Photo by UK Labour Party
Europe / UK

British Labour’s Identity Crisis

How does a party deal with a leader with whom they disagree? Jeremy Corbyn, the recently elected leader of the British Labour Party, will have to deal with that question. In a stunning victory, a man with 200-1 odds won 60% of the vote. Despite his electoral mandate, after his first speech to Labour Members of Parliament (MPs), many did not applaud (unheard of for a new leader), and others resigned from leadership positions. In the next five years, several issues will dominate the political landscape where the Leftist Corbyn and the majority of his center-left MPs disagree. If Corbyn cannot resolve these issues with Labour, he will either have to resign or be forced out.

Jeremy Corbyn, born in 1949, inhabits the fringes of the center-left Labour. Elected to the House of Commons in 1981, Corbyn has maintained the far-left tradition of the Party that dates back to its founding. However, since the 1990s, the party, like the Democrats in the United States, has shifted to the political Center from the Left. Corbyn has been critical of the swing. While some of his top issues resonate with other MPs (gay rights and opposition to the Iraq War), most do not (nuclear disarmament, nationalization). Corbyn has called for a united Ireland and a war-crimes trial of former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. The new leader recently refused to sing, “God Save the Queen” at a Battle of Britain commemoration event; he favors the abolishment of the Monarchy and is an atheist. Th his credit, Most MPs agree that Corbyn’s lifestyle supports his convictions. He spends less than any other MP, is a vegetarian, and divorced his wife over whether to send their child to a state school. Despite his strong convictions, Corbyn will have problems turning them into policy in the centrist Labour Party.

The Labour party came to national prominence after World War One. It represented a socialist/worker alternative to the center-left Liberal Party. Designed to be more inclusive, the party created the National Executive Committee (NEC), made up of a various Labour constituency representatives and led by the leader and his deputy. While the committee had great power before the 1990s, its importance shrank under the leadership of Tony Blair (1994-2007). In the current Labour party, the leader has undisputed decision making power. While Corbyn may change the function of the NEC, it is unlikely, especially after the recent changes to leadership elections.

These changes to the election of Labour leaders have made the system more democratic. Between 1983 and 2010, the Party divided the electorate into three categories: Parliamentary Labour, trade union affiliates, and party members, who all worked together to decide who led the Party. Each category was given equal weight in calculating results. The method gave smaller groups (Parliamentary Labour and trade unions) greater electoral influence than larger one (party members). After the 2010 election of Ed Miliband, its previous leader, the Party changed the voting system. In the new arrangement, each member of the Labour party has one vote. Using the alternative voting system, members rank their choices. If no candidate can achieve 50% of the votes, voting immediately goes to another round with the person with the least ballots disqualified. Rounds continue until a candidate secures over half of the vote. In September, Corbyn won in the first round with nearly 60% of the vote in a field of four candidates. Corbyn argues that the strong mandate demonstrates public support of his policies. The unelected NEC has less credibility. It is possible, as the current situation illustrates, that the party elects a leader of whom its parliamentary representatives disapprove.

Jeremy Corbyn and his MPs disagree on several key issues. The EU Referendum in 2017 will arguably present the greatest division. Since the seventies, Labour has been the party of Europe. Despite changes in the political orientation of the party, one opinion has remained the same: support for European unity. Jeremy Corbyn has opposed many European Union Policies. In a Labour leadership debate, he refused to rule out campaigning against the EU in 2017. Though he has since said Labour will campaign to stay in the EU, the divide remains.

Middle East policy represents another place where Corbyn and his moderate MPs will find discord. Corbyn has remained staunch in his opposition to any involvement in the Syrian crisis despite the interim leader, Harriet Harman’s, support of increasing bombing targets. Corbyn’s opposition to the Trident nuclear missiles in Scotland could lead to more conflict between him and the party, a fact further complicated by Scottish Labour’s opposition to the program even as English Labour supports it. The leader is an adamant opponent of nuclear proliferation. In fact, Corbyn recently became vice president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. However, many in the Party do not share his beliefs, including his Deputy Leader, Tom Watson. Watson has expressed his disagreement on this issue and ohers. He has suggested he will oppose his leader on any votes on Trident. Watson has stated that he will try to “convince” Corbyn to change his position, an effort unlikely to succeed.

