Reflections On The Past…
Lets be absolutely clear, the day when the Labour party ceased to ever again be a credible alternative government in waiting was Monday 11th July 2016. The day when Angela Eagle presented herself as the ‘unity candidate’ who could once again bring the Labour Party together, defeat Jeremy Corbyn and take the Party onto electoral victory. This day set in stone the final nail in the coffin of Labour’s long funeral. How quickly things change in just under two years.
Let’s cast our minds back. After the establishment lost the European Union Referendum the Labour Party put much of the responsibility on Jeremy Corbyn for conducting a ‘lacklustre, dispassionate and disconnected‘ campaign to remain in the EU. With tensions mounting over his leadership and the leftward trajectory in which he was taking the Labour Party, Angela Eagle put herself forward in a final desperate attempt to break the deadlock between the PLP and its leader. “We move forward, united”, was Eagle’s rallying cry which was both painfully embarrassing and terribly ironic considering the subsequent leadership contest would mark the splintering, and subsequent death, of the Labour Party as a Party of government.
The Waring Tribes Go To Battle…
With Labour Party lawyers coming to the uncomfortable conclusion that Corbyn would automatically be on the ballot paper, Owen Smith threw his weight behind Angela Eagle who returned the favour by presenting the Labour Party with a joint ‘unity candidacy‘ of Eagle for leader and Smith for Chancellor. The two easily found the 51 nominations necessary to mount a challenge, indeed the pair presented the National Executive Committee with 148 MEP and MP endorsements. However, as we all know, the Eagle and Smith dream ticket would fail spectacularly.
The leadership election was brutal. Instantly an estimated 4,000 Momentum, TUSC and Corbyn supporters marched on Parliament in solidarity with the Labour leader. Tom Watson, the deputy leader, so desperate to keep his job, offered no leadership and instead promised to remain neutral. The unions expressed their dismay at Watson’s decision, stating that at no time had he given any suggestion that he was anything other than generally supportive of the Party leadership, albeit with some reservations. Watson subsequently faced calls for his resignation. Len McCluskey, in a fiercely passionate speech on Parliament Square, implored trade unionists and socialists to stay the course, “this is our last chance to ensure that the Labour Party does not lurch back to the Blairite Neoliberal Tory agenda of the past and instead continues the march of solidarity!”.
At hustings, Angela Eagle could barely speak without being shouted down as a ‘traitor’ and a ‘liar’. Local Labour Associations even called motions of no confidence in those MPs who publicly backed Eagle, who herself faced a challenge from party members in Wallasey. Seeing moderate MPs clash with Corbyn supporters became the norm and many, including Owen Smith, were targeted in several outlandish attacks. Rather than presenting themselves as the ‘unity ticket’, Eagle and Smith were blamed for exacerbating divisions and furthering rifts within the Party without offering a coherent vision of how to resolve the tensions if they were to win.
The Tories Unite…
In comparison the Conservative leadership election looked tame. Despite a somewhat bruising contest, Theresa May was victorious, but winning by a much narrower margin than was expected with just 52% of the vote to Leadsom’s 48%. Ironically this was of course the same percentage achieved by LEAVE and REMAIN which had sparked the leadership contest in the first place.
In a decisive show of unity and strength both May and Leadsom appeared on a joint platform outside of Parliament within days of the result, promising to reunite both the Tory Party and the country. Stepping forward from Victoria Tower, Andrea Leadsom gave the defining speech of her career; ”We have seen what Party infighting can do, and I am not prepared to see the Conservative Party tear itself apart in the way that Labour has. We need decisive government, a unity government, a government which will listen to both sides of the argument in this post Brexit phase that we now enter. The utter turmoil and infighting that we see within the Labour Party is truly terrifying and we will do everything we can to ensure that this new Conservative Administration can stand strong and offer stable government, but also provide the strong leadership this country needs under Theresa”. Words which have since gone down in infamy by the nations first female Chancellor.
