What is going on with the Labour Party?
David Cameron took the opportunity during his final appearance on Prime Minister’s Questions to make a joke about the state of the Labour Party. Whilst Labour was still deciding the rules for their leadership election, he said, the Conservatives had already run their own contest and selected Theresa May to be the new Prime Minister.
Jeremy Corbyn and the Leadership contest
After a six-hour meeting on Tuesday, the NEC (Labour’s National Executive Committee) decided that Jeremy Corbyn should be allowed to appear automatically on the ballot paper in a leadership election, whilst any opponents must be backed by 51 fellow MPs and MEPs before being given the same opportunity. Whilst Corbyn’s supporters argued that to keep him off the ballot would be “undemocratic”, so-called ‘rebels’ referred to a previous leadership challenge in 1988, when the incumbent leader Neil Kinnock had been required to get the backing of colleagues before defeating Tony Benn.
I’ve written at length about arguments for and against Jeremy Corbyn staying on as Labour Leader. Basically, his supporters believe that he is a leader who represents a refreshing change from the Party’s past, is reforming the party for the better, and is very popular amongst Party members. His opponents argue that he does not have the leadership ability to offer effective opposition to the current Tory government or the quality (or according to some, the desire) to ever win a General Election to become Prime Minister.
There are endless arguments and counter-arguments between the two factions of the Party. Whilst Corbyn’s supporters argue that the Party has won by-elections under his leadership, those who are in favour of a change of leadership argue that his popularity with the Party membership doesn’t necessarily mean that he will win the favour of the electorate. Squabbles between Corbyn’s advocates and those who they see as ‘plotters’ often descend into the childish labelling of one another as ‘Trots’ (short for ‘Trotskyites’) and ‘Red Tories’ respectively. Beyond this name-calling, however, are seriously concerning reports of homophobic bullying, misogyny, anti-Semitic abuse and death threats.
Although Corbyn and his rivals have called for a leadership race to be contested fairly and roundly condemned any instances of foul play, the current situation has undoubtedly brought tensions to the surface and turned the mood within the Party sour. The situation has become so extreme, in fact, that NEC members opted to vote in secret on the Leader’s future due to fears of reprisals. This week, the Party has also cancelled all CLP (Constituency Labour Party) meetings due to the general ill-feeling which is abounding and worries that people may be intimidated by fellow members.
The other Leadership contenders
Angela Eagle was the first challenger to set out her case to succeed Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader. She argues that she is better suited to holding the current Government to account and reunifying a Parliamentary group currently split into pro- and anti- Corbyn camps. She also has the benefit of representing a constituency in the North of England (whereas Corbyn and his allies predominantly hail from London). If elected, she would be the first woman to lead the Party.
Those who don’t support Eagle are unwilling to forgive her votes in favour of the Iraq war and against an inquiry into it. I was a little uninspired by what she had to say at last year’s Deputy Leadership hustings, though she has seemed more fluent and confident in media appearances since then and appears to be very passionate about returning Labour to power rather than allowing it to become a party synonymous with protest.
Like Eagle, Owen Smith is a candidate who says he would continue with Labour’s policy of offering an alternative to austerity. Though he does not have as much experience as the other candidates, Smith did serve under Corbyn as Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, before resigning last month along with many of his colleagues. He is credited with having played a role in persuading the Conservatives to backtrack on plans to cut benefits for disabled people earlier this year. Though he has pitched himself as a challenger with similar beliefs to Corbyn, he believes that he would fare better than the incumbent Leader in a General Election.
Smith’s detractors say that he is inexperienced, having only been elected in 2010. There is also a debate about his view on the Iraq war: some allege that he was unsure at the time about whether an invasion was a good idea, though he was not an MP at the time so did not actively back it. I hadn’t really heard of Smith before this week, and his lack of profile may affect his chances. Many have been enthused by his promise of a second EU referendum if elected, though I am a little sceptical about how some may view this promise given that many politicians appear to have accepted a ‘Brexit’ verdict.
Will it be a choice between three?
Yvette Cooper, a candidate in last year’s Leadership elections, argues that a single challenger would stand a better chance of unseating Corbyn and would reduce the chances of a split vote – therefore it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that one of Eagle or Smith may ‘drop out’ in the near future. It is still early days in the contest though, with candidates having until next Thursday to get their names on the shortlist. Here are a few who we may yet hear from …
While Chuka Umunna backed out of the race to be Leader last summer, he is still seen by many as a charismatic Leader-in-waiting and gave an interview with the Guardian which raised people’s hopes of seeing him in charge of the Party in the future. Dan Jarvis is a former soldier who represents a constituency in Yorkshire. Though he is one to watch out for in the future, Jarvis is an unlikely candidate for the time being, having ruled himself out of last year’s contest on the grounds of wanting to spend more time with his family.
Despite only being elected last year, a left-wing MP called Clive Lewis was mentioned as a potential successor to Corbyn in a deal apparently endorsed by Ed Miliband. Lewis is a former military man who has remained loyal to Corbyn, which makes it unlikely that he will stand against the current Leader. Keir Starmer practised as a barrister before becoming MP for Holborn & St Pancras in 2015. Starmer’s supporters believe that five years spent as Head of the Crown Prosecution Service have equipped him with plenty of experience and leadership ability. Some say that Starmer could compete with Corbyn on the grounds that he has a radical vision for the future which would have a lasting impact both within the Party and beyond.
What Might Happen Next?
Once the nominees (other than Mr. Corbyn, who is on the ballot automatically) have been confirmed and received support from the stipulated number of MPs and MEPs, there will be a series of hustings events up and down the country before Labour Party members begin to vote. The result of the vote will be announced on 24th September, which means the entire process will be mercifully shorter than last years’.
If Corbyn is faced by one of Smith and Eagle, he will probably be seen as the favourite, though we have seen over the last few weeks that things can change very quickly in British politics. A campaign called #SavingLabour has been set up to oppose the incumbent leadership, but you can also expect to see plenty of #KeepCorbyn meetings over the coming months, as well as plenty of activity from a group called ‘Momentum’, which wants to see Jeremy Corbyn’s reign continue.
Whichever way the vote goes, there are mutterings that it may result in a split. If Corbyn loses, there would many who would call for him to form a rival party of his own – though he doesn’t have many loyalist MPs, he does have plenty of grassroots support. Others say that if Corbyn wins, more centrist MPs will come under threat of being deselected by constituents who support Corbyn, so could make a breakaway of their own. Many commentators believe that a split would be catastrophic under an electoral system which makes things very difficult for smaller parties. Conversely, others say that a split is inevitable given the current discontent within the Party.
I am not alone in worrying about Labour’s future given the Party’s current sorry state of internal affairs, with Tory politicans joining left wing commentators in lamenting what many see as the demise of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition. However, I hold on to the hope that things won’t come to that: people up and down the country see a Labour government as a solution to many of their problems. The Party would be doing all of them a disservice if it were to fall apart.
– By Liam David Hopley