Harold Wilson said of the Labour Party that it is either “a moral crusade, or it is nothing”. Much of Labour’s identity lies in its moral aspirations, positioning itself in opposition to the ‘nasty’ Conservative Party. It is an effective political message, one that has attracted many voters around the world. In the eyes of the public, the left has attained relative security in its ownership on morality in politics, on the inherent virtue of their aspirations for a more equal society.
However, the series of accusations directed at the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn have weakened the legitimacy of its claims to be the party of equality and fairness. There has been the ongoing furore around the claims of prevalent anti-Semitism within the party. Moderate Labour MPs have been subjected to appalling abuse from Corbyn supporters. The Parliamentary Labour Party has been at odds with the leadership and with the grassroots, and the resignation of the seven MPs represents the latest escalation in the crisis.
Both Labour as an entity, and Corbyn as an individual, pride themselves on their strong values such as equality, fairness and social justice. For resigning MPs to have identified institutionalised racism and anti-Semitism in the party undermines the claims of both Corbyn and the Labour Party to represent these values.
Staunch Corbyn supporters have repeatedly denied that a culture of intimidation and bullying has established itself, yet to simultaneously reject these claims whilst hurling abuse against those who make the allegations is to shoot oneself in the foot. A tweet sent by Young Labour, consisting of a quote from the Red Flag, the anthem of the Labour Party, provides a pertinent example. Posting the lyrics, “though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,” in response to allegations of a prevalent bullying culture in the party does not appear to be a wise strategy and simply serves to validate the claims of the breakaway MPs.
The statement made by Tom Watson, in which he emphasised that labelling Independent Group members as ‘traitors’ was counterproductive’, demonstrates that some within the Labour Party are aware of the need to be seen to be responding to the allegations of the breakaway MPs. He stressed the need for Corbyn to uphold his pledge to introduce a ‘kinder, gentler politics’ and for left-wing voters to overcome their feelings of anger and channel them into a more effective outlet than vitriolic online abuse against the breakaway group. Watson remains a voice of reason within Labour, and though his position on many odds puts him at odds with the Labour leadership, members of the party would be wise to heed his advice if they are to mitigate the potential damage of this split.
Labour needs to be seen to be taking the value-based accusations seriously if it is to prevent its reputation as the ‘nicer’ party from being irreparably tarnished. John McDonnell speaks of the need for the party to embark on a “massive” listening exercise. An investigation into the existence of bullying within the internal mechanisms of the party would constitute a good starting point, provided it is demonstrably independent. It arguably needs to be fairly damning and offer a wide range of recommendations if it is to effectively bring this era of an internal toxicity to an end.
Corbyn has claimed that Labour MPs are wrong to contend that they are not being listened to. An outright dismissal of their complaints does not seem a particularly convincing way to demonstrate this, and is unlikely to placate unhappy MPs who remain within the party at present. It certainly will not heal divisions within Labour, and so Corbyn continues to pilot his stricken vessel towards the general election he views as the target destination. Though a mast may have been broken by the quitting of the seven MPs, the party remains afloat, though many believe its approach to Brexit leaves it destined to smash into the rocks.
Remainer Labour voters may hope that the establishment of the Independent Group will lead to a reformulation of the party’s Brexit policy, through the alternative it presents for Labour MPs unhappy with Corbyn’s approach to the defining political debate of our era. Though some may predict that Corbyn will be forced to make concessions, perhaps committing Labour to supporting a second referendum, it seems unlikely that this will come to fruition.
Does this latest development strengthen the hand of those who have long-threatened to leave the party if a change in Labour’s attitude towards a second referendum is not forthcoming? The fact that most disgruntled MPs were unwilling to join those jumping ship suggests not. Every MP remains mindful of the fact that smaller parties struggle to break the stranglehold that the two main parties have on British politics. Even in this apparently ideal political climate for their platform, the Liberal Democrats continue to languish in the polls, unable to build a strong backing amongst Remain voters.
Corbyn has repeatedly refused to formulate a coherent Brexit strategy which is consistent with the views of Labour supporters and Labour MPs, instead hiding behind a tortuously drafted conference resolution which neither commits to, nor rules out, a second referendum. A recent YouGov survey found that 75% of Labour voters favour a second referendum, yet despite this disparity in positions, Corbyn’s hold on the leadership remains secure. Why, therefore, would he contemplate adjusting an approach which he personally favours and is likely to facilitate the outcome he desires, a British departure from the EU?
Corbyn has proved himself able to weather accusations of a lack of courage, or that he is playing politics with the future wellbeing of the British people. It might be expected that this fence-sitting would undermine the position of a man whose personal identity is based on strong moral convictions. Yet the cult of Corbyn seems impermeable to any attacks by outsiders. Corbyn remains secure in his position at the head of the Labour Party, held aloft by the pillars of grassroots supporters who have been attracted to the party by the man himself, rather than by the aims and promises of the party. The majority of Labour MPs have been at odds with the leadership and the grassroots for four years, adhering to an alternative worldview to the top and base of the party. They lack influence, with their loss of control of internal Labour Party governing mechanisms, such as the National Executive Committee, to Corbyn supporters and the process of electing Labour leaders inhibiting their ability to influence party policy and the outcome of leadership contests. Despite their discontent, they are unable to dislodge the hold of Corbyn and his acolytes on the reins of the Labour Party.
Brexit may dominate British politics at present, but, hard as it is to believe, there will one day come a time where Brexit does not form the background against which all politicking is played out. If Labour wants to retain its credibility when this time comes, if it wants to maintain its hegemony over moral politics in Britain, it must take visible action to counter the erosion of Labour values within the party’s internal politics. Condemnation and bitter jibes are inexpedient. Cooperation, substantive action and a visible demonstration that the value-based criticisms are being taken seriously is vital. To do otherwise is to risk a further exodus of MPs from the party. The departure of seven MPs is a storm that Corbyn and his supporters can, and most likely will, weather. Further resignations of the whip will require a reassessment.