The British Labour party is today divided into two camps. There is the newly-enlarged membership that overwhelmingly elected Jeremy Corbyn as party leader; then there is the parliamentary Labour party that is mortified by having Corbyn as leader.
They are oriented to different demographics. Corbyn’s campaign energized party members who had been excluded from decision-making, together with young people who had no previous party affiliation but who are closely connected with the real life problems of housing, jobs and benefits, as Corbyn was able to articulate in his questions to Cameron in parliament.
A grassroots network formed from Corbyn’s leadership campaign organization, Momentum, seeks to extend Labour’s support by launching a mass voter registration drive aimed at reaching people currently not politically active. The phasing out of household voter registration and redrawing of constituency boundaries bids to further gerrymander the archaic electoral system that disenfranchised many of the voters in the last election. Momentum organizer Emma Rees said Corbyn’s campaign promised “a politics that engaged with those shut out from the political system.”
His election victory has also energized a significant slice of the public outside the Labour party – membership of the anti-nuclear movement CND has soared, for example. Corbyn himself is a longstanding opponent of nuclear weapons, much to the discomfort of many Labour MPs, including the shadow defence secretary, Maria Eagle.
Most of the parliamentary party is oriented to the political “middle ground” beloved of New Labour and so did not anticipate Corbyn’s grassroots support. The political middle ground is code for an “aspirational” middle class that may express its concern about the problems of the poor or of refugees but is more concerned about its own lifestyle. It was comparatively easy therefore for David Cameron to appropriate Blairite rhetoric in his speech to the Tory party conference, since he was targeting the same demographic. Early in his address he spoke of how “social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world’s poorest” were now “at the centre of the Conservative Party’s mission.”
Despite the speech’s blatant contradiction with the government’s actions, and its Flashman-like bullying attack on Corbyn, the Blairite Martin Kettle was taken in by its rhetorical similarities. He commented: “both the 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and perhaps even the 2015 Tory government … have also been concerned about fairness and social justice, which Thatcherism always disdained. So it might be more useful to think of the Cameron governments … more as alternative successors to new Labour rather than to Thatcher.”
His ideological orientation to the theoretical political centre is shared by most Labour MPs and has led to a destabilizing tension within the parliamentary party. So far, 20 of them have rebelled by ignoring the party whip and refusing to vote against Tory austerity plans. In addition, 50 threatened to vote in favour of bombing Syria in defiance of popular sentiment, joining with Tory MPs in an all-parliamentary group devoted to pushing for military action.
While the British may still believe in “fair play”, the belief in symbols of imperial ascendancy lives on – at least in the minds of the political class. There is a self-deceptive shouldering of British responsibility to police the moral conduct of the rest of the world, which by sheer chance coincides with supporting US foreign policy, requiring military intervention abroad to make sure unrest there does not interfere with the business of making money at home. So, predictably, in their search for an “ethical” solution to the civil war in Syria that does not rule out bombing, Labour MP Jo Cox joined with Tory MP Andrew Mitchell to call for “a military component that protects civilians as a necessary prerequisite to any future UN or internationally provided safe havens.”
The ongoing civil war between Assad and increasingly radicalized fundamentalist fighters is rhetorically solved in this formulation by the creation of imaginary “safe havens” for refugees. Since no troops are going to make sure these areas of the map remain safe, they remain a political fiction for the purpose of justifying a symbolic bombing of Syrian targets, at the same time appeasing the conscience of the liberal elite and avoiding the need to abandon its occupation of the moral high ground.
Middle East expert Juan Cole, who in contrast to the politicians actually knows something about Syria, objects to Hillary Clinton’s use of the same empty rhetoric. He points out: “these ‘safe zones’ would attract rebels who would use them as bases from which to attack the regime, inviting regime attacks. They would only remain safe zones if some military force guarded their perimeters. But which military force would undertake that task?” He describes the pretence that there is a big group of “moderates” with which the West could ally as a “frankly dishonest discourse.”
If the experts on dishonest discourse in the British parliament take the issue to a vote (after signally failing in 2013), and enough Labour MPs vote against the popular mood, they will dig the party’s grave in England as they did in Scotland. With more members campaigning on the doorsteps and engaging with issues like housing and benefit cuts, MPs’ indifference would increase the momentum for the restoration of the right of constituency organizations to select their own candidates without interference from the party establishment.