By Gaby Sepulveda
One after another, Europe’s social-democratic parties — bastions of post-war politics in many of the continent’s democracies — have seen their popularity crumble. The United Kingdom’s Labour Party is no exception.
The party’s unpopularity is undeniable. Polls consistently place it around 20 percentage points behind the ruling Conservative Party, which recently beat Labour in a by-election in Copeland, a constituency that had been firmly in Labour hands since the 1930s.
Media tend to blame Labour’s plight on party leader Jeremy Corbyn. It is a belief shared by more than a few within the party, including member of parliament Chuka Umunna who has said Corbyn’s policies threaten to plunge Labour into a “relentless slide toward electoral oblivion.”
After the unexpected loss of the 2015 general election, Labour called for its own internal elections. Under a controversial new voting system that grants electoral authority to party members and affiliated supporters, Corbyn emerged victorious — against the wishes of many of the party’s bigwigs.
It is easy to draw parallels between Corbyn and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. presidency last year: Two establishment outsiders who fit the media’s definition of “unelectable radical.”
Both are outspoken critics of “neo-liberalism” and austerity. Both gained prominence by appealing to a young base interested in their traditional socialist policies.
Corbyn’s surge was considered one of the least anticipated in British politics during the now by-gone era that preceded Britain’s vote last June to leave the European Union.
Can Corbyn offer an alternative to a “hard Brexit”?
Even though Labour officially opposed Brexit, Corbyn offered at best lukewarm support for the Remain campaign, a fact which many attributed to his long-standing Euro-skeptic views.
Venting frustration with party leadership, more than eight of 10 Labour MPs supported a no-confidence vote against Corbyn only a few days after the referendum. A leadership contest followed, with Corbyn winning again by a landslide.
Corbyn’s internal electoral revenge failed to curb party infighting, which flared after the party leader backed the government’s Brexit Bill, which sketched the basic framework of upcoming negotiations with Brussels.
Despite failing to include any of Labour’s policies in the bill, Corbyn ordered his MPs in the House of Commons to vote in favor of the Bill. A fifth of them refused to comply, citing the proposal’s failure to secure the legal status of the United Kingdom’s three million EU residents, whose right to remain in the country will no longer be guaranteed after Brexit.
Corbyn’s reluctance to fight for historic Labour positions has stirred doubts whether he can offer an alternative to a “hard Brexit” — the strategy threatened by Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, who replaced David Cameron after his resignation in the wake of the Brexit referendum.
Under a hard Brexit, the UK would give up full access to the EU’s single market in order to have control over its borders. It would also likely mean the UK would withdraw from the EU’s customs union.
Many Labour Party members say a hard Brexit would leave millions of EU citizens in limbo and would be at odds with traditional Socialist values such as worker’s, migrant’s and human rights.
Labour must reconcile antagonistic camps.
While tabloids like to brand anyone who opposes a government-endorsed hard Brexit as an enemy of the people, Corbyn’s support for the Bill seems motivated by a fear of appearing undemocratic to party faithful.
Corbyn needs to acknowledge the working class, which overwhelmingly backed “Leave” in the referendum despite Labour’s pleas. Disgruntlement within this traditional party bulwark stemmed from a growing feeling of mistrust and alienation, particularly strong in post-industrial zones where many voters wonder if Labour has abandoned them.
Still, amid increasing xenophobia, Corbyn’s failure to stand up for EU migrants has alienated many of Labour’s middle-class, urban voters.
Leaked data revealed that 7,000 party members resigned following Corbyn’s backing of the Brexit Bill. The fear is that many will now be pushed into the arms of other left-wing, decidedly pro-European parties such as the Liberal Democrats.
It seems that to find a clear Brexit strategy, Labour must reconcile its divergent camps. Bridging the gap between a progressive, social outlook and the needs of an ailing and mostly white working class may be the answer.
Not an easy task but certainly one that is becoming increasingly familiar in Western democracies.
Gaby Sepulveda is a Colombian who is in her second year of undergraduate studies at King’s College London, focusing on Philosophy. She grew up in Barcelona, where she first became interested in art theory, history and sustainable development. She is passionate about the connections between philosophy and literature.