30th November 2017
The judgment that Labour had successfully laid the ghosts of past divisions to rest looks increasingly to have been a premature one. The Opposition had enjoyed a post-election honeymoon with moderate MPs deferring to Mr Corbyn’s leadership out of humble acceptance that the predicted wipe-out failed to materialise. In the case of urban MPs, such as Jess Philips in Birmingham Yardley and Wes Streeting in Ilford North, there seemed to have been a genuine realisation that their previously marginal seats have been transformed into Labour strongholds, largely thanks to Mr Corbyn.
For evidence that this post-election glow is fading, look no further than the events in Haringey Labour Party over this past week. Tim Gallagher, a former local councillor, has been deselected as Labour’s candidate for his ward and went to the press to accuse the Corbyn-supporting campaign group, Momentum, of carrying out an “aggressive purge” of centrist Labour councillors. The allegations led to a Times front-page report on similar instances across different London Labour Parties.
What signs there were of a new-found unity between Labour’s warring factions seems to have been, at best, an uneasy post-election truce. A heated exchange on the Daily Politics this week between Corbyn-supporting commentator, Owen Jones, and, centrist Labour campaigner, Richard Angell, could have been a scene from the darkest days of Labour’s bitter leadership contest of 2016. This is not simply a case of Labour’s emboldened Corbynites feeling vindicated by the election result. Where previously, Corbyn-sceptic MPs couched their criticism of their leader in terms of his electability, some are now resigned to opposing the party’s leftward direction on the basis of ideological principle alone.
Should the spate of local councillor deselections begin to affect MPs, expect this trend to become more pronounced as moderate MPs feel they have nothing to lose in speaking their minds. The news this week that Momentum has drawn up an “Accord” that it is calling on Labour representatives to sign, or risk losing the support of local members, may force the situation.
There is nothing new about in-fighting within local Labour parties, but the events in Haringey and other London local parties speak to a much broader malaise that helps understand Labour’s inability to capitalise on the Government’s weakness and gain a decisive poll-lead. If there was one lesson to be drawn from Labour’s performance in June, it is that Corbyn’s Labour can expect to pick up votes in urban areas with high numbers of graduates, public sector workers and younger voters, but that its appeal to provincial England is far more limited. It is easy to forget that where Labour lost seats to the Conservatives in June, these were concentrated in the post-industrial Midlands, where Theresa May’s attempt to appeal to blue-collar voters appeared to pay off in a way that it did not elsewhere.
Labour’s dominance in London reflects this cultural divide. Figures suggest that one in fourteen voters in Hornsey and Wood Green, a constituency within Harringey Borough, are Labour members. This level of political engagement that characterises the Capital is not the norm elsewhere, and means that Labour may struggle to build the kind of broad, national coalition of support across cultural divides that it so desperately needs, even to become the largest party. In short, the Labour Party that can win in London or Bristol, may not be the Labour Party that can win back support in old industrial seats. The recent success of the Conservatives has reflected the party’s ability to straddle rather than exacerbate these divides. If Labour is serious about winning power, it too will have to devise a strategy to bridge this gulf. Breaking beyond the Corbynite comfort zone will be a necessary first step, with this week’s events showing just how far Labour still has to go.
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