by James Kirchick
Political parties are by their nature coalitions. Various constituencies, sometimes socially and ideologically disparate, put aside their differences and join together in the pursuit of political power. It was a diverse group of African-Americans, urban “white ethnic” party machines, labor unions, Jews, intellectuals, and poor Southern farmers which comprised Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition. On the other side of the ideological spectrum, Ronald Reagan cobbled together a triad of religious conservatives, free market libertarians and foreign policy hawks to win two landslide elections.
As the Civil Rights-era defection of white Southern “Dixiecrats” and the present-day implosion of the Republican Party demonstrate, there is no rule in politics stating that such coalitions are permanent. While Donald Trump lays waste to the right here in America, Great Britain may be on the cusp of a major political realignment on the left.
Chaos in that country’s Labour Party has been just one of several tumultuous consequences of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, realized last month in a national referendum. Five days after the stunning result, Labour Members of Parliament passed a no-confidence motion in their leader Jeremy Corbyn by a vote of 172-40. So dire is the situation that Corbyn cannot even fill his Shadow Cabinet, the government-in-waiting, and has asked his few remaining loyalists to fulfill multiple roles. The proximate cause of the parliamentary party’s displeasure was Corbyn’s reluctance to campaign for Britain to remain in the EU. A longtime Eurosceptic, Corbyn was so ambiguous in his messaging that a full third of Labour voters broke with their party’s official position by voting “Leave.”
The origins of Labour’s civil war date back much earlier, however, to the day Corbyn became leader in September 2015. An unreconstructed backbencher from the “Old Labour” hard left, Corbyn had never served in government or shadow cabinet. The only reason he was able to capture the leadership was because of a misbegotten rule change allowing anyone who paid a one-time fee of £3 the ability to cast a ballot in the leadership election. Under the auspices of an extra-parliamentary pressure group called Momentum, hundreds of thousands of extreme left-wing activists joined the party for the explicit purpose of empowering Corbyn. And ever since he won, Corbyn has made it clear that he answers not to his fellow MPs but this unelected entryist organization seeking to infiltrate the party and remake it into a sectarian clique.
And so today, the once-great parliamentary caucus of British working class people has become a personality cult beholden to the stubborn whims of a geriatric Trotskyist who believes Tony Blair should be tried at The Hague and Hugo Chavez exalted as a hero. Corbyn attacks the BBC as hopelessly biased yet makes paid appearances on the Iranian regime-sponsored Press TV. While Corbyn considers Hamas and Hezbollah “friends,” his Momentum acolytes virulently harass and threaten his fellow Labour MPs. Corbyn’s ascension has also been concomitant with an explosion of anti-Semitic remarks by party activists and officials, a problem he only exacerbated last week by comparing Israel to ISIS at – get this — the launch event for an internal party inquiry into anti-Semitism.
Many have likened Corbyn to Bernie Sanders due to their similarly disheveled demeanors and shared love of radical politics. But that’s unfair to Sanders, who would never tolerate, never mind encourage, the sort of unabashed bigotry that has festered under Corbyn. The American political leader with whom Corbyn has most in common is actually Donald Trump, if not ideologically, than at least in the way both men are destroying their respective parties.
At this point, there is no real way that decent people can remain a part of Labour as long as Jeremy Corbyn and his devotees remain in control. Like all political parties, Labour is a coalition. But now one element of that coalition — a vocal and intolerant minority that treats disagreement a form of treason — has taken control and is actively seeking to expel anyone who challenges them. It is impossible to see how traditional Labour voters – people for whom the tangible achievements of a fairer society rank higher than regular attendance at anti-war rallies — can remain in political alliance with a cabal of fanatics who get misty-eyed at the mention of Erich Honecker.
With the Tories moving further to the right and becoming officially anti-EU, the time is ripe for a new party of the pro-European, respectable center-left to emerge. There is a precedent for this: In 1981, hopeless at an earlier incarnation of left-ward ideological drift, four moderate Labour MPs called it quits and formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Like the 172 parliamentarians who expressed no confidence in Corbyn, they too were outraged at attempts by hard-left infiltrators to hijack the party in the form of an organization called Militant, Momentum avant la lettre. Though the SDP eventually merged with the Liberals (forming today’s Liberal Democrats) and is largely forgotten, its vision heavily influenced the “New Labour” agenda of Tony Blair, who ended up winning three successive election victories, more than any Labour leader in history.
Given the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, there exists a real risk that a break-up in the Labour party could split the center-left vote. But unlike 1981, when only four parliamentarians bolted to start the SDP, the vast majority of the party’s MPs today are disgusted with their leadership. So too are many rank-and-file Labour members, and, more importantly, Labour and swing voters. These people, not professional activist types imagining themselves a revolutionary vanguard, are the ones who decide general elections in Britain. Moreover, Corbyn’s support is geographically concentrated in London and a few other metropolitan areas and university towns; were an election held soon, his rump faction would likely be wiped out. That is what needs to happen, and soon, as the cost of doing nothing could destroy the Labour Party for at least a generation.
James Kirchick is an American journalist, a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Initiative and writes for The Daily Beast, Tablet Magazine and VOA