (a no-confidence vote) and at least as importantly a membership deferential enough to acquiesce in that decision. The Labour Party started outside Parliament and has always seen its members and trade unions as the moral and political heart of the organisation. It has no parliamentary mechanism for evicting its Leader, but even if it had, it does not have the political culture to do it.

Opinion in the Labour Party seems to be fluid, with unions, constituencies and internal groups heading off in different directions. The decision is one of historic significance: in 1908 dockers’ leader Ben Tillett published the pamphlet Is the Parliamentary Labour Party a Failure? The Party’s history is littered with accusations of leadership betrayal at regular intervals since. The Labour Party members of 2020 have now to decide how much more hostility their surviving MPs can take.  

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