Ever since its inception as a political party in its own right Labour’s “broad church” has been a coalition of interests under a mantle of constructed unity. A construction, coalition, between the social democratic tendency and, in various guises over the years, its socialist wing.
The two, representing respectively the parliamentary wing and the “party in the country”, have never been fully recognised, surviving under a mantle of unity fashioned out of a desire to take power and keep the Tories out of it. The fight for fairness over privilege has a strong emotional pull, and is a powerful driver of political energy, not least in the industrial union wing.
That energy can work destructively when the internal interests conflict. Like a sleeping but potentially active volcano, the body erupts, sparks fly and the party indulges in a damaging public display of disunity.
We are currently experiencing such an episode. But this time, due to the fragmentation of different factions in light of recent events – from the New Labour years to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader – the ideological lines are unclear. The campaigns to change the rules to make it easier for a left-wing Corbyn successor, opposed by Progress and Labour First on the right, are being fought in a proxy civil war with the left-wing group Momentum at its centre.
It is a reflection of where Labour stands in the mind of the electorate and a dissipation of the energies required to achieve improvement, and it is taking place against a background of constant sniping by MPs opposed to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
The by-election defeat at the hands of the Tories in Copeland and the poor result in Stoke on the same day are startling testimony to that. The current factional fighting gives no hope – partly because no end is in sight – of a strategic or tactical turnaround. As the party loses a seat it has held for more than 80 years, Britain heads full pelt (given the alternative) toward the EU exit door.
Latest polling evidence gives the Tories a 19-point lead, and their lead cuts across almost every demographic, including by 41 points to29 among 18-24 year olds, and the parties are tied among unskilled manual workers. Labour simply is not appealing to its “natural” constituency. Even one of the most calamitous Budgets in living memory ihas done nothing to dent Tory poll domination.
So what, in the middle of what can only be described as a crisis, does Labour do? It turns against the enemy it knows best, itself. It is one thing for the left and right to be at daggers drawn. That can usually be contained beneath the mantle of that broad church coalition. But party deputy leader Tom Watson has accused the largest union – and his former friend and flatmate, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey – of cooking up a “secret left wing plot” to take control of the party in cahoots with Momentum, the movement which grew out of support for Corbyn’s leadership. Unite officials publicly put Watson’s comments down to a desire to influence the election in which McCluskey is standing again. The result is due to be announced next month.
According to Labour veterans of the time, Labour appears determined to return to the 1980s, when it came close to terminal self-destruction, but this time with the spotlight on a vituperative left v left conflict.
Yet it is not apocalypse now for Labour. A quarter of voters still support it. But the critical mass in seats which need turning around is either gone or continues to slip away. It cannot go on like this if Labour is to remain a serious contender as a party aspiring to govern, the glue which has held that broad church coalition together. It desperately needs refocussing around a new collective vision which has to come from the top. As long as it doesn’t, Labour isn’t working.