Column / Brexit Briefing
A very British (and Corbynite) coup
By Benjamin Fox
Jeremy Corbyn formally launched his campaign to be re-elected as leader of the Labour party on Thursday (21 July) with the confidence of someone who thinks victory is in the bag.
The UK is having its own Podemos or Syriza moment - its centre-left establishment party being shredded by an upstart group that is more of a campaign or protest movement than a political party. The difference from Spain and Greece is that the establishment party has been taken over from within.
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The result is two parties sharing a name. Of the 230 Labour MPs elected in May 2015, Corbyn can count on the support of only 40.
More than 170 Labour MPs backed a motion of no confidence in his leadership, while 65 shadow ministers staged a mass resignation from his front-bench last month. The parliamentary Labour party assumed that Corbyn would be embarrassed into stepping down.
They were wrong.
Corbyn’s support lies in the thousands of activists who have joined or re-joined the Labour party over the past year.
In addition to existing members, around 150,000 registered Labour supporters have paid £25 (€30) for the right to vote in September’s leadership election in the last week, taking the party membership to over 500,000 - roughly double its size in May 2015.
Marshalled by Momentum, the campaign group set up specifically to promote Corbyn’s leadership, around 60 percent of these "newbie" members are believed to be Corbynistas.
While this surge in party membership is unprecedented in recent history (the Conservatives, for example, have around 150,000 paying members), there is little indication that a Corbyn-led Labour party is offering much challenge to the Conservative government, or that it has much public appeal.
After watching the Conservative party rip itself to pieces during a three-month EU referendum campaign, at the end of which the prime minister resigned, and the leading Brexit campaigner and heir apparent, Boris Johnson, was brutally knifed by his ally Michael Gove, the British public would still prefer prime minister Theresa May’s party over Corbyn’s Labour by a 40-29 percent margin.
Perhaps that is because people prefer decisive leaders.
They say that the role of an opposition party is to oppose, propose and depose. Corbyn’s Labour has done almost nothing on the first two, and shows no sign of achieving the latter.
His "anti-austerity" mantra has, for the past year, been a slogan rather than a policy.
Meanwhile, his campaigning in the EU referendum was distinctly unenthusiastic, with Corbyn taking a week’s holiday a fortnight before the poll.
The main charge against Corbyn is that he is incompetent. Yet Labour’s moderate wing has seldom been so moribund and intellectually bankrupt, struggling to agree on a "unity" candidate to challenge Corbyn.
The little-known Owen Smith is standing against Corbyn after Angela Eagle, the former business spokesperson, and a former minister in the Blair and Brown governments, stood aside from the contest on Tuesday evening (19 July).
A former lobbyist who became an MP in 2010, Smith is a confident TV performer but looks like a sacrificial lamb.
A YouGov poll of Labour members released on Monday suggested that Corbyn would beat Smith by 56-34 percent.
Is a civil war among British lefties important?
Yes. Because when the stakes are high, quality opposition matters.
As the UK embarks on withdrawing from the EU - a project that will take an unknown number of years, and shape a generation of domestic politics, but will be defined in the months between now and the triggering of article 50 next year - it would be helpful if May’s government was held to account.
For the moment, Corbyn-led Labour has no position after he backtracked on a suggestion to immediately trigger article 50 in the hours after the referendum result became clear.
Smith, for his part, has promised to hold a second referendum on the eventual terms of a Brexit.
In the absence of meaningful opposition the UK has become a series of one-party states. Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP fiefdom dominates Scottish politics, Theresa May’s Conservatives are the only game in town in England, Northern Ireland has its own party system, while Labour secured a fourth consecutive term in Wales in May.
For the Labour MPs and officials who were in government until 2010 and still control the official party machinery, as the ancien regime crumbles, life is as Bob Dylan put it in "The ballad of the thin man".
“You know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is”, the ballad goes on.
Neither, it appears, can they do anything to stop it.
Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy and a freelance writer