Thursday, 7 July 2016


The British Labour Party is facing a serious existential crisis following the referendum on EU membership and its acrimonious aftermath. I am reminded immediately of the strife unleashed in the party by its drift leftwards in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which led to the formation of the breakaway Social Democratic Party (SDP) by the so-called ‘gang of four’ in 1981. These four leading members of the party were especially angered by the decision to include unilateral nuclear disarmament and a desire to leave the European Economic Community (forerunner of the European Union (EU)) in the party’s manifesto for the next general election, which was described at the time as ‘the longest suicide note in history’.

Another similarity with the current situation is that both leaders emerged from the left wing of the party. But Michael Foot was trounced in the general election of 1983, and, based on what I’ve seen, I believe that a party led by Jeremy Corbyn has absolutely no chance of winning the next general election, whenever it is held. Despite having massive support among the party’s grassroots members, Corbyn has no obvious leadership qualities, and I’ve never known a political leader who was so utterly devoid of charisma.

Corbyn is clearly a man of principle—before becoming leader, he voted against the party line in the House of Commons hundreds of times—but I base my assessment of the man not on what he does but on what he says. For example, in November last year, he described the attacks in Paris by members of Daesh as ‘immoral’. He wasn’t wrong, of course, but I couldn’t help but wonder why he chose to use such an insipid adjective when many stronger words were available to him (e.g. barbaric, heinous, horrendous). He was at it again in the recent referendum campaign, in which the only thing I heard him say in favour of remaining in the EU related to ‘protecting workers’ rights’. And his refusal to share a platform with Remain campaigners from other parties did not mark him as a man of principle; it merely made him look like an idiot. Overall, his contribution to the debate was decidedly wishy-washy, and his apparent lack of enthusiasm was a serious error of judgement.

He failed to grasp that the principal area of concern for most traditional Labour voters was immigration from other EU countries. And he appears not to have been aware that in neglecting this concern, he was effectively surrendering at least part of this vote to another party, one that was geared-up and ready to step in as the party of choice for working-class voters: the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Had Corbyn been prepared to make an effort to reassure such voters, it is likely that the UK, as a whole, would have voted to remain in the EU.

At first glance, it would appear that a right-wing party representing the working class is an anomaly, but there is a lesson from history here: Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts (i.e. Fascists) enjoyed considerable support in the East End of London—and probably in the poorer areas of other major cities—during the depression of the 1930s. UKIP may not be as overtly racist as the Blackshirts, who were, after all, modelled on the Blackshirts of Benito Mussolini’s Italy, but a strain of xenophobia is an integral part of the party’s ethos.

On the day following the referendum, I listened to Any Questions on BBC Radio 4. For anyone not familiar with this program, which has been running since 1948, it involves four leading politicians, who have been invited onto the show to answer questions from the audience while a chairman tries to maintain order. On this occasion, there was only ever going to be one topic of conversation: the result of the referendum. Naturally, two members of the panel had advocated remaining in the EU in the referendum campaign, while two had campaigned to leave. One of the latter was MEP Steven Woolfe, and from his very first contribution I thought I was listening to a member of the British National Party, a fringe organization that would have been better named the British Nazi Party. Woolfe continually hurled class-based insults at the other members of the panel, whom he characterized as middle-class and out of touch with the electorate. That would chime strongly with the attitudes of many of his target voters.

Yesterday, I listened to an interview with Paul Nuttall, deputy leader of UKIP. At one point, after Nuttall had talked about targeting traditional Labour voters, the interviewer asked whether this meant moving the party to the left. Nuttall’s response was succinct—and disarmingly honest.

“Not at all,” he said.

So could it happen? Is the Labour Party on the point of fading into obscurity? There is historical precedent. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the old Liberal Party was the party of choice for working-class voters. And this continued into the twentieth century, but it was then slowly supplanted by the Labour Party, which had been formed in 1900. The last wholly Liberal government came to an end in 1915, although the last Liberal prime minister, David Lloyd-George, continued in office until 1922 as head of a wartime coalition. The party then faded into obscurity, returning only a handful of MPs in the second half of the twentieth century until its fortunes revived slightly following merger with the SDP in 1988.

There is another parallel with the present from the early days of the Labour Party. Its founder, Keir Hardy, suggested that Lithuanian migrant workers in Scottish coal mines had filthy habits, they ate garlic that they fried in oil filched from streetlamps, and they were carriers of the Black Death, comments that would have been more likely to chime with working-class voters of the time than visions of a socialist utopia, as it also seems to have done in the recent referendum.

The Labour Party formed a short-lived minority government in 1924 and another from 1929 to 1931, although it had to wait until 1945 to form a majority government. It last won a general election in 2005. However, the party does not have an automatic right to be either in government or the main opposition party. UKIP may have seemed like a single-issue party that has now achieved its raison d’ĂȘtre, but it is highly unlikely to disband, and I suspect that it is already drawing up its manifesto for the next general election, one that will appeal to working-class voters. It received around 4,000,000 votes in elections for the European Parliament in 2013, and it could easily double that total in the next general election if Jeremy Corbin remains leader of the Labour Party. These are worrying times.


  1. I hadn't heard of Keir Hardie's racist remarks before. Where did you find them?
    Actually, what finished off the Liberals was the rise of the Irish Nationalist party from 1880, which deprived the Liberals of every seat in Ireland. After 1880 the Liberals only once won an election outright (1906, following a complete meltdown of the Tories). All other Liberal governments were dependent on Irish support and were therefore comitted to Home Rule for Ireland - not a particularly popular policy in the rest of the UK.

    1. Hi Peter. The comments are in Keir Hardie: The Making of a Socialist, a biography published in 1978 that I have on my bookshelves. They are repeated in the Wikipedia article on Hardie, although I would never have used this source without external corroboration.

      By the way, thanks for filling in extra details about the demise of the Liberal Party. I was aware of this information, but as you can see, this essay is essentially an attack on Jeremy Corbyn, and I’ve probably been guilty of oversimplification in pursuit of that intention.

    2. With reference to Keir Hardie's remarks: everyone was "racist" by our standards a century ago. I wonder also how many of his Lithuanians were in fact Jewish? vast numbers of Jews from the Russian Empire came to the West at that time.

    3. I agree. Jews were often portrayed as villains in nineteenth-century fiction.


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