UK Politics

Labour civil war: here we go again

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To those of us active in the Labour Party, internal battles are standard procedure. The goriest episode lasted from 1979-87, where the Tories governed for 18 years, aided by Labour spending the whole period in protracted and costly ideological trench warfare.

I wasn’t even alive at the time, but now, with the party and its former leader overwhelmingly rejected by the electorate, internal elections getting messy and every section of the party pointing fingers at each other, I can’t help but feel it’s all too familiar.

The Corbynite left of the party, represented by Momentum and smaller groups like the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, are struggling to accept that their chosen tribune and now Independent MP for Islington North was about as electorally appealing as an asbestos mine. 

The right of the party, formerly organised around Labour First and Progress, now unified in Labour to Win, seem to think that if only Labour eternally attempts to emulate the politics of pre-2008 then they can storm to power and do it all over again. 

The centre, or “soft left” of Labour is a force which only has “clout” on Twitter, and is still struggling to distinguish itself from the rest of the field. The only thing that seems to unify these groups is their insistence that everybody except themselves is responsible for the dire straits in which the party now finds itself.

Labour’s labyrinthine internal democracy seems tailor-made to exacerbate all of these differences. The recent National Executive Committee (NEC) elections stand as a testament to this. The combined slates of Labour’s far-left won slightly more than the others, but the newly introduced Single Transferable Vote system prevented the results from translating into a thumping majority for any one grouping, mercifully so.

The NEC is now packed with everything from the unreconstructed Blairites to far-left ex-MPs. One recent NEC meeting saw the ‘left grouping’ stage an organised mass log-off, excommunicating themselves from the discussion and votes, to then go on and complain that nobody is listening to them.

The newly elected chair of Young Labour revelled in her victory for all of a few days before using their official Twitter account to fawn over Jeremy Corbyn and call for his reinstatement as if such a thing is in her purview or actually matters to most of the people Labour needs to convince of its credibility.

The motley Corbynite crew have somehow monopolised the idea that they are the only socialists in the party, and anyone with differing opinions is some kind of Blairite centrist, the organised Labour right is doing the same thing it’s done for 30 years, in trying to claim they’re the only electable standpoint in the party. The fact that the Labour left hasn’t led us anywhere close to socialism, and the Labour right hasn’t won anything before the electorate since 2005 seems to be irrelevant to their considerations.

The only particularly original force asserting itself in the party is Blue Labour. Denounced on both sides of the party as either ‘red-brown’ lite-Strasserists or a romanticised 1890s vision of socialism, their unique contributions to Labour are drowned out in the mainstream debate within the party, with only a relatively fringe following.

They take equal issue with both main wings of the Labour Party, but have no organisational clout, fielding no candidates in internal elections. If they did field candidates and they were honest about their views, the liberal party membership would probably reject them overwhelmingly. Keir Starmer could be seen as making gestures in this direction, through his rhetorical emphasis on patriotism and families, and the unique, value-driven political analysis of his policy chief Claire Ainsley.

The left of the party routinely frame their factional manoeuvring as part of a fight for socialism in the party, or for the defence of leftist values, but are these actually under threat? If the pledges of his leadership campaign are to be taken in good faith, then Starmer remains the most left-wing leader of the Labour Party, other than Corbyn, in decades, with a commitment to nationalising basic utilities and raising taxes for the rich.

This demonstrates that, despite all their talk of comprehensively changing the British economy, those who claim to bear the standard of socialism in the Labour Party seem committed to an entirely performative and aestheticized vision of leftist politics. 

Corbynism remade the Labour left as a force of surface-level socialism, which would rather make a public performance of not singing the national anthem than simply be quiet about their more electorally unseemly views for a few years to get into power and implement a bold economic program. It remade the Labour right as a force which defines itself almost exclusively in opposition to Corbynism, and anything which looks vaguely like it. Both main wings of the Labour Party have been sucked dry in the past five years, nearly totally devoid of new thinking and ideas.

The seeds of a unique “Starmerism” seem to be present, but whether or not this can assert itself in a party at war remains to be seen.

Cover Image: Rwendland via Wikimedia Commons. Image was cropped. Licence here.

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