“Jeremy Corbyn finds himself changed from an impotent backbencher through his own choice to a leader with the theoretical power of unprecedented proportions” (Richards, 2016, p.12). In this essay, I shall assess as to whether fears and assertions that we are currently seeing the death throes of the Labour Party have been exaggerated or are, subsequent to the election, irrelevant. Similarly, I will dissect the different factions of Labour (the ‘Old’ and ‘New’) in the suggestion that New Labour has maybe died a death but Old Labour, under the direction of Corbyn, continues to and successfully persists.
A key advocate of the notion that we are currently witnessing the death throes of the Labour Party is its own parliamentary members, and their vehement opposition to Corbyn which has triggered a three way paralysis between themselves, their leader and the electorate (Richards, 2016). Consequently, this has restricted the ability of both the parliamentary party, who fret isolating their supporters, and Corbyn, who lacks a base support for his agenda among his MPs (Richards, 2016). “Corbyn is liberated by the membership and the mandate that he got in that election but is trapped by the fact that his labour parliamentary party on the whole oppose him and are already plotting to overthrow him” (Richards, 2016: 12). The internal divisions within the party is arguably the main challenge to his leadership (Crines, 2017: 26). Corbyn’s radical socialist agenda arguably destined him to difficulty and opposition during his leadership, but the media, a “constant ally” of the Labour MPs (Seymour, 2016, p.61), has amplified and distorted facts and opinions to vilify the party leader (Seymour, 2016). Bale (2016) aptly summarises much of this anti-corbyn consensus, creating the argument that Corbyn’s appearance, ethic code and policies made him unelectable. “If he lasts very much longer as leader then there is every chance that Labour will gift the Tories control of government for a decade or more to come” (Bale, 2016, p.18). Although this was represented to some extent by the initial popularity rankings of Corbyn, whereby a year into his leadership “the party was facing the worst opinion poll ratings the party had ever experienced in opposition” (Hughes, 2016). Bales’ point can be seen as considerably flawed when assessing Corbyn’s influence on the Labour party’s membership. “Against international trends, membership has surged by some 180,000 this year, to an estimated 370,000. this is a level close to that of every other British political party combined.” (Stafford, 2016, p.69). In this more optimistic light, it can be seen that Corbyn, contrary to the narrative of killing the party, has reinvigorated it (Stafford, 2016). Arguably, the increasing membership to the party stems from Corbyn’s ability to “vocalise the unrest and discontent of marginalised groups in society”, reinforcing the idea Corbyn has become an asset rather a hinderance to the party (Flinders, 2017: 69). Bales (2014) similarly makes the useful point that the media cannot be reliably used to discredit Corbyn as leader when the same media assault was put upon Ed Miliband. When discussing the Daily Mail, he claims “above all the paper seems intent on doing whatever is necessary to prevent the formation of a Labour government after the 2015 general election” (Bales, 2014, p.472).
A more extreme interpretation that has been formulated is as to whether Jeremy Corbyn could split Labour (Kneller, 2015) and if this proposition is argued to be true, then there would be definitely be an argument that the party is seeing its death throes. Some of the fear of splits radiates from the party itself, with Sadiq Khan fearing that “a failure to unit in the wake of the election could kill off the party” (Osborne, 2015). However this approach is not limited to the parliamentary party alone and has been detected among the wider electorate. Through “repelling charges that he is a dangerous left -winger; reassuring voters who fear immigration and resent the size of Britain’s welfare bill; and persuading enough voters that a Corbyn government would run the economy competently” (Kneller, 2016: 18) it is seen that a party split is avoidable. However, it is similarly seen as out of Corbyn’s preference to deviate from his ideology, thus making a split likely (Kneller, 2015).
However, even if it was arguable at some stage of Corbyn’s leadership that the party was in its death throes, the election of 2017 arguably shows Corbyn’s ability to craft the contempt towards the Conservative’s austerity and lack of welfare intervention to his own advantage (Carrilho, 2017). .Dorey (2017) similarly assesses the General Election vote on June 8th as a positive result for Corbyn individually and the Labour Party collectively. And, although the election was expected to prove “the futility of campaigning on a radical left-wing project”, it contrastingly “produced one of the greatest shocks in British electoral history” (Dorey, 2017: 308). The remarkable nature of the results, and the collective success for Labour is evident in the number of seats gained by Labour under Corbyn. “Corbyn increased the vote share more than any other of the party’s leaders since 1945” , which included former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair (Agerholm and Dore, 2017). Carrilho (2017) roots this not only in the social and economic policy of the Conservative Party, but similarly the increasingly factional dynamics of the Conservative Party: the “Tories are transfixed with who should lead the party, rather than what it should stand for” (Carrilho, 2017: 5). The implicit allusion to factional dynamics within the Conservative party, if not clear at the election is much clearer now with 30 Tories allegedly set to oust the prime minister before Christmas (Murphy et al, 2017) This point seems particularly relevant within the recent months of May’s prime ministerial leadership after the election, whereby she has suffered in terms of her parliamentary, cabinet and electoral popularity because “she never gave any convincing explanation of why people should vote for her, beyond increasing her majority” (Sylvester, 2017: 26). Sylvester’s (2017) notion of the poor and discredited performance is supported by the reception of May’s ‘dementia tax’; “nearly half (47.1%) of respondents in Britain believe the announcement of the Conservative plan to make people use all but £100,000 of their assets to pay for social care has damaged Theresa May’s ability to lead a ‘strong and stable’ government” (Miller, 2017).
The most convincing argument as to the death of New Labour involves the demise of New Labour which was orchestrated under Blair. The new faction of Labour was seen as a product of the “18-year-long hegemony of Conservative Party rule under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, from 1979 until 1997, wherein the Labour Party was forced to make fundamental changes to its program and values, ditching shibboleths and apparently “unpopular” policies, to make itself again electable” (Pimlott, 2005: 75).