Britain’s new Labour Party leader has 3 challenges as he takes the reins, writes Paul Donovan.
The challenges for new Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will come from within the Parliamentary Labour Party itself, from a hostile media and from Britain’s Conservative government.
Hurdle 1: the Parliamentary Labour Party
The opposition within the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour Party is a real problem. There is the ‘party within a party’ known as the Progress Group, which seeks to keep burning brightly the flame of Blairism – named for former party leader and British prime minister Tony Blair and his policies to curtail civil liberties, engage in wars abroad and privatize Britain’s National Health Service. This group has taken a battering, with Liz Kendall, its representative in the leadership election, only attaining 4% of the vote. Members of the group have so far been prominent in the exodus of former shadow cabinet ministers to the back benches, having suddenly rediscovered the need to spend more time with their constituents. When they get over licking their wounds, Progress is likely to continue to represent the enemy within for Corbyn.
Among other members of parliament there will also be opposition, though this may be more easily dissipated. The MP is first and foremost a creature driven by the need for self-preservation. As such, many will be willing to give the Corbyn agenda a chance, just to see if in the long term it might profit their own personal position and ambitions. Some, no doubt, will make a miraculous conversion to leftwing politics almost overnight. Corbyn has already shown an aptitude for inclusivity, bringing the likes of Ed Miliband’s former chief of staff Lucy Powell in as shadow education secretary and former Tony Blair chum Lord Charles Falconer as shadow justice secretary.
Then there will be the Left of the party who have backed Corbyn. They are the ones taking up shadow cabinet positions, moving forward. The appointment of John McDonnell as shadow chancellor and Diane Abbott to shadow international development minister are the most significant sign of these so far.
Hurdle 2: the media
The second problem area will be the media. The hostility to anything other than mainstream neoliberal orthodoxy has been clear for all to see over the period of the leadership election. Even the Guardian, which many expected at least to operate a level playing field, has done its best to give a voice to Corbyn’s opponents. In the end, the newspaper – not a Labour-supporting publication over the years – felt the need to guide its readers by backing Yvette Cooper for the leadership. The Mirror backed Andy Burnham, while the Independent did not make a recommendation.
The position of the media may change, however, if the campaign for a leftwing party leader transitions to become a mass movement for an anti-austerity agenda. If the 600,000 eligible voters in the leadership election morph into a couple of million or more supporters, enthused further by what it sees from a Corbyn-led Labour Party, then some of the more liberal media will start to change its hostile position. The growth of Labour Party membership has continued, with 15,000 new members in the day after Corbyn’s victory.
Hurdle 3: the current government
Despite media prophesies, the Conservative Party may not be that happy about a Corbyn-led Labour Party. It is not difficult to imagine Prime Minister David Cameron being rather non-plussed by Corbyn during Prime Minister’s Questions (the weekly half-hour grilling by MPs); Corbyn does not rise to personal vitriol, but attacks from a position grounded in social justice and socialist principles.
The sort of dilemmas facing Corbyn could come together on the subject of the European Union (EU). So far he has declared that he will campaign to quit the EU if David Cameron’s renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s membership is about ‘trading away workers’ rights, trading away environmental protection and trading away much of what is in the social chapter’.
The EU, as presently constituted, represents the embodiment of neoliberalism. If Corbyn wants to achieve many of his policies, such as renationalization of the rail networks and of the country’s utilities, then remaining in the EU probably won’t be an option. Britain would need to get back control over its own sovereignty.
But what if Corbyn were to set a steady anti-EU course, putting himself at the front of the ‘Out’ campaign come the referendum? It would cause consternation among the Conservatives who are already split on the issue. It might bring back to Labour core voters who deserted to the rightwing, anti-Europe United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Such a stand would not be popular with the Scottish National Party, but it would set Labour out as distinct from the Scottish nationalists and their version of anti-austerity politics. Corbyn’s stand could also cause splits within his own party, which is overwhelmingly pro-Europe.
Winning the leadership of the Labour Party is just the start of the challenges that Corbyn faces. But if his social-justice agenda continues to draw wide support across the generations, then dealing with all the issues will become a lot easier.