But Labour Continues To Implode…
With the results of the Tory leadership election known, this gave further momentum to Corbyn’s campaign, subsequently reinventing himself as the only credible candidate able to call for mass industrial action, protests and walkouts against the new “Neo-Thatcher Government”. Angela Eagle, desperate to move the Party on from the Old Labour traditions which the Party had so seamlessly re-embraced, condemned Corbyn’s words which only crystallised the belief in many Corbynistas minds that she was merely a ‘Tory with a red rosette’.
The Labour leadership result, announced on Friday 16th September, just one week before the Party conference, was a whitewash for Corbyn. Of the nearly 600,000 Labour Party members and the 491,000 ballots cast, Corbyn achieved 71% of the total vote. The intelligence Angela Eagle had received which suggested a further upsurge in membership was to her advantage, proved to be a delusion at best, an idiotic fallacy at worst.
Illustration by Bob Moran
Knowing how bad the situation within the Labour Party was at the time, when one looks back now it’s ridiculous to note that some of the mainstream press, such as The Times and The Independent, were trying to give gravitas to the ludicrous assertion that a further surge in Labour Party membership would somehow, all of a sudden, of benefit the moderates. Nevertheless Labour’s future as a niche, left-wing, militant socialist pressure group was all but assured with that final result which consolidated Jeremy Corbyn’s place as the ‘beloved leader’.
Corbyn’s momentous victory assured the consolidation of his supreme authority over the Party, but also the inevitable decline that was to follow. Despite trying to bring moderates back into the Shadow Cabinet, the overwhelming majority refused to enter frontline politics out of both ideological difference and a fear of public criticism. The rumours of a new Party of the centre consisting of pro-EU Tories and Labour moderates dispersed with Theresa May becoming Prime Minister, and for the time moderate Labour, ‘Blue Labour’, centrist Labour appeared confined to the history books.
The Sad Demise Of Centre-Left Britain…
The great irony of 21st century politics is that it was often said that Europe would kill the Conservative Party, actually it was Labour who were most damaged by the fallout of the EU referendum. Once Prime Minister May invoked Article 50 on the 6th March 2017, the two-year countdown began and with it any possibility of Labour reconciliation. In Prime Ministers Questions Corbyn generally ignored the negotiations, instead preferring to talk about ares where he felt the Government had failed such as social inequality and the NHS. His unwillingness to directly tackle what became known as the ‘European Question’, and fight for the protections of EU migrant workers whom the Prime Minister appeared to be using as a bargaining tactic with the European Union, incensed many of the moderates in the Labour Party.
With increasing disloyalty and rumours reported in the press of a further delusional leadership attempt, Corbyn threatened mass deselection of candidates as the only way to ensure property unity within the Party. With the review of parliamentary constituencies being fast-tracked by the May government, Corbyn argued that now was the time to, “reinvent and reinvigorate the makeup of our Parliamentary Party with fresh, new, young socialists who can offer a positive and unifying vision of our country against Ring-Wing Britain”.
By October 2017 Labour moderates had concluded that reconciliation was now impossible and so came publication of the St Stephen’s Declaration, so-called because of the bar opposite Parliament in which it was signed. With tears in his eyes Chris Bryant, shadowed by Lucy Powell, Angela Eagle, Lisa Nandy, Lord Falconer and a legion of other Labour MPs, MEPs and Lords, stood on Parliament Square and notified the media of the creation of a new block within Parliament, a block simply called, Progressive Labour. Corbyn’s response was imply extraordinary, “so be it”.
The problem with Progressive Labour was that instantly it lacked vision. For too long these moderate Labour MPs had been so focused on the removal of Corbyn as leader of the traditional Labour Party, that once they formed their own block they didn’t actually know what to do. Many of the lead politicians who emerged from this grouping such as Angela Eagle, John Healey, Seema Malhorta, Ian Murray and Owen Smith, were so discredited for their actions against Corbyn and they way in which they had further driven division, that they now lacked proper authority and credibility.
