Can Britain’s Labour Party Come Back From the Brink?

A placard in support of Britain’s opposition Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, during a rally for the National Health Service in London. Credit Ben Stansall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A placard in support of Britain’s opposition Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, during a rally for the National Health Service in London. Credit Ben Stansall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The British Labour Party faces the biggest crisis in its history, bigger than 1983 when it polled less than 28 percent of the popular vote and won only 209 seats in the House of Commons. Numerically, the result of the June 8 general election may not be quite as bad for Labour as it was 34 years ago. And, unlike in 1983, a clutch of despairing former Labour cabinet ministers have not chosen to found an unelectable fringe party. But the damage to the party’s prospects today is far deeper.

In 1983, Labour moderates rightly believed that once the extent of the electoral disaster became plain, there would be a slow revival of enthusiasm for electable policies and an electable leadership. Indeed, some of us in the party were preparing the ground for the counterrevolution even before voting day. For example, when I spoke in my Birmingham constituency, I explicitly rejected policies like nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from what was then the European Economic Community and wholesale nationalization — key elements in Labour’s 1983 party manifesto.

Today, there is little sign that Labour will soon make its way out of the wilderness. According to some predictions based on recent polling, the party could be left with as few as 157 seats in Parliament (from its 2015 election total of 232). Members on the opposition backbenches of Parliament who should be mapping out the road to recovery show little inclination to lead the way. Sensible Labour policies — more affordable housing and greater investment in the health service — are obscured by the party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s displays of inadequacy and incompetence. Conservative newspapers regurgitate his closest supporters’ past associations with extreme organizations and bizarre ideas.

In 1983, the Labour Party suffered from three related, but transitory, problems. The first was Tony Benn, whose fantasy politics and messianic egoism appealed to romantics, and who was only narrowly defeated in his bid to become the party’s deputy leader in 1981. The second was Michael Foot, the party leader, who — though a distinguished writer and cabinet minister — was wholly unsuited to political leadership. The third was the Militant Tendency, a group of Trotskyite infiltrators who, in Labour’s name, won control of the Liverpool City Council and tried, almost always without success, to undermine mainstream Labour members of Parliament.

In time, these problems had solutions. Although Mr. Benn’s supporters enjoyed a majority on Labour’s national executive committee for a time, left-wing dissidents never commanded the party machine. And the labor unions could be relied on to use their bloc vote to ensure the defeat of the most outrageous conference resolutions.

All that has changed. The leaders of two of the biggest, and most politically active, unions support Mr. Corbyn and Corbynism. A flood of new activists — many attracted by the offer of party membership, and thus a vote on the leadership, at the bargain basement price of £3 (less than $4) — openly organizes to change Labour’s constitution in a way that reduces the power and influence of the overwhelmingly moderate members of Parliament.

Most of the new party members come in three mutually debilitating categories. The largest group, by far, is made up of sentimentalists who think that elections can be won, and the world changed, by a campaigning party of the left that wants to negotiate with the Islamic State rather than destroy it, mistrusts the police and security services, and believes that as long as taxes are high enough, public spending can be unlimited.

Their hearts are in the right place, perhaps, but their heads are filled with memories of what they regard as the betrayal of the Labour Party’s socialist principles by Tony Blair when he was leader. Their list of grievances includes legitimate complaints about the invasion of Iraq and Mr. Blair’s unwillingness to express regret that, during his tenure as prime minister, the gap between rich and poor widened.

At least the sentimentalists want to win elections. But they are supported and manipulated by two other groups that criticize the supposed obsession with “electability.” One argues that Labour must choose principle rather than power. The other rejects “the parliamentary route to socialism” and looks forward to a spontaneous rising of the people. If this combination of misplaced idealism and infantile Marxism ever gains an ascendancy, Labour is doomed.

The party will not disappear; social democracy is too strong an idea for that. But if the reassertion of reason takes a decade or more, with moderates simply waiting for the ideological tide to turn and the Corbynistas’ growing tired of demonstrations, Labour will become a party of permanent opposition without the strength or standing even to hold the government to account.

Fear of political impotence and reluctance to endure the abuse of Corbynite comrades have led to new speculation about the formation of a breakaway party. More than loyalty and sentiment argues against the idea. The Social Democratic Party, founded in 1981 by four former Labour cabinet ministers, became no more than an appendage of the Liberal Party in the 1983 general election, which ended with the so-called epoch-making Alliance winning a mere 23 seats.

The only solution on offer to mainstream Labour voters is a counterrevolution, a long guerrilla campaign in which men and women of a moderate disposition reclaim the party. Labour First, a network of moderates founded in 1988, has begun to mobilize its supporters. Valuable though the group’s work is in protecting beleaguered mainstream members of Parliament and promoting moderate delegates to the annual party conference, organizing for a return to reason is not enough.

Members of the real Labour Party have to be inspired by the visible manifestation of a fight back. And the inspiration can come only from potential post-Corbyn leaders setting out the program for better government and demonstrating that the real Labour Party, though recently submerged, is beginning to surface. This general election offers them an ideal opportunity. Whatever the Corbyn camp may claim about the need to close ranks for the next five weeks, Labour seats in Parliament will be saved only by demonstrating that the party stands for more than simplistic slogans and noisy protests.

Those who speak out will be branded as traitors. But the real treachery is committed by those men and women who, because of hubris or bigotry, willingly sacrifice Labour’s chance of governing ever again.

Roy Hattersley, a journalist, was the deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983 to 1992.

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