State of the Union: Labour in ‘Crisis’

By Mason Boycott-Owen

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Labour had already lost the next general election from the tone of the press coverage dogging Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as opposition leader.

Mr Corbyn was elected as leader with the largest political mandate of any party leader in Labour history with just shy of 60% of first-preference votes opened up to the general public increasing Party membership at a staggering rate to within sight of 1997 levels. In addition, the Labour mayoral candidate Sadiq Kahn looks to be on top in the race for London, perhaps hinting at Labour’s supremacy in the capital.

Despite this, the refusal of those such as Chuka Umunna to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet flies in the face of the very unity which Labour needs. Within its ‘broad church’ are social democrats, socialists, liberals, capitalists, pacifists, trade unionists, Stephen Fry; the list goes on. These strands must work together as a party in division cannot oppose, let alone govern. With an ageing population such long-standing party ties cannot be severed so quickly if one group were to form a break-away party.

That is not to say that Labour in division is not the ‘real’ opposition as Tim Farron suggests – you cannot lay claim to the title ‘opposition’ if you have 8 MPs – a whole 223 fewer than Labour (or 3% of their number – whichever shows the extent of the mire his party is in.)

Although the Conservatives have their own crisis to think about over Europe, Labour has its own on the horizon. The upcoming vote on Trident in several weeks looms large and the recent side-lining of Ken Livingstone from the review only reinforces how divided the party is on the issue. More resignations are sure to follow in the aftermath. It’s not a case of things can only get better, they have the potential to get much worse.

But perhaps divide and rule is not a pertinent tactic for a leader who defied the party whip 428 times as he cannot exactly demand the same loyalty he has been so unwilling to give. His own reluctance to deal with centrists can be construed as just as belligerent as those refusing to serve in his cabinet.

The fact is, the ball is no longer in Corbyn’s court. He has won a landslide victory having a mandate few Labour MPs could ever hope to have – in terms of percentages, more of a mandate to lead his party than Cameron has to lead the nation. Since he has no intention of going anywhere, the PLP have a decision – either allow him to do his job as leader of a united party, or remove him. Every week that goes by in which Labour looks divided is another week the electorate is confused about what the party stands for. Division and indecision are a poor platform for electoral success.

Beyond Labour’s internal struggles, posturing is meaningless without electoral support. Do people believe in Corbyn? Political Commentator Noel Gallagher says a communist cannot be elected into Number 10 – yet maybe more of a reflection of people’s reservations than is given credit. When your chancellor starts reading from Mao’s Little Red Book, you’ll forgive people for feeling a bit perturbed – a self-parodying opposition is only funny when the audience appreciates the joke.

Economic security, immigration, and the housing crisis are all big issues on which the country can be swayed. Not only that, Labour needs to stand up for its history of women’s rights to connect with the majority of voters in the UK – women. Appoint women to the leadership team, providing policies which truly tackle injustices to women. Similarly the disfranchisement of young people from politics has allowed the Conservatives act without fear of repercussions – young doctors’ contracts, the removal of maintenance grants, and a living wage for only those over 25. The reason they can get away with it is that young people by and large do not vote. Many of these people do not vote as they see the only thing on offer are middle class, middle aged men with grey hair and even greyer ideas.

Ed Miliband provokes very few emotions in the mind of the British people and a burning passion is not one of them. Labour needs to become a party that people can vote for – it’s all very well being a party of protest but there needs to be a point that a campaign is not run on the mantra of ‘We’re not the Tories’. This kind of negative voting did not work for Labour in the last election – the Tories have a grip on the politics of fear, making stick the claim that Labour cannot be trusted with the economy – a politics of aspiration is the road which must be taken in its stead.

This must be done differently to the way suggested by Liz Kendall, a watered-down New Labour substitute with neither the bite nor the shine. It is equally as foolish to suggest that the electorate wants ‘old Labour’ polices as it is that they want exactly the same thing as they did in 1997. England is the battleground where an election needs to be won – when you lose to swings of 39% in Scotland the game is up. Reclaim the lost votes of the disenfranchised working classes to UKIP and the sceptical centrists to the Conservatives, and election victory might be possible – perhaps even with Corbyn at the helm.

Political aficionados say Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is unelectable, that he will not survive until the end of this month, and the next month and then the next. Yet these are the same people who predicted a hung parliament in May and the same people who predicted Jeremy Corbyn had no chance of getting onto the ballot paper in June let alone of becoming Labour leader in September. The political forecast in the UK has been unreadable of late so beware taking what you hear as gospel.

Photograph: David Holt via Flickr

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