|It's not democratic socialism; it's|
|People who don't think much of it|
|Ravishing guide to|
|God Save the King?|
Founded as a socialist party with a strong social democratic wing, the Labour Party had a huge role in the creation of the British welfare state and the National Health Service under Prime Minister Clement Attlee, himself the former Deputy Prime Minister under Winston Churchill during World War 2. This continued under Harold Wilson, who decriminalised homosexuality, abolished the death penalty, abortion (mostly) and censorship of the theatre, and relaxed divorce laws. He was also victim of a number of conspiracy theories.
Thatcher changed all of that. Once she won, she ushered in 17 straight years of Conservative rule, forcing the Labour Party to move much closer to the centre, stepping away from its socialist roots and becoming a "big tent" centrist party: cushy tech jobs waiting for graduates, nurture the "special relationship", take a Third Way. This clearly made them a more effective opposition, as they won in a massive landslide in 1997, did some cool things and some very, very bad things, but it was unclear exactly what they stood for other than "we're not actively trying to kill you like the Tories."
However, Jeremy Corbyn, an avowed democratic socialist, took over in 2015 and ushered in a resurgence of the left wing not seen in decades, leading the party to Labour's biggest electoral swing in the 2017 election since 1945 with a vote share increase of +9.6% - unfortunately still losing to the Conservatives, but still decimating their majority and leaving them crippled to get anything done. Maybe this should have been seen as Corbyn's ceiling though, as Labour lost almost all that it gained in 2019 when Boris Johnson triumphed, with a -7.8% swing away from Labour. Corbyn then announced his intention to resign as leader and he was succeeded by Keir Starmer in April 2020.
Old Labour (1900-1997)
After growing rapidly from its founding in 1900, Labour replaced the Liberal Party as the UK's primary leftist party in 1922. Both Old Labour and—can we call them "Old Tories" were part of the post-war consensus (known as "Butskellism", named for Tory Chancellor Rab Butler and Labour Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell). Encouraged by the success of state intervention, the Old Tories espoused private enterprise managed by government committee. Old Labour preferred to cut out the middleman and own all the industries outright. Orwell could have told them (and did) that it was a doomed policy, as industry dwindled in importance and the unions lost members. Both parties believed in a big role for the state.
In the 1970s, the oil price shocks damaged the British economy. It caused a period of high inflation and unemployment. Old Labour tried to deal with this but their close relationship with the trades unions made that difficult. In the meantime, Thatcher and her allies ousted Heath as leader of the Conservative Party. This was the end of the Old Tories and the start of the neoliberal consensus. The discovery of North Sea oil revitalized the British economy and seemed to vindicate the New Tories.
Defeat in '79 tore Old Labour apart. A faction of the party thought they lost because they were not left wing enough. This faction became ascendant and Michael Foot became leader. A group of centrist MPs went rogue and started a new party, the SDP, which later joined with the Liberals to form the Lib Dems. This incarnation of the Labour Party contested Foot's manifesto as "the longest suicide note in history".
Having lost the '83 election, the more right-wing Neil Kinnock took over. To make Labour more palatable, he purged the party of many of its more hardcore socialists. After losing again, Kinnock was replaced by John Smith, another centrist. The stage was set for Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, who became Leader when Smith died in '94.
New Labour (1997-2015)
In what feels like such a long time ago, Labour were the governing party of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2010, with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown serving as Prime Minister. Blair may have been short on principles, but he had an astute understanding of the FPTP voting system. Their 1997 victory was famous as a landslide, ousting the Conservative Party from a considerable reign that stretched back to 1979. The Labour majority was substantially reduced over the course of the 2001 and 2005 elections. Labour performed poorly in the 2010 Election and even worse in the 2015 election, losing nearly all of their seats in Scotland (an area with traditionally high support for Labour) to the SNP, who has kept an unbreakable stranglehold on the region in both subsequent elections. The reaction of the rank and file of the party to these defeats was to elect as its leader in 2015, by the largest percentage of any Labour leader in history - mostly because everyone else in the race was talking about how much they loved austerity - a long-time rebel and avowedly left-wing socialist, Jeremy Corbyn.
