With the Labour leadership contest finally over, the big question is what happens next? Frankly, no-one knows. But what’s certain is you cannot fight darkness with darkness; Labour need to offer a vision full of hope, not hate.
Historically, the Labour Party has always had its moments of crisis. But what is clear is that the party is versatile: it is never static but constantly in a state of evolution. Undoubtedly, the challenges facing the party today are huge, but Labour can still survive.
In order to understand the present, one must look to the past. The history of the Labour Party is littered with internal power struggles, threats of splits and complex challenges. But the party always seems to survive, adapt and come back stronger.
The 1910 “Osborne judgement” temporarily threatened to reduce Labour’s ability to freely receive trade union funding (on which it solely relied). But the Liberal Government eventually passed the Trade Union Act and so Labour was saved.
In 1931, Labour’s first Prime Minister, Ramsay McDonald, formed a “National Government” with Liberals and Conservatives. The National Government won a landslide victory in the 1931 general election while Labour experienced a massive defeat. But Labour rose from the ashes. Under Clement Attlee, Labour went on to achieve just under 50 per cent of the national vote share in the 1945 general election
In 1951, Labour was defeated by Churchill’s Conservatives creating huge ideological splits in the party. Internal divisions meant Labour stayed in opposition for 13 years. But the party eventually recovered, winning a general election first in 1964 and again in 1966 with an increased majority.
For 18 years between 1979 and 1997, the Labour party looked inwards and was kept out of office. Ideologically, the party was split in two: “the left” represented by Tony Benn and “the right” by Denis Healey. The left won and Michael Foot became Labour leader. However, chaos followed and Labour was crushed in the 1983 general election, gaining its lowest vote share since 1918.
What is clear is that in-fighting helps neither the “left” nor the “right” of the party, instead trapping the party in opposition. Most significantly, the infighting of 1979 to 1997 gave Margaret Thatcher the opportunity to implement her neoliberal agenda, arguably responsible for the tearing apart communities across Northern England.
In terms of the present, there are three important points worth noting. Firstly, it would be electoral suicide for Labour to offer a second EU referendum, as Owen Smith proposed. Be it for better or for worse, the referendum politicised the nation. People who hadn’t voted for years (or perhaps never at all) came out to the ballot box. It doesn’t matter how you sell a second referendum, it would go down awfully with millions of voters. In particular, large swathes of Northern England voted to leave the European Union; Smith’s plan would have UKIP licking their lips, having already made significant gains in the GE2015 across England (especially the North).
The UK economy also needs a period of stability in order to restore market confidence. This is not simply to protect the interests of investors in the City of London; working-class households disproportionately suffer the most during periods of high economic volatility. The rich can “weather the storm” but the poor are left vulnerable. Rightly or wrongly, voters still don’t trust Labour on the economy due to the 2008 global financial crisis, and this would do nothing to heal that deep wound.
Secondly, what is clear from Labour’s history is that we achieve far more when we work with other parties than when we work against them. The Independent Labour Party only received 44,325 votes in the 1895 general election. Admittedly, the party was only in its infant stages of development at the time. But then leader Keir Hardie recognised as early as 1895 the importance of forming progressive partnerships. Liz Kendall recently spoke at the Liberal Democrat 2016 Party Conference and those kinds of progressive alliances should be encouraged. But we need consistency. Banning individuals from voting in the Labour leadership election due to links to other parties looks hypocritical given Kendall’s recent activity. It is also unfair given that young people (the demographic most likely to vote Labour) are politically fluid and are thus likely to have supported other parties such as the Green Party. Hence, wherever possible, we need to be an inclusive party that seeks to spread democracy.
Jeremy Corbyn’s recent PMQs performance also offered hope. Forensically sticking to the issue of grammar schools, Corbyn had Theresa May on the back foot, uniting the Parliamentary Labour Party and making Labour look a force to be reckoned with. Of course, all is clearly not perfect and we should avoid complacency. In addition, Labour MPs should be free to criticise Corbyn and his policies. But whenever possible, Corbyn needs to focus on policy areas where there is common ground. Talking about issues like Trident is inevitably going to create polarised debate and make the party look disunited. Instead, Corbyn should focus on areas of agreement. Equally, Labour MPs then need to back Corbyn and loudly support those policies.
Naivety helps no-one. Things need to improve. The party does indeed face huge challenges. But the apocalyptical narrative created about Labour’s future is merely dystopian. Labour MPs, members and associates need to start behaving like adults. The “you started it” arguments have to stop. The choice is clear: we either spend the next few years re-fighting the leadership election, tearing one another’s hair out and looking like the party of chaos. Or, we genuinely try reach compromises, stop publicly criticising one another at every available opportunity and instead focus our energy on policy areas where there is universal agreement within the party.
History tells us infighting will paralyse Labour. We’re a family so let’s act like one.
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