British Labour Party at a crossroads

Manal Lotfy , Wednesday 20 Feb 2019

Facing its first split in 40 years, the British Labour Party is between a rock and a hard place as Brexit approaches

Karin Smyth
Britain’s Labour Party MP Karin Smyth makes an announcement she is leaving the party, in London, Britain on February 18, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)

On a day of drama, prominent Labour MPs Chuka Umunna, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker, Luciana Berger and Ann Coffey announced they are quitting the ranks of the Labour Party in protest at what they said is a culture of “bullying and bigotry” in the party, anti-Semitism, and frustration over the leadership’s Brexit policy and reluctance to back another EU referendum.

They declared that they will set up an independent group in parliament and intend to form a new movement.

It is the party’s biggest rift in nearly 40 years. But it did not come as a shock.

Moreover, many Labour MPs believe there will be another wave of defections if the party’s leadership does not change course and move fast towards a second referendum on Brexit, as well as taking steps to root bullying, bigotry, and anti-Semitism within the party.

The split is the most significant challenge to the party’s unity since the “Gang of Four” Labour MPs quit to form the Social Democratic Party in 1981.

The move is a serious blow to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and at a crucial time. The next five weeks will determine the future of Brexit, and Britain with it. Unrest in the Labour Party is the last thing Corbyn needed at this pivotal time.

Amid accusations against the runaway MPs of disloyalty and damaging the party’s reputation, levied by Corbyn loyalists, the defecting MPs arguing it was precisely because of the historic significance of this time they had to resign from the party.

In his speech explaining the reason for his resignation, MP Chuka Umunna, said: “In light of what we have witnessed these past three years, I do not support the Labour leader taking the office of prime minister of the United Kingdom, nor do I have confidence in him and his team to make the right decisions to safeguard our national security.

“The party’s collective failure to take a lead and provide sufficiently strong, coherent opposition to Tory government policy on the UK’s relationship with Europe, with all the adverse implications this poses for the working people of this constituency, is a betrayal of the Labour interest and Labour’s internationalist principles. This started with the leadership’s half-hearted effort to campaign for Remain in 2016, followed by its refusal even to commit to the UK staying part of the single market and now its offer to facilitate a Tory Brexit. So many families in my constituency, like me, have relatives from EU countries and feel grossly betrayed by the party,” he added.

He then declared: “Now is the time we dump this country’s old-fashioned politics” to create an alternative.

The split has polarised the Labour Party even more.

Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, called for Corbyn to change direction or face a bigger Labour split, declaring that he sometimes “no longer recognises” his own party.

He urged Corbyn to ensure Labour remains a broad church and reshuffle his shadow cabinet to reflect a wider balance of MPs.

However, dismayed at their colleagues for harming the party’s electoral chances, Corbyn loyalists accused the runaway MPs of being out of touch with the public. John McDonnell, shadow chancellor and a close Corbyn aide, called on the MPs to “do the honourable thing” and resign from parliament to fight byelections.

The harshest criticism came from Momentum movement, the grassroots group of Corbyn supporters, who accused the quitting MPs of being a “fringe minority” who wanted to go back to the “Blair years programme of privatisation, tax cuts for the rich and deregulation of the banks.”

The dramatic irony is that it is because of Momentum that Corbyn is in this predicament. Corbyn is in some way a “creation” of the Momentum movement, which took the party further to the left and called “centrist” a meaningless slogan.

Momentum members idealised Corbyn beyond recognition, harassed anyone who doesn’t worship him and made it very difficult for Labour MPs to challenge his policies on Brexit, the economy or anything.

The seven Labour PMs are not launching a new political party but have urged other Labour MPs — and members of other parties — to join them in “building a new politics”. And there is a real possibility that might just happen.

Several Conservatives MPs are considering their futures amid unhappiness over the government’s Brexit policy and PM Theresa May’s unwillingness to rule out a no-deal Brexit.

Among potential runaway Conservatives MPs are Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston, Nick Boles and Heidi Allen.

Historically the Labour Party was by far the most diverse party in British politics, but not anymore. The Corbyn cult of personality is damaging the Labour Party brand, some observers say. It remains to be seen if Corbyn himself will get the memo.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Labour at a crossroads

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