The title of this article comes from a 2010 book written by Andrew Rawnsley which claimed to chart ‘The Rise and Fall of New Labour'. Perhaps this is to be expected: after all, the Labour Party held the largest majority in the post-war era and now it is once again roaming the wilderness, with everyone bickering about who is to blame.
Aside from the referendum on EU membership and the last series of some cooking show on BBC1, the most popular talking point is the ‘civil war’ apparently being waged within the Labour Party. It has been hard to ignore hyperbolic article, after hyperbolic news broadcast, documenting the latest news from the ‘imploding’ Labour Party, the question of which is now included in Google Autocomplete.
Amongst all speculation and prophesying of Labour’s prospects, there have been two historic truths which have been ignored: the first is that this has happened before and the Party has managed to rebound, and the second is that this is not a phenomenon that is unique to Labour.
The Labour Party which has seen more than its fair share of ideological disputes, causing a split in the Parliamentary Party at least once and threatened to on many more occasions. Even the Attlee government, which all in Party rank-and-file from the most dedicated Corbynite to Frank Fields remember through rose-tinted spectacles, was borne in the midst of a leadership challenge. Andrew Marr described the reactions to the Party’s 1945 landslide victory: ‘some of the new Labour MPs felt they had been elected to overturn the class basis of the country, other that they simply had a difficult list of domestic reforms to get through.’ Marr describes the plot that ‘gathered force in the corridors and the urinals of Westminster Central Hall’ and culminated in a meeting between Attlee, Ernest Bevin, and Herbert Morrison, challenger of Attlee for the leadership and grandfather of Peter Mandelson: while Morrison had left the room to make a phone call Bevin leaned across to Attlee and told him to take a taxi to Buckingham straight away to kiss hands with the King, who was very surprised not to be meeting with Churchill.
Labour disputes and schisms survived through the 1970s and the 1980s, a time when Labour not only battled itself whilst in and out of government, but the trade unions as well. The social implication of this fractious theatrically titled ‘Winter of Discontent’ which was a time popularly characterised by ‘the schools closed, the ports blockaded, the rubbish rotting in the streets, the dead unburied.’ The political culmination of this was the split of the Parliamentary Party and the formation of the SDP, which would later join with the Liberals to create the Liberal Democrats.
However, as said at the beginning of this article, Labour has survived each of its many turbulent years; the aforementioned landslide of 1997 came after eighteen years on the opposition benches. In addition, parties have been divided since Lord Palmerston and have still managed to hold together a government. The European Union has long been a thorn in the side of Conservative leaders: it has caused a political demise of the last three of their prime ministers.
Parties are often described as broad Churches and with 500,000 members, it will be hard enough getting them to decide what to have for lunch let alone how to continue funding the health service; anyone of a Catholic background who has been to a family wedding should be able to verify this assertion. However, claims that the Labour Party is on its death bed does not seem a convincing political analysis, but rather an easy way to sell papers.
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