The British Labour Party has long been marked by factionalism and splits, entryism and intrigue. The center and the right have it too, but they hide it better. With Labour, it is visible and endemic.
It has happened again, as Labour tries to drag itself back from disaster after the Parliamentary general election of May 2015. Then, the Tories under David Cameron won enough seats to collect the keys to Number 10 Downing Street and form the first Conservative Party government since 1992. Labour, under Ed Miliband, suffered electoral casualties, as did the smaller Liberal Democrats who, having spent the previous five years as junior partners in a Tory-led coalition, lost almost all their seats.
Numerically, the Labour collapse was not so calamitous—except in Scotland, where they were wiped out by the resurgent Scottish National Party, whose resilience after losing the independence referendum in 2014 defied all predictions other than their own. Miliband’s Labour managed to increase their overall popular vote slightly—more than the Tory vote share rose—but suffered a net loss of parliamentary seats, winning 30.4 percent and 232 seats. This is the smallest number of seats held by Labour since 1987. Miliband lost. He had to go.
Whereas the Liberal Democrats, whose leader, Nick Clegg, resigned after being deputy prime minister to Cameron in the coalition, contrived to elect his successor without public attention, Labour has tried to regroup out in the open. Splits and divisions have been there for all to see as the lengthy leadership battle raged. The biggest talking point thus far (a winner will be formally declared on Sept. 12) is the remarkable popularity of Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran of the party’s left. His brand of outwardly hard socialist policies is preferable, according to some, to winning back power.
Corbyn’s three leadership competitors, the M.P.’s Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, all come from the center-right, “Blairite” wing of the party. They compare his rise with that of the former leader Michael Foot, whose cerebral and passionate advocacy of a left-leaning platform led to electoral catastrophe for Labour in 1983. Yet Corbyn, who initially struggled to get enough signatures for nomination, has surged ahead, remaining popular with the rank and file. At various times in recent weeks, his opponents have uneasily held hands, attempting to persuade the party membership away from Corbyn, but he has continued to attract support, mainly from the unions and the young. Specific policy lines have been featured in the campaign but have been secondary to the question whether Labour can ever return to Downing Street, or will it henceforth be a powerless party of protest.
There have been allegations that non-party members, including even some Tories, might have taken out Labour Party memberships in order to cast a vote for Corbyn, ensuring the party’s non-electability. Corbyn’s opponents demanded extra checks for infiltration; Corbyn denied the possibility. Right on cue, the hashtag #LabourPurge began trending on Twitter.
The leadership battle has reflected the continuing anti-austerity feeling in many countries, including the United Kingdom. Greece’s travails have in recent weeks been the most prominent as Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called a general election, precipitating an immediate split in his radical left Syriza party. Those who repudiate that country’s debtor-imposed austerity broke away. Although the British Labour Party has always managed, barely, to hold its unity, there must now be some concern that the Corbyn-inspired resurgent left might similarly, and permanently, split the party.