As I See It
Labour’s hopeful leaders looking for a purpose
It was almost brought down by the split 35 years ago that saw four senior moderates – Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers – quit to form the Social Democratic Party.
They left following the January 1981 Wembley conference which committed Labour to unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from what was then the European Economic Community (now European Union). Fundamentally, they believed the party had moved too far to the left.
To some degree, some things never change. The latest ructions in the party come amid another debate on the nuclear deterrent and on Britain’s future with Europe.
However, Labour is now in favour of both. At least officially. And at least south of the border. In the vote on Trident renewal 138 MPs were in support, 48 against, while 45 abstained (the failure to vote either way is most damning of all). Most MPs, therefore, voted for renewal while their leader was arguing to oppose it. In Scotland the party is against. So what is the voter supposed to make of this, particularly the Scottish voter?
This is symptomatic of Labour’s wider problems. It is not clearly communicating to the electorate exactly what it believes, and that’s largely because it cannot decide what it believes.
In this context, it matters not whether Labour is on the left or right, as long as they are all leaning the same way. Owen Smith, who has thrown his hat into the ring with Angela Eagle to contest the leadership with Jeremy Corbyn, is certainly left-leaning: he opposes privatisation and wants to introduce a 50p rate of income tax. He is more Corbyn in policy terms, though others say he is more Ed Miliband in style.
Sensibly, he has said that either he or Ms Eagle should step aside to allow one candidate to challenge Mr Corbyn in order not to split the vote. Ms Eagle, however, seems determined to stand her ground in the belief that she has got what it takes to defeat the incumbent.
Mr Corbyn has shown either an admirable or foolhardy refusal to be forced into resigning. He insists he has the mandate to continue, but his position is more precarious than any faced by a Labour leader since his predecessor Michael Foot in 1981.
It is because the party also faces the prospect of a similarly long period in the political wilderness that the present challenge is taking place. It is desperately in need of strong leadership to avoid losing its relevance.
Mr Corbyn is regarded as a “decent man”. He is intelligent and well-read. But, as Mr Smith points out, he is good on the questions, not so much on providing the answers. The resignations among his shadow cabinet followed his lacklustre support for the EU Remain campaign, fuelling opinion that he sympathised with the Brexiters. This only adds to the sense of drift in a party that cannot decide which side it is on.
In 1981 it looked like being replaced by the SDP and later by the SDP’s coalition with the Liberals. That threat petered out and it only found its voice again under Tony Blair by making a huge shift to the right and capturing disaffected Tory voters.
But this sewed the seeds of a new crisis for Labour as its core vote moved either to the SNP or UKIP. Even George Osborne proclaimed the Tories were now the “party of working people”, a theme picked up by new Prime Minister Theresa May. Now there is talk, led by Lib-Dem leader Tim Farron, of a new centre-left party. What goes around….
Mr Corbyn insists that he will be re-elected and the party will be united. This may be his biggest gamble and biggest mistake.
Michael Foot’s Labour lost the moderates, but Mr Corbyn’s is in danger of losing the working classes that made it.