A new way: Labour faces split after 100 years
As Labour is poised to begin a ‘brutal, brutal, brutal’ leadership battle, some MPs are considering creating a new party, free from the baggage of the past. Is it time for a fresh start?
Britain’s vote to leave the EU has plunged its two biggest parties into bitter leadership elections, complete with public squabbles and various accusations of treachery. But in the tearooms at Parliament, there has been talk of something new on the horizon, something that was once unthinkable.
During the referendum, pro-Europe MPs formed alliances which transcended their party colours — and now some are seriously considering joining together to form a brand new party.
It would not happen immediately. Today Angela Eagle, hoping to ‘heal’ Labour, launches a formal challenge to its left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn: 172 of his MPs voted against him in a no confidence motion at the end of June.
But if Labour members vote for Corbyn to stay, those same MPs could decide to form a new party to fill the gap in the centre. Soon they might be joined by the Liberal Democrats, and any pro-EU Tories who feel alienated by their new leader’s direction.
In short, Labour is facing its ‘greatest crisis in generations,’ as one MP put it. While all sides are calling for ‘unity’, none appear willing to compromise. And although Labour has split before, it was never on such a large scale. It would change British politics forever.
The Labour Party was formed in 1900, as Queen Victoria’s long reign neared its end, and Europe unknowingly proceeded to war. Industrialisation had brought swift social and technological change to Britain’s working classes, who had spent decades fighting for more rights.
Finally in Labour they found their voice in the House of Commons. The party only governed Britain for around a third of the last century — but it achieved a lot in that short time. It built the NHS and the welfare state in the 1940s; legalised abortion and homosexuality in the 1960s; introduced a minimum wage in the 1990s.
Yet it has always fallen prey to divisions and in-fighting. Now, as its ‘core’ voters flock to the SNP and UKIP, many argue it has ‘lost touch’ with its roots — and it may never recover.
Split the difference
At the beginning of another new century, everything is changing again. Old political loyalties are crumbling, and technology is transforming the way we work and understand each other. Labour’s time may be up, say some, but that means we have a golden opportunity to create something fresh and new, without the bitterness of the past.
And yet if Labour disappears, Britain will have lost something truly precious, say its supporters. Despite its troubles, Labour has always fought for fairness, equality, and decent lives for ordinary people — particularly the most vulnerable. That is a legacy and a vision to be proud of. Its MPs should do everything they can to save it.
- Would you be happy to see a new political party in Britain?
- How important is history when it comes to deciding the future?
- Split into groups of four or five people. You are each starting a new political party in post-Brexit Britain. Write a manifesto explaining your vision for the country, and listing at least three policies.
- Research another crucial moment in the Labour Party’s history. Write a report explaining the lessons it can teach current MPs.
Some People Say...
“The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.”Harold Wilson, former prime minister
What do you think?
Q & A
- So is this really happening?
- The talks about a new party are happening at a ‘pretty high level’, a Labour insider told The Observer this weekend. But it is ‘early days’. Much will depend on the coming months. Several Tory MPs would be uncomfortable serving under Andrea Leadsom, but Theresa May is more popular. Similarly, if Angela Eagle won the Labour leadership, the anti-Corbyn MPs would no longer have a reason to leave.
- How much would change if it did happen?
- Politics could shift completely. Jeremy Corbyn’s wing of Labour would become a more permanent left-wing voice in the country, like the Greens. The Tories could go further to the right without its share of centrist MPs. And while voters would have more options, it would be harder to form a majority government at a general election.
- This weekend, for example, the Conservative Party was consumed by a row over motherhood after one of its candidates, Andrea Leadsom, suggested that being a mum gave her an edge over the other one, childless Theresa May.
- Dozens of the Labour shadow cabinet resigned after Corbyn fired his shadow foreign secretary Hillary Benn. Meanwhile, Michael Gove was accused of stabbing Boris Johnson in the back.
- Corbyn argues that the votes of 60% of Labour members last September give him a powerful mandate as Labour leader, despite the opposition from his MPs.
- Split before
- In the 1930s, after the global economic crash, and in 1981, when four former cabinet members launched the Social Democratic Party.
- In February that year, a coalition of trade unions and socialists formed the Labour Representation Committee.
- With 4.7% of UK votes, the Scottish National Party won 56 seats in Westminster in 2015. Many of these had traditionally been held by Labour.
- Although in 2015 the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party picked up 12.6% of UK votes, it won only one MP.