The election of socialists to the leadership of the Labour party has turned the world of the Westminster bubble upside down. Previously, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell scarcely impinged upon the British establishment’s consciousness. Suddenly, they now command the two major offices of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition as well as heading up an army of grassroots activists committed to radical political change well beyond the usual Westminster consensus.
The British establishment, still in recovery mode following an unexpectedly close run referendum result and an unforeseen SNP triumph in the general election, was again rocked to its core. Nowhere more so than among Labour parliamentarians most of whom had long since given up on socialism. Corbyn and McDonnell were never going to be acceptable to a parliamentary faction anchored to the conviction that Westminster elections are won from the political centre ground.
The open opposition from Labour MPs that followed culminated in the debacle of the new leadership being forced to accept a free vote on the bombing of Syria. Humiliation was then heaped upon the new leader as Labour rebels and the Tory benches united in cheering Hilary Benn’s defiant trashing of his own party’s opposition to the bombing of Syria. The 66 Labour rebels in the division that followed underlined the reality that here was a new Labour leader who commands neither his Shadow Cabinet nor his Parliamentary party.
The key consideration for the wider left is whether it is likely or even possible that this electorally calamitous situation will be reversed before the next UK general election. Will the grassroots revolution that won such a convincing majority in the leadership election be enough to take control of the selection process that will decide the make-up of the prospective parliamentary party in 2020? Will Momentum be able to deliver not just a left leadership but a left parliamentary party that will go on to open up the Westminster road to socialism?
Corbyn’s plans to democratise the party’s policy-making process and to enfranchise ordinary party members clearly has the potential to shift Labour decisively leftwards. In doing so, it will also threaten the long-term survival of those centre-right MPs opposed to that direction of change. These MPs will neither roll over and accept the shift leftwards nor go quietly.
Labour, therefore, faces years of bitterly fought policy battles and selection contests that will divide its own membership, alienate many mainstream voters and significantly diminish their prospects of holding their existing seats and winning back from the Tories the 94 seats they need to form a government. The alternative is to remain split between a socialist party in the country and a moderate pro-market party in Parliament.
Meanwhile the Tories are busy moving the electoral goalposts by cutting the number of parliamentary seats to 600, redrawing constituency boundaries and introducing individual electoral registration, all of which will increase the Tories’ and lessen Labour’s electoral prospects. More ominously, the wider electorate remain underwhelmed by Labour’s change of direction. Despite divisions over Europe and the U-turn on tax credits, the Tories enjoy a double digit lead over Labour in the polls. In Scotland, the SNP lead the one-time people’s party by 34 points.
However, Labour’s problems run deeper than the state of the current polls. The Tories won their current majority with less than 37% of the votes cast and with the support of less than 25% of the UK electorate. The vast bulk of Tory seats are in southern England where Labour, Blair years apart, is traditionally weak. To win again in 2020, the Tories need only do as badly as they did in 2015. It is in the DNA of a British state built around the first-past-the-post electoral system to block radical change from the left and to bolster moderate continuity from the right.
The political times are changing. The days of the old Tory/Labour duopoly are over. Labour is no longer the only alternative to the Tories. New popular forces are stirring to the left of Labour and are demanding democratic and socialist change well beyond what might be achieved through a warped Westminster system. The age of the Palace of Westminster and of Her Majesty’s Governments and Oppositions has passed.
John McAllion was a Tayside Regional Councillor (1984-1987), serving as Labour Convener of the Council (1986-87) and then Labour MP (1987-2001) and Labour MSP (1999-2003) for Dundee East. He left Labour in 2005, joining the SSP and remains a member. He is an executive member of both the Dundee Pensioners’ Forum and Scottish Pensioners’ Forum, and is a former member of the SLR editorial board.