Opinion

Splitting The Problem: Labour’s Identity Crisis

Nathan Weavers discusses the forces behind the Labour Party’s internal split, and the potential consequences for Brexit.

By Nathan Weavers

The Labour Party is on the brink of an internal split – just like it was last year, and the year before that, and ever since the 2016 Brexit referendum.

However, this time, an actual rupture seems more likely than ever before. Toby Helm, of The Guardian, notes that a group of centre-left Labour MPs are now prepared to break away from the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn over concerns about the party’s Brexit policy and its poor management of claims of antisemitism within pockets of the party.

This is of course not the first time that Britain’s left-leaning political powerhouse has split over Europe. Labour famously splintered in 1981 when pro-Europe Labour MPs opposed Michael Foot’s shift to the left and his opposition to Britain’s membership of the then European Economic Community (EEC). The Social Democratic Party (SDP) then emerged as a centre-left, pro-Europe party which later merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988. The split saw Labour succumb to one of their worst general election results in decades. Their manifesto was dubbed “the longest suicide note in history” and it took the party many years to heal their divisions and to take control of government once again.

Blair’s removal of Clause IV of the party’s manifesto was key in healing these dissensions.  The party ditched its more socialist policies which had kept them out of power since 1979. Labour also took a more pro-European stance under the leaderships of Kinnock and then Blair with the 1997 manifesto. An emphasis on reform and cooperation within Europe led to middle-ground voters being attracted to the messages of New Labour.

The era of New Labour arguably ended with Corbyn’s election as leader of the party. A socialist leader who had voted to leave the EEC in 1975 seemed to echo the leadership of Foot. Yet Corbyn’s messages resonated in the 2017 General Election. His seductive promises, including the scrapping of tuition fees, saw Labour’s vote share of voters aged between 18 and 24 increase by 19 percentage points since the previous election.

So why the potential split? If Labour can close a 20-point deficit in the polls in just eight weeks before a general election, why can’t they seize power next time?

One word: Brexit.

Yvette Cooper seems to be leading the charge for a more centrist policy on Europe. She tabled an amendment on Tuesday 29 January which would have meant that Article 50 would have been extended until the end of the year to prevent the UK leaving without a deal. Jeremy Corbyn followed suit by whipping Labour MPs to vote for the amendment after his own amendment of trying to rule out a no-deal completely seemed destined to fail.  

But Cooper corrected her own party leader in the House to clarify that her amendment meant that the extension of Article 50 was time limited while Corbyn implied that Cooper’s amendment followed the party’s own policy of rejecting no-deal in its entirety.

Arguably, Cooper appeals to the modern, metropolitan Labour supporter who voted for New Labour and feels that the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn harkens back to the harder leftist approach adopted in the 1980s which saw Labour out of power for 18 years.

In saying all of this, Labour are certainly not the only ones facing an identity crisis. The Conservative Party is divided too on the issue of Brexit which is perfectly reflected by where their MPs sit in the Chamber. ‘Remain corner’ comprises of MPs such as Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve and Justine Greening while ‘Brexit area’ comprises of members like Andrew Bridgen, Sir Edward Leigh and Boris Johnson. The issue of Europe has arguably toppled the previous three incumbent Conservative Prime Ministers and may possibly seize a fourth.

However, many Conservative MPs are coming around to the idea of fulfilling Brexit. One of the most learned MPs, Sir Oliver Letwin, even said that he was “past caring” what deal the UK leaves with. This highlights how the majority of MPs just want the issue of Brexit to be over and done with.

Europe is creating divides in both of the UK’s main political parties. Both parties seem committed to executing the decision made by the public in 2016 but both have internal dissenting factions who want to go against the grain of the party’s leadership. Brexit is a non-partisan issue. That’s why we have Eurosceptic, traditional socialists, such as Ronnie Campbell and Dennis Skinner, voting with the Government in opposing an extension to Article 50. On the other side of the coin, we have Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry who are advocating a second referendum.

A split in either party seems to be a possibility, but in the Labour Party, they seem to have a leader in waiting.

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