Written by: Daniel Zaydman
The Labour Party’s Corbyn Era came to an end on April 4th as Keir Starmer beat fellow Members of Parliament Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy in Labour’s leadership election with 56.2 percent of the vote. Labour’s change in leadership comes after the party suffered a major defeat in last December’s general election in which the Conservative Party won an 80-seat majority.
Starmer ran on a platform of party unity, saying “factionalism has got to go.” Under the leadership of the previous Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the party faced criticism from centrist members and media figures for creating tension and disunity through its ideological push to the left. Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, the cabinet assembled by the main opposition party, was often a focal point of criticism over its alleged inadequate representation of ideological differences within the party. Labour’s new Shadow Cabinet reflects Starmer’s call for party unity. The new Labour Leader appointed election opponents Long-Bailey (who many saw as Corbyn’s heir) and Nandy to the positions of Shadow Secretary of Education and Shadow Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, respectively. Former Labour Leader Ed Miliband returned to the front line as Shadow Business Secretary, representing the party’s Soft Left, while prominent Corbyn critic Jess Phillips was named Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding.
Although Starmer’s cabinet assembling was well-intentioned, dealing with factionalism within the Labour Party will take far more work than a few cabinet appointments. Divisions with the party are deeply rooted as competing ideological wings have long been at odds. These divisions have been destructive in a number of ways.
A recently leaked internal report on Labour’s handling of antisemitism allegations revealed that hostility to Jeremy Corbyn from a faction of senior party members interfered in efforts to deal with the allegations. The report also contains a cache of WhatsApp messages between party officials revealing that many at the Labour HQ worked to actively undermine the party from winning in the 2017 General Election, believing a heavy loss would bring about a swift ouster of Corbyn as party leader. These senior officials come from the party’s right-wing, which has long stood opposed to Corbyn and his supporters.
Contrary to what the Labour Right may believe, it is crucial that Starmer and the Labour Party fight for a majority by fully embracing and continuing to carry on the agenda put forward by Corbyn and the Labour Left. Many wrote off Labour’s December loss as a rejection of radicalism and left-wing politics. That narrative, however, could not be further from the truth. To understand why this is the case, it is imperative to reflect on Labour’s most recent two elections.
In 2017, former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap general election in the hopes of deepening the Conservatives’ majority and strengthening its mandate. Labour proceeded to secure 262 seats, 30 more than in the 2015 election, and prevented the Conservatives from winning an outright majority. This all occurred in Labour’s first election under Corbyn. The party also saw its membership more than double from 200,000 to over 500,000 between 2015 and 2017, becoming the largest political party in Western Europe at the time. Labour ran on an election manifesto containing a number of radical proposals, including the nationalization of several major industries and significant increases in taxes on corporations and high-earners. More importantly, the party promised to honor the results of the 2016 Brexit Referendum.
Fast forward to the December 2019 election, and we have a Labour Party that is nearly identical to the one that sent shockwaves through the United Kingdom just two years earlier. Corbyn is still Labour leader and the party’s manifesto is largely the same. What changes, however, is the party’s stance on the Brexit Referendum. Rather than committing to the results, the party promised to hold a second referendum. In 2017, Labour held a 30 point lead among ‘Remain’ voters over the Conservatives, and the Conservatives held a 41 point lead among ‘Leave’ voters. In 2019, Labour’s lead among ‘Remain’ voters held at 30 points, but the Conservatives’ lead among ‘Leave’ voters increased to 60 points. Of the 54 seats that Labour lost to the Conservatives, 52 of them were in districts that voted ‘Leave.’ Put simply, controversy over Brexit, not left-wing radicalism, crushed Labour in 2019.
In shaping the future path and agenda of the Labour Party, the new leadership must recognize the party’s true faults in the 2019 election. Rejecting ‘Corbynism’ will do little to strengthen the party, as Corbyn’s push for social democratic reforms is what gave the party a fighting chance after 2017. Even after Labour’s defeat, their agenda remained highly popular among members. As a party rooted in the working class, Labour must continue to fight for policies centered on tackling inequality through redistribution and social ownership. Winning back the support of workers in the industrial north who formed the party’s backbone can not be done by retreating to the center on key economic issues. Rather than working to unite factions of Labour that were committed to sabotaging the party in 2017, Starmer and the new leadership must continue to build on the project Corbyn and his supporters started 5 years ago. If that involves losing the support of the right-wing of the party, so be it.