Infighting has erupted yet again—and both sides will fight to cling onby Jake Watts / March 28, 2017 / Leave a comment
Read more: Labour in crisis—the red sag
Everybody knows that the Labour Party is in a dire position—it’s catastrophic polling serves as proof. But just as you thought Labour’s tumult had hit its peak, there has been yet another round of infighting.
Over recent weeks, Tom Watson and Jon Lansman have found themselves at loggerheads over the legitimacy of the grassroots Corbyn-supporting organisation Momentum. Lansman, who founded the group, advocated its members getting more involved in the party and taking over key positions within Labour’s structures. Watson argued that this is evidence of an attempt by the left to take over the party that must be stopped—and that Momentum should not receive any financial support from Labour’s affiliated unions. This stand-off was followed by the somewhat bizarre sight of Ken Livingstone, himself under suspension from Labour pending a decision over claims of anti-Semitism, calling for the suspension of MPs such as Wes Streeting and Chukka Umunna from the party for being disruptive.
These are all examples of a fundamental problem. Labour is failing to find any sort of basic consensus over what it is for, how it should be run and who should be in it.
Since its foundation, the Labour Party has managed to contain, side-by-side, a variety of strands of left-wing thinking from Marxism to Tony Blair’s Third Way. And despite previous periods of factional infighting, most notably in the 1980s in which various internal disputes culminated in the formation of the SDP, it has retained its position as the standard bearer of the British left.
There is little question that, as in its “wilderness years,” Labour now faces deeply challenging times. But, as the Corbyn era has continued, it has become increasingly clear that behind the drama of the sporadic infighting there sits a stagnation that has the potential to prolong Labour’s pains. It is unlikely that this discord will result in complete divorce.
The left controls Labour’s commanding heights and is set on staying put. It will need to secure rule changes at Conference to give it a shot at getting a successor to Corbyn, and debates about this are already gearing up. Meanwhile the moderates in the parliamentary party show little signs of breaking off. The capacity of the electoral system to crowd out challengers to the major parties casts doubt on the success that any new party could have and will, short of any cataclysmic event, continue to make Labour one of the two major parties in parliament. On top of this, the memory of the SDP split and its failure to produce the sea change in British politics its creators had envisioned casts a heavy shadow over the logic for a new centrist project.
Beyond these practicalities, the Labour Party retains an important emotional hold over people on all sides of its fractured internal politics. The leftists see themselves as having been unfairly crowded out for decades and feel they finally have their chance to use the party to bring about their socialist paradise. In the face of this, moderate MPs are insistent that they are really “Labour.” Even those most vehemently opposed to Corbyn’s leadership and all it has entailed have remained steadfast in their claim to rightful ownership of the Labour Party. Each side remains locked into the battle for the party’s soul.
If Labour wants to succeed again and present itself as a viable alternative government, it will need to find a new settlement. But on whose terms? The debates to come over changes to party structures will play a significant part in deciding this. In the meantime, Labour will not succeed or die. It will just survive, propped up by the political system it finds itself in, the haunting effects of the SDP’s failure and the commitment of its parliamentarians to Labour as their political home.