Most people I know grew up under a Labour government. The jury is still out on whether it was a successful Labour government, but Labour it was, nonetheless. When Labour lost in 2010, most people my age barely knew what an election was, never mind understanding the significance of a Tory-Lib Dem coalition. I remember thinking Nick Clegg was quite handsome (don’t judge me) but having no real thoughts on the matter beyond that rather superficial point. What I did know, however, was that it was a break from the norm. Labour had been in government for my whole life up until that point, and although I didn’t fully understand what that meant, it felt like something had shifted. For most people though, this wasn’t the case. Most people were viscerally affected by the 18 years of conservative government which preceded New Labour. Of the last 75 years, only 24 have seen a Labour Prime Minister in Number 10. I often think one reason for my generation’s relentless ability to pursue a left-wing government without losing the will to live is because we have the idea in our heads that a Labour government is far more common than it actually is. Reginald Maudling said, “Britain is a Conservative country that occasionally votes Labour”. Was he right? Where is Labour’s place in British politics, especially at a time like this?
It is far easier to agree on an agenda to not do anything than it is to agree on a platform of radical change. The Labour Party has struggled with factionalism since its inception. From Bevanites to Bennites to Blairites, it has been the reason for its failure in government in the past, and it will be the reason for failure in the future, if Labour doesn’t get its act together quickly. This factionalism was made strikingly obvious by a report that was leaked in mid-April, which revealed that party officials had worked to lose the 2017 general election in order to oust Jeremy Corbyn from his leadership position, and funnelled party funds to certain candidates such as Tom Watson. Some of the same individuals delayed investigations into antisemitism in the party. The dossier also revealed shocking WhatsApp conversations between senior Labour Party staff, which exhibited overt racism and sexism. Not only is it alarming that members of the party would actively campaign for its own electoral failure, but it is also morally reprehensible. The party’s problems with anti-Semitism left many feeling unsafe, angered, and let down, and to purposefully delay investigations into this serious issue for the sake of political sabotage completely defies the very values on which Labour claims to stand. Whether or not Labour would have won without the internal animosity towards Jeremy Corbyn is unclear, but no doubt he must be feeling pretty hard done by right now.
The report revealed splits in the party and left public trust in Labour at an all-time low. If party funds can be redirected by a few senior staffers, we can’t trust that our vote is going to the right place. The Labour Party has always prided itself on being a party of the people. Rather than being centralised in its decision-making processes like the Conservatives, policy control was spread out between the Parliamentary Labour Party, the National Executive Committee, and the Party Conference. However, this report exposed cracks in the party’s ethos of decentralised decision-making and undermined the democratic integrity of the system in place. The arrangement of decentralised decision-making has clearly fostered factionalism, and Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to be a successful leader was exacerbated by the very structures which were supposed to be enhancing democracy.
So how do Labour come back from this? Keir Starmer, the new Labour leader who is apparently more palatable to the party’s right, correctly launched an urgent investigation into the leaked dossier, the results of which will be revealed in July. However, not much has been heard on the matter since. There is no doubt that if the Coronavirus pandemic had not been so prominent an issue, the leaked report would have caused a far bigger storm than it did. With factionalism so rife still, Starmer would be well advised to keep a tight leash on his party. It is impossible to be an effective opposition if you are too busy in-fighting to actually hold the government to account. Democracy is crucial, but it is futile unless it is implemented successfully, and the current institutional layout of the Labour Party is causing more harm than good. Perhaps some redesign is required to ensure Labour’s success (although good luck getting everyone to agree on what that looks like).
It may not have pleased everyone, but it was unsurprising that Starmer won the Labour Leadership contest with a landslide. It was clear that the party needed a change of pace if it was ever to recover its electoral prospects. This is by no means a condemnation of the political validity of socialism. If the last two months have taught us anything it is that socialism is far from dead. The party’s left remains hopeful that someday someone with Jeremy Corbyn’s ideals will come along who has the ability to unite the party, rally the people, and wear a jumper that is deemed acceptable by the British media. But for now, we must work with what we have. So, Keir, my advice to you is focus on party unity and stay calm, it suits you! But it wouldn’t hurt to crack a grin once in a while.
[Ellen Hart – she/ her – @eh12003]
[Photo credit: Oli Scarff]