UK Politics

2015 political review: Labour divisions follow election defeat

Jeremy Corbyn Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Jeremy Corbyn was an outside bet when he entered the leadership contest

A year ago, Labour members felt they could be just months from victory - or at least from locking David Cameron out of Downing Street.

Published polls were putting them level-pegging with the Conservatives and private polling didn't put them all that far behind.

A year on, and the Labour Party is under very different leadership - and has a very different membership. Many joined in the wake of the worse-than-expected defeat.

While Labour's vote hasn't collapsed, the party is now consistently polling behind the Conservatives.

Reshuffle rumours

The enthusiasm shown by new members - and supporters who could join for £3 and vote in the leadership election - doesn't yet seem to be shared by the wider electorate.

The former Labour pollster James Morris - from transatlantic political strategists Greenberg Quinlan Rosner - told the World at One that only one in 20 voters even realises that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn opposes austerity and four out of five non-voters aren't clear what he stands for either.

The New Year will begin with rumours of a shadow cabinet reshuffle as the uneasy truce between supporters of Mr Corbyn and those to his right - under pressure since the split in the parliamentary party over Syria - appears to be on the verge of breaking down.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption An influx of new members helped propel Jeremy Corbyn to victory

Lord Glasman was an adviser to the former leader Ed Miliband - though increasingly his advice wasn't being followed. An advocate of community politics and mutual self-reliance rather than an overweening state, he coined the term "Blue Labour".

These days some of Mr Corbyn's supporters see Lord Glasman as a "Red Tory".

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He isn't a huge fan of the new system which allowed those to Labour's left a cut-price route into the party and a right to choose Ed Miliband's successor, describing it as a mistake of biblical proportions.

"Never has a birthright been sold more cheaply since Esau than the £3 leadership offer," he says.

But he too is critical of some of those who led the party to defeat this year: "The people who succeeded Blair and Brown seemed like appointees - a bit like school prefects or head boys [and] head girls who had behaved very well.

"There was a void of leadership."

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Ed Miliband resigned after Labour's election defeat

Nonetheless, while he shares the analysis of some of those on the left of Labour's past mistakes, he doesn't endorse their solutions.

"Although Corbyn is right to draw attention to the fact that the new Labour project had become moribund and listless and to the long-term defection of working class voters from Labour - under Blair, Brown and Ed Miliband - Corbyn doesn't address that.

"It looks likely there'll be a further disaffection of traditional Labour voters and the losing of voters to UKIP - but the incredible loss of voters to Conservatives in the general election is not being addressed by the present leadership."

'Open discussion'

Emma Reynolds was a special adviser when Labour was in power and a shadow minister under Ed Miliband.

She isn't impressed with the argument made by some of those close to Mr Corbyn that he has an overwhelming mandate to lead the party - so now it's up to everyone else to fall into line.

MPs have their own mandate from the electorate and many Labour politicians were elected on a platform which Mr Corbyn doesn't share - from renewing the nuclear deterrent to imposing a benefits cap, she believes.

And she thinks Momentum - the organisation set up to keep the spirit of the Corbyn leadership campaign alive - isn't entirely a force for good, with some of her colleagues who didn't vote for the current leader fearing they will be ousted.

"They have been organising meetings where there has been open discussion about deselecting Labour MPs," she says.

"I think that Labour Members of Parliament should be able to air different views without feeling somehow that their job is on the line. We must expel party members who intimidate other party members. We must make sure that there is no room for that kind of behaviour in our party."

Those close to Mr Corbyn - including the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell - insist they do not plan to change the rules to make the deselection of Labour MPs easier and say there are no plans for a mass purge.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The UK's nuclear weapons system is one of the areas where Jeremy Corbyn does not agree with many of his MPs

New MP Kate Osamor is a parliamentary aide to the Labour leader and she insists that the left of the party doesn't have a monopoly on purges. She recounts that the party leadership of Neil Kinnock deemed her mother Martha unfit to contest the selection for the safe Labour seat of Vauxhall in south London at a by-election a quarter of a century ago.

"My mum was an activist in Tottenham - for a Nigerian woman as an immigrant to get that far was amazing.

"I saw my mum stand for what she believed in and she was basically told we don't want people like you, you're too radical.

"When I hear about deselection now I just think 'God, what my mum went through'."

She is now calling for unity around her new leader.

"What people in the party need to start doing is watching what the Conservatives do. There are many people in the Conservative Party who are not behind their leader but you would never know that because they stay loyal to the party.

"There are people going to newspapers, social media, you've got to think about the damage to the party and the people joining.

"New joiners are more loyal to us than we've ever had - we should respect the fact that 60% voted for Jeremy and use that as our mandate.

"It can't just be a fluke, there must be something in it."

'Worst nightmare'

But as Mr Corbyn rebelled more than 500 times against the last Labour government she might find that many of her parliamentary colleagues are impervious to her appeals.

That said, he rebelled from the backbenches. So it remains to be seen if that is where he will soon consign his critics - including shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn.

At a recent press reception, Mr Corbyn made no secret of the fact that many in his parliamentary party hadn't come to terms with his leadership.

But he was far from the humourless caricature that voters read about in some papers. He was quite honest in saying he hadn't exactly fought to be the left candidate for his party leadership and joked that having to address a gathering of Westminster hacks was "my worst nightmare. And yours".

Many of his MPs too seem to believe that all this is a bad dream from which they are yet to wake up.

Next year it will become clear if Labour is able to take the political battle to the Conservatives or will descend into further in-fighting.