Newer Labour (2015-)
- Syria: Conscience vote
- Trident: Walked it back
- Snooper's Charter: Abstained. Not sure where this new-found law and order kick is coming from.
Under Corbyn, the Labour Party was functionally useless before (and, to a certain degree, after) taking Theresa's majority, which is remarkable considering how the public is sympathetic to everything Corbyn's Labour stood for. Labour was divided every way from Sunday after their second general election defeat in a row, and under Corbyn these problems became even more apparent than they would have been if the leader was a person that Labour MPs actually liked. Rampant factionalism left Corbyn failing to control his own party, who constantly defected from any vote that wasn't a quadrillion-line whip, (and even then) and in one case an ex-minister considered the 'architect of New Labour' openly bragged about trying to 'end [Corbyn's] tenure in office' in some small way every single day. Things started off so badly that, less than a year into his leadership, his party was already trying to insurrect him after the Brexit referendum, an attempt that probably would have succeeded if Corbyn wasn't automatically put on the ballot as a sitting leader, so he didn't need MP nominations. (and then re-elected by an even larger historic margin, likely due more to the membership being annoyed they have to vote again less than a year later because of a trigger-happy PLP, than actually liking Corbyn THAT much) The staunchest critics of Corbyn's leadership, when it became clear after Corbyn's re-election that he wasn't going anywhere fast, either quieted down after the 2017 election, or, in an extreme case, went off to make a new centrist party with Conservative MPs. It's fate will not surprise you.
All of those problem were exacerbated by Brexit. It made political discourse a lot more nativist, populist, and just plain dumb. The unions are selling their members out, and the rest of the country would rather blow themselves up than see their living standards get chipped away with one more election. Any attempt to resist Brexit will enrage people even more because they are sick of their voices being unheard; they'll keep voting for more and more insane clowns until they're heard. There are 16 million voters out there who are invested in the future and not shouting 'fuck you' to the system, but Labour abandoned them. That surely won't come back to bite them...
Most of the party's energy and new ideas in the early years came from Momentum, which could have given the party a clean break from the New Labour years if it didn't end up being hated in the late years after it was stuffed to the brim with cranks. Corbyn understood this the most - which is unsurprising, considering how the entire organisation was made with the sole purpose of consolidating power around him - and more broadly understood that his power came directly from a Labour membership disillusioned with neoliberalism, for which he and Labour under him recieved an endorsement from Noam Chomsky.
It pulled off in 2017. When everyone thought Labour would get obliterated, they increased their vote share and had a net gain of seats in the House of Commons, forcing a hung parliament and
potentially destroying Theresa May's career. The youth vote, which turned out in record numbers, is what really propelled Corbyn over the top. Labour's 9.6% vote swing was its largest since 1945, when Clement Attlee won a majority government. They wiped out longstanding Tory strongholds and turned other strongly Tory seats into tossups for future elections.
This electoral success was not to last, though. As a result of the previously mentioned disillusionment with Remain voters, Labour was seen as pro-Brexit to remainers, and pro-Remain to leavers - in other words, their unclear stance pleased neither end of the Brexit spectrum. This resulted in Labour losing much of its voter base to the explicitly pro-Remain centrist Liberal Democrats, and even when Labour adopted the position of a second referendum, it only pissed off Labour leavers more. While the Conservatives forced in clown god Boris Johnson to stop the outpouring of supporters to the Brexit Party after a European Parliament election both the Tories and Labour collapsed in, Labour did not do the same with Corbyn.
Corbyn was always going to be unpopular with the electorate, and the Labour membership knew this, hoping that people would see beyond him and look at Labour's policies. In 2017, this was true - but when fake, Maoist bike scandals turned into real, antisemitism scandals, Corbyn was too much for voters to bear; cue the 2019 election. In retrospect, 2017 should have been taken as a warning sign; a sign that even with the Conservative Party in its worst shambles ever under May, Labour still could not win. Johnson's Conservatives did not just win, they won with a supermajority, an election win they had been dreaming of since Thatcher - meanwhile, Labour suffered a defeat it had been having nightmares of since 1935. As a combination of Corbyn and Brexit, Labour had been left with a dismal 202 seats.
