Lessons from the Conservatives: How Labour can survive

17 Aug 2016



The Labour party stands upon a knife’s edge. Party unity is at arguably at one of the lowest points in its 116 year history, with the divisions becoming increasingly entrenched in what the party’s purpose stands to be, who it represents, and what should be Labour’s favoured route to power.


Some of course will label such claims as melodramatic nonsense, which over exaggerate the significance of the current tensions within the party. Many who suggest all is not as bad it seems, point to the history of the Labour party to supposedly elucidate how ideological rifts in the party are a natural part of Labour’s political cycle. Looking to previous feuds within the party such as when the Gaitskellites clashed with the Bevanites in the 50’s and 60’s, and also in 1981 when the moderate ‘gang of four’ split from the party to form the SDP in the aftermath of Michael Foot’s Wembley conference, many Labour supporters have taken comfort in the opinion that the current leadership challenge represents merely another bump in the road.


With fear of extending a metaphor too far, I think it would be more apt to suggest the Labour party faces a blockade in the road, one it can feasibly navigate around, but currently is on course to hit straight into and thus end the journey. In short Labour must understand the party is in a genuine crisis and respond accordingly.


Need Labour supporters be reminded that political parties aren’t monolithic immortal entities; they don’t last forever, and if action is not taken to bridge the increasingly large chasm that is forming between factions in the party, Labour faces electoral annihilation.


The solution? There is not one clear suggestion that would instantaneously remedy the many current woes of the party. The battle between Smith and Corbyn in the current leadership race is only the most recent instalment in the age old saga of ideological feuds between the centre-left and traditional socialists within the party.


Both camps have held the reins of power, and achieved great political feats, which they use to justify why their faction deserves hegemony in the party today. The ‘hard left’ cite the Atlee government and its creation of the NHS as its pièce de résistance, using this to fuel visions of how a Britain led by Corbyn could achieve a similar wholesale renovation of state-societal relations.


Meanwhile, the moderates cite the first Labour government to win at three consecutive general elections under Blair as irrefutable proof that when Labour occupies the centre ground, it can achieve more, through prolonged gradual social democratic change.


Herein lies the problem. The ongoing debate about the party’s future has been framed in such a way that it has become entirely circumscribed to an inward looking argument between two ideologies that refuse to compromise with the other.


For Smith, the party must support Trident, and for Jeremy Corbyn, the party must not. For Smith the party must reserve 2% of the GDP for spending on defence, while for Corbyn no such level of spending is obligatory. The discourse around this leadership debate has been heavily characterised by what divides the party and this narrative of division, which is only aggravated by the media, is tearing the party from the inside out.


As the late political scientist Jim Bulpitt suggested in his seminal work on the Thatcher governments in 1986 (Follow the link here for an accessible discussion of Bulpitt’s ideas by Buller and James, 2008), party management by the leadership is a key factor in the obtaining and retaining of power. More importantly Bulpitt notes party relations do not have to be harmonious, but only quiescent to maintain a public perception of party tranquillity. This perception of unity being the essential prerequisite for any party wishing to be elected.


Now, one could certainly draw a lot of parallels between the current situation in the Labour party, post-Brexit, with the divisions that manifested in the Conservative party pre-Brexit. Like Labour, the Conservatives found themselves operating poor statecraft in that they were divided on ideology. Traditional conservatives concerned with sovereignty advocated the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, while more business-orientated Tories advocated the importance of the EU in relation to free trade.


Much like Labour’s divisions, this feud stretched way back, reaching maturity with the UK’s entry into the EEC in 1973. The adversity of the  European issue persisted, proving to be the basis of the Conservative’s downfall in the 90’s when Major lost all control of the party over this contentious issue; allowing his party to stray into the electoral wilderness, where it would remain for 13 years.


The 90’s was the Conservative’s moment on the knife-edge; their make or break crisis. However the Tories responded accordingly. They identified in their time in opposition how, yes there did exist an ideological impasse between Conservative MPs, but that while disunity on Europe was undesirable, it wasn’t something the party necessarily had to seek ubiquitous uniformity on, through a sectarian battle of either camps.


The Conservatives were able to (as David Cameron infamously stated in his 2006 Conservative conference speech) ‘stop banging on about Europe’, placing the issue on the back burner until their ascension to power in 2010. Even when the issue of Europe reared its head again with the rise of UKIP, the Conservatives were able to limit infighting to a minimum and remember who remained their true enemies; the Labour party. Post-Brexit, the Conservatives have re-grouped and unified in accepting the referendum result as binding, much to their benefit in now holding a 16 point lead over the fractious Labour party.


What underpins this ability to keep an image of party unity is that the Tories have been able to accept their party represents an ideological broad-church of member’s and MP’s who range from moderates like Kenneth Clarke, all the way to more hard-right Conservatives like Priti Patel.


Learning their lesson from the 90’s, the conservatives have been able to focus on their ideological similarities on areas such as deficit reduction and reform of the welfare system, while leaving contentious issues such as Europe on the backburner. This is what Labour must learn to do. Maybe this leadership election will be Labour’s critical juncture, where like the Conservatives in 1997, the party realises it must accept it can exist as a political broad-church.


Irrespective of the election result, the party needs to understand the self-inflicted damage it is placing on its chances of election by carelessly masquerading the ideological in-fighting that is occurring and remember who its real opponents are, the Tories. And perhaps, as Blair was able to understand, the Labour party can learn the importance of presenting an image of unity (even if such solidarity doesn’t exist), along with its role in the gaining and retention power.


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