Wednesday

17th Jul 2019

Opinion

Corbyn victory could split main UK parties

  • Corbyn at anti-war protest outside UK parliament last year (Photo: Garry Knight)

The Labour leadership election has provoked much speculation and soothsaying, so allow me to indulge in a little more: the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader will be the next step in the fragmentation of both main UK parties.

The first reason is that a Corbyn victory could lead to all-out civil war in the Labour Party.

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The second is that without an effective opposition, particularly in the period of time leading up to the EU referendum, the Conservatives will turn on themselves.

Recently, David Miliband wrote an article in The Guardian warning against a repeat of the Labour infighting of the past, most notably in the early 1980s.

Miliband argued: “Given the collapse of the Lib Dems, the stakes now are very high indeed, not just for Labour but for the country. Get it wrong, and Britain could become a multi-party democracy with only one party - the Conservative party - that can win parliamentary majorities.”

“The Corbyn programme looks backwards … There is nothing defiant or desirable about unworkable policies and undeliverable promises. There is only defeat,” Miliband added.

I would argue that a Corbyn victory could lead to a multi-party democracy without a main party.

The manoeuvring in Labour, however, has already started. A number of Labour MPs have set up the “Labour for the Common Good Group” which could well form the main opposition to Corbyn within the Party.

There have allegedly been attempts to shut down the leadership contest by Lord Mandelson. Other senior Labour figures, including Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, have been making speeches with increasing frequency, pleading with party members to vote for the more centrist candidates.

Whatever happens, and whoever becomes leader, the unity of the Labour Party is uncertain and as a result, so is its ability to provide credible opposition to the government. The SNP and the decimated Liberal Democrats will not be able to fill the void.

A split in Labour cannot be ruled out, nor a leadership coup.

Danger lurks for Cameron

The election of Corbyn as leader of the opposition also presents a danger for David Cameron. As The Economist pointed out, when governments appear to be without effective rivals or pressure from other parties, they are prone to internal strife.

Consider, for example, the destructive rivalry between Blairites and Brownites during New Labour’s years in power when they had large parliamentary majorities.

The forces that brought down Margaret Thatcher, despite the fact that she won three consecutive general elections, were part of a split that has dogged the party ever since.

With this in mind and with the EU referendum due within two years, when the opposition may well be weak, eurosceptics will become increasingly vocal.

Opponents of EU membership are certain to be better organised this time around, compared to 1975, and have a larger public profile.

Ukip’s divisive leader, Nigel Farage, is sure to exert pressure on the Tory leadership.

Farage said recently that eurosceptics should "get off their backsides" and challenge the prime minister's "so-called renegotiation" of EU powers.

He added on Friday (4 September), while launching his EU referendum campaign: "If it wasn't for Ukip, we wouldn't be having a referendum."

He also said his faith in Tory eurosceptics had been destroyed during the Maastricht debates of the 1990s.

Referendum glue to keep Tories together?

Cameron’s prime objective in calling the referendum is to unify the Conservative Party.

Votes in referendums, however, overwhelmingly go in favour of the status quo. Failure to win will not pacify those who want change, meaning this strategy is only a temporary one. Britain voted on EU membership in 1975 and 67 percent chose to stay in what was then the European Community.

This clear victory for European membership was not enough to prevent the issue being continually debated in Britain, and from the late 1980s, increasingly hysterically within the Tory Party.

What is sure to be a narrower margin in the forthcoming referendum, will not quell the disquiet amongst Cameron’s ranks. The Conservatives are clearly split on Europe and the current migrant crisis is making this ever more toxic.

When Britain votes to stay in the EU, as it probably will do, the Tories’ differences will become ever more pronounced.

Does this sound far-fetched? One thing that the rise of Corbyn certainly seems to have encouraged is hyperbole.

The election of Corbyn himself may be enough to split Labour.

The increased space for squabbling over Europe for the Tories, under pressure from Ukip, and an inconclusive referendum may be enough to split the Conservatives.

Robert Ledger is an independent political researcher working in London

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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