Jeremy Corbyn, democratic socialist, Jedi Knight, and a man that, regardless of your political ideology, changed Labour forever, announced he would finally resign after a Leadership election to decide his successor.
Resurgence of the left wing
Corbyn supporters, buttressed by Momentum and friendly unions, swept the board in elections to the National Constitutional Committee and the National Executive Committee, which now has a left majority, including of the key party officers. This means that the conference calls of key NEC members that take urgent decisions like choosing a panel of potential candidates for a by-election is no longer outwith the leader's control. Deputy Leader Tom Watson, a Blairite, has been marginalized by rising stars Emily Thornberry, Jon Ashworth, and Angela Rayner, all of whom are so-called "Corbynistas" who serve directly as Shadow Cabinet members. Key changes to the party constitution now ensures left wingers will have an easier time at becoming leader by reducing the amount of nominations needed to stand for a leadership race. By reducing the barometer, a left winger can always show up on the ballot box regardless of the views of most Labour MPs.
Corbyn and his supporters are looking to capitalize. This starts with proposing an amendment to "permit members and trade unions" to "change party rules at the next party conference," rather than waiting a year, allowing the left to overhaul the party more quickly than is currently possible. They want to restore democratic socialism as party of Labour's manifesto, allow criticism of Zionism while distinguishing it from Antisemitism, lower the threshold of MPs’ nominations required to get on any future leadership ballot (which they got), and scheduling a second batch of amendments in 2018 meant to empower grassroots activists (as in, Momentum, which formed from Corbyn supporters to help elect him in 2015).
Other proposals include raising the proportion of MPs required to get rid of a leader from 20 percent to 40 percent; the introduction of two deputy leaders, of which at least one would be a woman; and forcing the party’s general secretary to stand for election for a three year term no more than one year and eight months after the rule is introduced — i.e. before the next election. The current party chief Iain McNicol would be entitled to stand in a ballot of all party members but would almost certainly lose.
New rules on MPs seeking re-selection will also be considered by the CAC for debate at the 2018 party conference. Those on the left of the party have long pushed for the introduction of “mandatory re-selection” of the party’s candidates at each election, in order to enable grassroots members to keep a check on their MPs. The new proposal is described by senior party figures as a “compromise” proposal between the current “trigger ballot” process which means MPs must win the support of half their local party to stand again as the party’s candidate, and “mandatory re-selection.” The new compromise proposal would mean MPs being forced to get nominations of two-thirds of the union branches in their constituency — which often do not have any actual Labour members — and local branches representing two thirds of the constituency Labour party membership.
Most of all, they've proposed scrapping affiliated supporters (mainly union types) and registered supporters, who pay a small fee for the right to vote, leaving only fully paid-up members who are now overwhelmingly pro-Corbyn. The proposals, which have been put forward by local Labour parties and trades unions, need the approval of Conference Arrangements Committee, or CAC, which acts as a filter, deciding which rule changes are put to a vote by party members at their annual conference. CAC has recently been taken over by the left of the party for the first time in its history, meaning many of the proposals could be debated by Corbynistas.
Recent Leaders of the Labour Party, including Prime Ministers and Opposition Leaders, include:
- Clement Attlee (1935-1955, Deputy Prime Minister 1942-1945, Prime Minister 1945-1951)
- Hugh Gaitskell (1955-1963)
- Harold Wilson (1963–1976, Prime Minister 1964-1970 and 1974-1976)
- James Callaghan (1976–1980, Prime Minister 1976-1979)
- Michael Foot (1980–1983)
- Neil Kinnock (1983–1992)
- John Smith (1992–1994)
- Tony Blair (1994-2007, Prime Minister 1997-2007)
- Gordon Brown (2007-2010 as Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1997-2007)
- Ed Miliband (2010-2015)
- Jeremy Corbyn (2015-2020)
- Keir Starmer (2020 - present)
The party has been in trouble for antisemitism at least since Corbyn's election as party leader. There are multiple strands to this. Opposition to Israel has increased dramatically in recent years, with Ed Miliband deeply hostile to Israel's 2014 actions in Gaza despite being Jewish himself; this led to hostility between the Labour Party and some Jewish groups even before Corbyn came to power. But debate over where criticism of Israel crosses over into antisemitism was eventually eclipsed by a rise in outright talk of international Jewish conspiracies and Jew-baiting.