Finally, Corbyn’s advocacy for the nationalization of the rail and energy systems has created uproar in his party. Analysts have predicted that energy nationalization would cost £124 billion. One of his leadership rivals, Liz Kendall, stated that policies such as renationalization are “throwback[s] to the past, not the change we need for our party or our country,” although candidate Andy Burnham did support the nationalization of the railway system. Labour MPs and Corbyn disagree on these issues and many others. This division will create many issues in the years to come.

Before the next general election in 2020, Jeremy Corbyn will likely either resign or parliamentary Labour will force him out. The variety of issues that separate him from the majority of MPs will make it increasingly difficult for him to lead. As matters emerge in the next five years, the differences between Labour MPs and their leader will increase. Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Several events in Britain’s past give insight into what could happen to Corbyn. Dispute over Europe led the fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Her Deputy Prime Minister, Geoffery Howe, resigned over her refusal to join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), the precursor to the Eurozone. Howe’s speech in the House of Commons publically humiliated Thatcher. Ultimately, it instigated a movement that overthrew the Prime Minister.

Arguably, it was a disagreement over Middle East policy that ended Tony Blair’s premiership in 2007. Blair’s support of the Iraq War and his failure to advocate a ceasefire in the 2006 Israeli-Lebanon conflict angered many factions in Labour. Eventually, Blair decided to resign to avoid a party coup. Both Europe and the Middle East represent major differences between Corbyn and Labour. If Corbyn cannot compromise on these issues, it is easy to see how he will not be leader by 2020.

If Labour ousts Jeremy Corbyn, many MPs could replace him. Corbyn’s most obvious successors are Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham and former Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna. Burnham ran against Corbyn in the recent leadership election, finishing in second. After the race, he accepted Corbyn’s invitation to the Shadow Cabinet. His working class background may benefit him in any future election; however, his fluidity on the issues will hurt him. He ‘loyally’ supported all four recent leaders of the party. Chuka Umunna would represent a strong shift from Corbyn’s left-wing politics. The charismatic 37-year old Blairite announced his candidacy in May before withdrawing three days later. Umunna cited increased public scrutiny of his family life as his reason to drop out. His announcement has fueled speculation that he may harbor a personal scandal, which may inhibit his future ambitions.

Both Burnham and Umunna may not be successful Labour candidates. Other candidates do exist; however, and no one is as promising as Keir Starmer. Although he has only been in Parliament for a few months, the 53-year-old has had a distinguished previous career as a barrister and Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales from 2008 to 2013. In 2008, The Guardian called Starmer “one of the brightest lawyers of his generation.” The MP for Holborn and St. Pancras is eloquent and represents Labour’s center-left. Since his election in May, he has received vast media coverage. Many British newspapers and magazines, like The Guardian and The Spectator, have pointed to Starmer as a potential successor to Corbyn. Time will tell whether or not he can live up to the hype.

The possibility that he may be forced to resign or that the party will rebel against him has played a part in Corbyn’s actions during his first month as leader. In the name of party unity, the leader has made some concessions. He picked Hillary Benn, a devoted European supporter, as Shadow Foreign Secretary. Corbyn’s announcement that Labour would campaign to stay in the EU in 2017 was a significant concession that led many to breathe a sigh of relief. However, on many other issues Corbyn has isolated his party. He has remained staunch on nuclear proliferation, nationalization, and involvement in the Middle East.

The next five years are critical for Labour. If the party cannot win in 2020, Labour faces the possibility of entering the wilderness of opposition that it experienced under Thatcher and John Major from 1979 to 1997. Many argue that it is imperative that Labour moves to the center if it desires to win. Left Labour has not won an election in Britain since Clement Attlee in 1950. Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, the only Labour leaders since Attlee to win elections, were centrists. If Corbyn cannot move the party center Labour will likely fail to win in 2020. Corbyn is at the center of this, and, in the eyes of many, Labour has a choice: move center or venture into the wilderness.