The past few weeks for the Conservative Party have been tumultuous, to say the least. Following the agreement of the so called ‘Chequers Plan’, Theresa May has been living on a knife edge. The proposal itself has left the party divided, with several high profile resignations coming in the week following the Chequers meeting.
Mrs May was forced into making several concessions to Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers, whilst facing only the Government's second defeat on a Brexit vote when it was forced to accept an amendment on participation in the European medicines regulatory network. Avoiding additional defeats on the Customs Union and Cross Border Tax Bill, by six and three votes respectively, these have been testing times for the Tories, who saw their approval rate drop as low as 36% in some opinion polls.
Despite the calamitous few weeks for the Government, the Labour Party have failed to make up any significant ground and, with Parliament set for summer break, have missed an opportunity to present themselves as an electable alternative to the Conservatives. The question, therefore, is why Labour aren’t doing better. The Government is in tatters, divided and weak, yet Labour seem to find it nearly impossible to make any significant gains over the worst Conservative government in decades.
The answer to the question lies in Labour’s own difficulties.
The issue of anti-Semitism continues to be at the forefront of their public perception. Jeremy Corbyn has faced an onslaught of opposition from within his own party over the past week, starting with the resignation of MP John Woodcock last Wednesday. His reasons were unequivocal, writing that ‘anti-Semitism is being tolerated and Labour has been taken over at nearly every level by the hard left, far beyond the dominance they achieved at the 1980s militancy.’
Woodcock resigned a day after Labour's National Executive established a new code of conduct on anti-Semitism. Heavily criticised by leading Jewish figures and some Labour MPs, the document states that whilst anti-Semitism is racism, it does not fully replicate the definition, established by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The issue continues to rage on within the party, with Dame Margaret Hodge MP set to face disciplinary action after confronting Mr Corbyn in the Commons last week, allegedly swearing at him and calling him an anti-Semite. The response from Labour leadership to the events have not sat well with some Labour MPs, as well as members of the public and Jewish community.
However, perhaps the most obvious reason for Labour’s inability to contest the Conservatives on Brexit is due to divisions within their own party over the same topic. The Labour Party position on Brexit seems to alter on an almost weekly basis. On Tuesday, Mr Corbyn issued a speech in which he set out proposals for a ‘Build it in Britain’ campaign, highlighting the economic benefits of Brexit which include the creation of jobs, investment into local economies, and an increase in UK manufacturing. A move that has been compared with the protectionist approach of Donald Trump’s ‘America first’ campaign.
Despite this, the move marks yet another shift in Labour policy on leaving the European Union, and will likely receive criticism from some MPs who are advocating for their party leader to adopt a more anti-Brexit stance, with a commitment to keeping the UK in the EU single market.
This change in stance from Corbyn is fundamentally different from Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, who has consistently advocated to retaining a close relationship with the EU. Last month, Starmer proposed the creation of an ‘internal market’, which would establish a new and close relationship with the EU, without full membership of the single market, yet retaining many of its advantages.
The principle reason behind Labour’s inability to even remotely challenge the Conservatives is the fact that their own party is just as divided over the central political issue of the moment. Unless Labour present a genuine better alternative to the current Government, and finally establish a clear Brexit policy, they are unlikely to make any significant inroads against the Tories.
Further questions over the makeup of the party, including Corbyn’s ability to lead as Prime Minister, and the raging issue of anti-Semitism, means Labour are likely to remain unelectable, certainly in the foreseeable future.