Ken Livingstone, former mayor of London and something of an elder statesman in the party, seemed to take a delight in antagonising the Jewish community. Early on it might have been accidental, as when he compared a Jewish journalist to a concentration camp guard. But later it was plainly deliberate, as when in 2016 he seemed to equate zionism with nazism, saying "When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews." Livingstone was suspended from the party shortly after the outburst, but never actually expelled, choosing to leave in 2018, furthering the suspicion that Labour didn't really know what to do.
The party's handling of antisemitism varied between farce and tragedy. Corbyn commissioned respected civil liberties campaigner Shami Chakrabarti to investigate antisemitism in the party, and she reported that everything was OK, and was then given a peerage by the Labour Party. Whether or not this was entirely innocent and above board, it looked like she was being rewarded for producing a whitewash.
The party dithered for months about whether to incorporate into party rules the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism before finally accepting it in September 2018. The definition was controversial because it classed certain criticisms of Israel as antisemitic, including holding Israel to higher standards than other nations or questioning the essentially Jewish character of Israel, and was considered by some a threat to free speech. In 2016 the cross-party House of Commons Home Affairs Committee on Antisemitism in the UK had criticised the definition for this reason, calling for clarifications including "It is not antisemitic to criticise the Government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent" and "It is not antisemitic to hold the Israeli Government to the same standards as other liberal democracies"; but these criticisms were ignored as people rushed to attack Labour. Even after Labour adopted the full definition and examples, some Jewish organisations were unhappy, citing the party's wider failures on antisemitism and an accompanying confirmation of a commitment to free speech seen as compromising the commitment on antisemitism.
Claims of antisemitism continued, including from senior Labour MP Margaret Hodge, and it was cited as a factor behind the defection of Chuka Umunna and others from the party in February 2019 (see Change UK). Labour MPs and other party members were criticised not only for over-forceful defences of Palestinian statehood, but also for tweeting things like "Heil Hitler" and "Jews are the problem" and (in the case of MP Naz Shah) calling for Israel to be relocated to the USA; others were accused of antisemitism when they downplayed the issue of antisemitism in the party or said the allegations were being concocted by the party's enemies. It was clear that allegations were being exploited by Corbyn's enemies both in the Labour party and elsewhere, and the Conservative party didn't receive equal criticism over its members' Islamophobia, but it was just as clear that antisemitism was a genuine problem and the party was at best failing badly to punish antisemites and perhaps protecting some of them.
In March 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission launched an official inquiry into antisemitism within Labour; the party promised to cooperate. Adding to the revelations about the scale of the problem and claims that the Labour leadership had improperly interfered in the handling of several complaints, a BBC TV program in July 2019 revealed widespread bullying and mistreatment of workers involved in handling complaints, including of whistle-blowers; although there were claims that the program had slightly misrepresented the Labour leadership's actions, it was clear that the party's procedures were failing and antisemites were not being disciplined. Labour affirmed its opposition to all racism and discrimination, promised decisive action, launched more investigations, but nothing seemed to change.
- New Labour - The right wing of the party, known as "Blairites."
- Liberal Democrats - Their increasingly irrelevant centrist counterparts.
- Diane Abbott - One of their most infamous gaffe machines.
- Australian Labor Party - The more right wing Australian equivalent.
- Democratic Party - the American equivalent, all the way down to the left-center divide.
- "Subliminal Messaging" on the QI official website.
- Jeremy Corbyn will quit early next year after heavy election defeat, Politico.EU, 13 Dec 2019
- Orwell, "England Your England", excerpt from The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, 19 February 1941.
