Labour’s current turmoil mirrors that of the country as a whole, and lessons can possibly be drawn from this. A common problem is at the root of both: a disconnection between the head and the rest of the body. Brexit is the way this has manifested itself in the country: a large proportion of the population expressed, through a vote to leave the EU, their dissatisfaction with the political, economic and financial establishment. For Labour, the dissatisfaction with their establishment—party grandees and the parliamentary party—was aired in the 2015 leadership contest won by Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn was the anti-establishment candidate, and was voted in on the back of a popular insurgency among ordinary, rank-and-file party members. In the way he dressed, spoke and acted, and in his record as a notoriously rebellious MP who put principle before personal ambition, Corbyn was a man who oozed an anti-establishment vibe. Many of those who voted for him did so because they ‘wanted their party back’—a party that, in their view, had been hijacked by Tory-lite Blairite modernizers and corporate-friendly career politicians. Optimistically, and perhaps idealistically, they hoped that by installing their man at the helm, the rest of the parliamentary head might start connecting again with the body.
The chances of this hope being realized were always remote. From day one of Corbyn’s leadership there were murmurs of plots against him, and it was never going to take much for the murmurs to become a crescendo preceding an attempt by the Westminster politicians to oust him.
The EU referendum and the subsequent Brexit crisis was the opportunity the plotters were waiting for. As a pretext they cited Corbyn’s apparently lacklustre campaign to remain in the EU, attributing to him a large responsibility for the failure of the Remain camp. It is far from obvious that they are right about this—not enough at a detailed level is understood about who voted Leave and why. On the one hand, in a campaign dominated on both sides by overblown arguments, misplaced passion and straightforward mendacity, Corbyn’s more low-key, honest and cogent position was a welcome relief; he presented reasoned arguments, without resorting to a strategy of fear-mongering, and he was upfront in his reservations about some aspects of the EU while making a sensible case for Remain. On the other hand, in a campaign that allowed for little nuance, and in which the stakes were so high, Corbyn’s contribution appears to have been both misconceived and largely ineffective: he looked too much like an informed Remain voter with one or two doubts, rather than an inspiring leader fully committed to his cause (and there are those who believe his lack of commitment masked a sanguine attitude to the prospect of Brexit).
Whether Corbyn conducted a good campaign is open to argument; for his enemies, however, the possibility of reasonable doubt over the matter presented the opportunity they had been waiting for. And so an attempted coup is under way—and a Corbynite resistance is taking shape. How it will pan out is unclear, but it is not likely to be pretty. Corbyn is most likely finished, since his position has become untenable: Labour cannot function in any meaningful parliamentary way when its leader commands so little support among his fellow MPs. At the same time, however, Labour will struggle to function as a party if its anti-Corbyn grandees and parliamentary party fail to connect with the majority of its members. Is there a candidate who can pull it all together? And would the Corbyn supporters among the membership be prepared to transfer their support to him or her? At this extremely early stage the answers to neither question appear encouraging. For it would seem that much of Corbyn’s support comes from people who do not want the ‘same old Westminster politics’, and who are reluctant to embrace a consensus politics if that involves diluting their own ideals. Stand-offs, infighting, haemorrhaging of support may all feature in the weeks and months ahead.
The parallels between Labour’s woes and the Brexit crisis are somewhat ironic. For Corbyn’s position mirrors the Brexit position; and the Labour parliamentary party position mirrors the anti-Brexit position. The former are cast as anti-establishment; the latter (less fairly, perhaps) as establishment. It is of course much more complex than that, and this is only one of many ways in which the current crises—both Brexit and Labour—can be read. And this is much more about perceptions than it is about reality: Brexit is perceived as anti-establishment, and anti-Brexit is perceived as establishment. (I write this as someone who is strongly anti-Brexit and broadly anti-establishment.) But if we do read it in this way, what might we learn? One answer is that the political and financial ‘establishment’ will do just as most of Labour’s MPs have done: they will attempt to step in to end the anti-establishment insurgency carried out by a popular majority.
It is unlikely either ‘establishment’ will succeed, in part because both have been severely wounded by huge hits. But more than that, the game is changing; old rules and certainties no longer apply. Neither the Labour party nor the Westminster and City establishments in their current form are suited to the new game that is emerging. Labour thrived on the old certainties of an identifiable working class, and on a two-party system that fostered loyalty and consensus within ‘broad church’ politics. But society and politics are now fragmented—with divisions that go far beyond class—to such an extent that it is hard to see how Labour in its current form can bring it all together. Of course, one cannot be sure: there may be an inspirational and imaginative figure or movement who is able to build bridges across the divides. But more likely is the prospect of Labour splintering or splitting. And while it could be argued that this disarray and disintegration is limited to the political left, there is mounting evidence that the Conservative party faces similar challenges on the right.
The Westminster establishment, which in essence is built on a whole political system, will similarly struggle in this fragmented political culture. Just as the Labour party may no longer be fit for purpose, so too the wider political system. In the short-term all sorts of battles will be won and lost: the Brexiters may win, or the anti-Brexiters may win; the Corbynites may win, or the anti-Corbynites may win. But these battles, interesting and exciting though they will be, are merely the froth on the surface. Beneath the surface there are wildly changing currents that may result in much more radical developments, tearing down establishments and transforming both national politics and Labour politics.