Corbyn in control despite Labour unrest

Vidya Ram | Updated on March 01, 2019 Published on March 01, 2019

UK Labour party chief’s policy vision stands, despite rifts over the ‘second referendum’ on Brexit and the anti-Semitism furore

This week, just under a month before Britain is due to leave the EU, Labour — the main opposition party — made an announcement that many had been pushing for: it would back a second referendum if its version of Brexit was rejected by Parliament (which it was).

While Labour continued to respect the referendum result, faced with the prospect of the Prime Minister’s “botched deal,” Jeremy Corbyn told the House of Commons on Tuesday that he believed there had to be a “confirmatory public vote to see if people feel that is what they voted for.”. However, a close reading of Corbyn’s choice of words reveals that little had actually changed in the party’s position: a public vote would only be offered if at some stage an agreement on the same were to be passed by Parliament — which remains highly uncertain at this stage.

It is notable that even after Labour’s alternative plan — which involves remaining in the customs union and being closely aligned to the single market — was rejected, the party is yet to formally endorse a second referendum.

These developments are very illustrative of the state of the Labour Party at the moment: despite strong pressure from within and outside the shadow cabinet — and even from close allies — the Corbyn vision remains very much at the forefront of policy, despite some very severe setbacks. It means that for now at least despite some “concessions” from the Corbyn line — particularly on the anti-Semitism controversy gripping the party — it remains the policy driver.

Last week, in what was seen as a crunch moment in British political history, eight Labour MPs and three Conservatives left their party to form an independent group within Parliament. They left for different reasons — some over concerns that Labour wasn’t dealing suitably with anti-Semitism within its ranks, others because of the failure to back a second referendum, and others on the party’s wider economic agenda. A ninth MP left too, though not to join their ranks as he does not concur with their stance on Brexit. More MPs are potentially expected to leave Labour within the next few weeks.

Tackling anti-Semitism

Through all this, as the second referendum issue has highlighted, there is little sign that the party is set to veer off the course set by Corbyn and his allies. There is one exception: faced by pretty much overwhelming opposition, he has had to alter his stance on tackling anti-Semitism. Last week, on the day that Jewish MP Luciana Berger quit the party citing concerns over anti-Semitism, Derek Hatton, a controversial politician who had been kicked out of the party for belonging to a Trotskyist group, was readmitted and then two days later suspended over a past social media message that had held Jewish people responsible for Israeli policy.

This week, a Labour MP close to Corbyn was also suspended from the party for suggesting that the concerns around anti-Semitism were being over-hyped. On Wednesday, a furious row broke out on television between the shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and two other MPs over the party’s past track record and in particular its handling of the suspension of another Labour MP in 2016 over anti-Semitic comments. Even the head of Momentum — the radical grassroots movement closely allied to Labour — recently admitted the party had a problem with anti-Semitism that needed to be tackled.

Stance on Venezuela

Another controversy erupted within the party earlier this year over Venezuela, and the party leadership’s insistence on opposing the attempt to oust the socialist government of Nicholas Maduro, which has been facing mounting pressure internationally. While Corbyn has been highly critical of the British government’s recognition of the opposition leader Juan Guaido as the nation’s interim president, some even within his own shadow cabinet have expressed disagreement with that stance.

However, while the internal conflicts rumble on, other aspects of Corbyn’s agenda remain very much alive. His 2017 election manifesto pledges to nationalise a number of industries have considerable popularity among the public and consequently within the party, particularly when it comes to Britain’s railways, which are amongst the most expensive in Europe, and over-stretched (particularly beyond London and the surrounding regions).

There are other policies too that command support — such as his plans for workers to have seats on boards, and inclusive ownership funds (that would require corporates over a certain size to transfer up to 1 per cent of equity each year into a fund, up to a total of 10 per cent over a decade). This is also the case for issues such as taxation (he insists that the burden must shift much more towards the higher earners) and funding for the National Health Service.

Britain’s internationally revered health system has routinely been plunged into crisis mode, amid a staffing and funding crisis (while the government insists it is putting more and more into the NHS, it remains well below the level sought by the NHS to keep up with growing demands, particularly as areas such as social care have been cut back on).

Even the issue of Brexit remains a complex one: there is far from unanimous support within Labour for a second referendum. Many MPs who disagree with Corbyn ideologically, remain committed to following through with Brexit, particularly those in northern constituencies that voted to leave the EU.

Several have spoken out, warning that the party would haemorrhage support and trust were they to alter stance radically and push for a second referendum or remaining in the EU (the shadow chancellor John McDonnell has said he would vote to remain if such a referendum were to be held). Apparently, seeking to satisfy all sides, the party has insisted that alongside pushing for a second referendum, it will also continue to push for its vision of Brexit as well as a general election.

Where the party goes from here remains to be seen: Corbyn has for now at least stubbornly faced down internal party opposition, and calls among some for his resignation. There remain at least around 40 MPs and a handful of cabinet ministers ideologically committed to his wider vision, as well as many more drawn to aspects of it.

Going forward two issues are likely to determine the fate of the party and Corbyn: the direction of Brexit and when and whether another general election takes place. An economically damaging Brexit could aid Labour in the long run, given the party’s insistence on a far “softer” exit by remaining in the customs union and the government’s firm resistance to it. This would ensure the government would struggle to not “own” that process.

As for a general election, which remains a distinct possibility in the coming months whether or not Brexit takes place, it has been this mode in which the party has been the strongest, as was the case in 2017, when the party rallied strongly behind Corbyn, and had a unified show. Recent opinion polls put Labour firmly behind the Conservatives, but Brexit could swiftly change the balance.

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Published on March 01, 2019
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