Moreover, the fact that Theresa May had not gone to the country to seek her own mandate was completely irrelevant to the fact that now 137 MPs formed an Official Opposition in Parliament which had never received a single ballot in the voting booths and a leader, Yvette Cooper, who had been anointed by just a handful of rouge MPs. Corbyn, who was now left with only 76 MPs after further resignations, defections to other Parties and by-elections, still refused to resign. Instead Corbyn remained steadfast that the level of treachery witnessed by the public would so incense the electorate at a General Election that the “traitors would be defeated”.
Photo courtesy of The Guardian newspaper
An Early General Election Is Called…
Chaos, division and uncertainty are never a good thing. The splits on the Left in the 1980s look tame in comparison to the political mess of 2017, but a similar parallel emerged. Although initially unpopular, Theresa May’s approval ratings began to significantly increase as it became clear that she was the only leader able to command the support of both her Party and the wider country, just as Thatcher had done so some 30 years previously. Talk of an early election was rife throughout the corridors of power in Westminster. With Her Majesty’s Opposition having never been elected, the Labour Party in tatters and the opinion polls showing a clear win for Theresa May, one wonders how it took journalists so long to come to the conclusion that a General Election was imminent.
With the Centre-Left bitterly divided and a General Election called for March 8th 2018, it is worth remembering that this was the driving force behind the creation of the ‘Progressive Coalition’. An arrangement whereby candidates from the Liberal Democrats, the SDLP, the Greens and the Progressive Labour Party, would not contest the same seats and instead form a formal ‘Coalition’ in the next Parliament of moderates and progressives. Of course with hindsight we can see how flawed this initiative was, but that’s an article for another day.
Battle lines were drawn between Corbyn’s now anti-EU, militant and socialist Labour Party of the ‘Radical Left’ and the new centrist, pro european, liberal, social democratic alliance of the Progressive Coalition. The Tories united as never before under the leadership of a steely Theresa May, UKIP led by Suzanne Evans making inroads in the North of England and the SNP standing on a platform of Scottish Independence.
Illustration by Andrzej Krauze and featured in The Guardian newspaper
The End Is Near…
The resulting General Election we have just experienced has been one of the most brutal, bitterly divisive and personal campaigns I have ever witnessed in my many years of following politics. Our democracy is currently in a state of flux, however according to Exit Polls Theresa May has been the clear beneficiary of it, winning 352 seats in the new Parliament of 600 members and taking 40.6% of the popular vote.
The ‘Progressive Coalition’ looks set for a dismal result of just 38 seats, despite winning the second largest popular vote of 21.9%, followed by Labour on 21.5%. Liz Kendall, Maria Eagle, Gloria De Piero and Hilary Benn have already conceded defeat to Corbyns ‘traditional’ Labour candidates, and its only 01.05am. Corbyn is predicted to win back many of the seats he lost and once again become leader of the Opposition with just over 120 seats.
Despite loosing traction through the campaign, Suzanne Evan’s UKIP look poised to take upwards of 10 seats from Labour in the North, although victory for Douglas Carswell in Clacton is looking increasingly unlikely.
In Scotland, Sturgeon is bracing herself for a loss of eight seats which will set back her campaign, however it’s currently unclear who the main beneficiary will be.
Overall the result of this General Election is looking like a complete and utter mess, with absolutely no consistency between the votes cast and the results achieved. I have always been a fierce advocate of First Past The Post, but even I think it unpalatable that Corbyn will once again become leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, despite achieving the third largest popular vote. The result of this election has the potential to throw the country into further years of chaos and uncertainty.
The past twenty-one months since the European Union Referendum have been extraordinary. We have seen the realignment of the Left of British politics in a way that we never expected, and the existential crisis of the Labour Party result in its fundamental demise as a Party of government. Perhaps if Angela Eagle had not have challenged Corbyn the Party would not be in the situation it is now, a relic of the past. As it stands, Tony Blair will forever be remembered as the last Labour leader to win a General Election, and Gordon Brown the last Labour Prime Minister to leave 10 Downing Street. Looking forward we now face a generation of Conservative dominance, of that I am sure, but looking back it is clear when the cards were drawn and the fate of Labour sealed, Monday 11th July 2016.