- Chadwick, Vince, "Corbyn goes for conscience vote on Syria - Labour leader maintains air strikes are not the answer", Politico (Updated 12/1/15, 7:28 AM CET).
- "Corbyn: UK could keep Trident submarines but without warheads", BBC 1.17.16. Spend tens of billions on useless submarines, just to save a few thousand jobs.
- Merrick, Rob, "Jeremy Corbyn attacked by nuclear disarmament campaign group over Trident 'U-turn'", Independent 9.26.16.
- Harris, Mike, "Shami Chakrabarti and Jeremy Corbyn were the loudest critics of the Snooper’s Charter – but now theyre in power, they’ve gone quiet", Independent (10/11/16 at 9:45 AM BST).
- Rajeev Syal and Alexandra Topping, "Labour will put 10,000 extra police on streets, vows Jeremy Corbyn", Guardian (1 May 2017, 5:00pm EDT).
- "General election 2017: Corbyn says task is to keep Britain safe", BBC 12 May 2017.
- Batchelor, Tom, "British voters overwhelmingly back Labour’s manifesto policies, poll finds", Independent (12 May 2017, 7:51 BST).
- Key Brexit amendments voted down as Labour MPs defy whip, LabourList, 29 January 2019
- Full list of Labour rebels: Government defeated over Brexit statement, LabourList, 14 February 2019
- "Why do you want to just walk away and pass the title deeds of this great party over to someone like Jeremy Corbyn? I don’t want to, I resent it, and I work every single day in some small way to bring forward the end of his tenure in office.", Peter Mandelson, February 21st, 2017
- O'Connor, Sarah, "RMT union calls for members to vote for Brexit", FT 4.7.16.
- Labour expels Jackie Walker for leaked antisemitism remarks, The Guardian, 27 March 2019
- Momentum activists accused of 'anti-Zionist ranting' in Labour antisemitism row, The Independent, 1 August 2018
- Labour party’s future lies with Momentum, says Noam Chomsky, The Guardian, 10 May 2017
- Most Brits uncertain on Labour’s Brexit policy, YouGov, 5 November 2019
- Lib Dems lead the polls as they start to become “the party of the 48%”, YouGov, 30 May 2019
- Labour Leavers unconvinced by Corbyn’s Brexit policy, YouGov, 4 December 2019
- From Maoist bicycles to a chilling reminder of the Winter of Discontent, a mischievously witty guide to...the hidden meaning of Comrade Corbyn's Christmas card, The Daily Mail, 16 December 2015
- Corbyn resignation: Labour leader announces he will step down before next election, The Independent, 13 December 2019
- "What now for Labour MPs who criticised Jeremy Corbyn?", BBC News, 27 September 2017
- Labour set to ease path for leftwing Corbyn successor, The Guardian, 19 September 2017
- Jeremy Corbyn’s plans to tighten grip on Labour, Politico, 24 September 2017
- How Ed Miliband lost the Jewish vote, The Spectator, April 2015
- Labour was 'catastrophic' on Israel, says shadow cabinet member Michael Dugher, Jewish Chronicle (UK), 27 May 2015
- Livingstone faces inquiry over Nazi guard jibe at Jewish reporter, Guardian, 12 Feb 2005
- Ken Livingstone to quit Labour amid anti-Semitism row, BBC News, 21 May 2018
- See the Wikipedia article on Chakrabarti Inquiry.
- Labour adopts full anti-Semitism definition, BBC, 4 September 2018
- Antisemitism in the UK: Tenth Report of Session 2016–17, House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, 13 October 2016
- A guide to Labour Party anti-Semitism claims, BBC News, 16 July 2019
- Nearly half of Tory members would not want Muslim PM – poll, The Guardian, 24 June 2019
- Labour antisemitism: equalities watchdog opens investigation, The Guardian, 7 Mar 2019
- Top Labour figures 'interfered' in anti-Semitism disputes, BBC News, 10 July 2019
- Corbyn under fire from staff and Labour peers over antisemitism, The Guardian, 15 July 2019