Labour has long had an internal tension between those who believe in its outsider status, and those who wish to compromise in pursuit of powerby Karl Pike / June 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Labour’s astonishing reversal in electoral fortunes, from losing councillors across the country to gaining new MPs, and from apocalyptic polling to a hung parliament, is undoubtedly a triumph for Jeremy Corbyn. Despite being out of office, and entering the next parliamentary term with around the number of MPs Gordon Brown departed government with, Labour under Corbyn is far from miserable: like its leader, its mood is currently that of the triumphant outsider.
The notion of the outsider is not a new one in Labour politics. The Party’s ethos has within it different interpretations of the party’s mission and outlook. One particular fault line is Labour’s oppositional nature: in other words, having been out of power for the vast majority of its history, there are some Labour people who give greater prominence to criticism and attack as a political goal. Parliament becomes the megaphone for argument, with the compromise of loyal government benches holding less attraction. As Henry Drucker said of Labour in one of the more striking sentences of his book, Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party, “the glue which holds it together would melt if it ceased in some sense to remain an opposition party.”
To understand this, we might think back to Labour’s origins as an outsiders’ movement, given a foothold by a Liberal pact, before becoming an insiders party with its first majority government in 1945. Ever since, there has been an uneasy tension in different interpretations of its ethos, one of which partly explains both Corbyn’s popularity and controversy.