By Babajide Alabi
These are not interesting times for members, or to say, the leadership of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom. They are alarmed at the uncomfortable position their party is in the run up to the next general elections some years down the line. In the past week, Labour has found itself in some “pretty” embarrassing situations over an unnecessary policy “U-turn” and “somersault” that has in no way helped the fortunes of the party.
The events of last week, many observers believe, shall characterise the Labour Party in the coming years. They see a party that is scarred by its recent leadership contest and struggling without much success to paper over the cracks. No matter how hard the leader of the party, Jeremy Corbyn or his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell try to explain the urge to “out osborne Osborne” for the latest debacle, it is obvious the party is navigating turbulent seas.
In a rather bizarre manner, the party, rather than navigate away from the “rough sea”, has found itself gravitating towards it. Away from a contentious leadership election a few weeks ago, the party took its first major step. But rather than step into “a reconciliation mode,” the “spirits” set about a replay of the “tower of babel”. In an ironic twist, Labour’s opponent, the Conservatives gained a “few mileage” from the party’s “misfortunes.”
On 25th September 2015 at the party’s annual conference in the sea side city of Brighton, the Shadow Chancellor had given an unflinching support to the Fiscal Charter as proposed by the Conservative Chancellor George Osborne. The charter commits the government to a budget surplus in five years time to ensure UK debt keeps falling. Impressed by the charter, McDonnell announced gleefully to conference members that Labour “will support the charter on the basis we are going to want to balance the books, we do want to live within our means and we will tackle the deficit.”
Eighteen days after the initial offer of support, the shadow chancellor in a letter to Labour MPs wrote a totally “different song”. “We will underline our position as an anti-austerity party by voting against the charter on Wednesday (October 14, 2015).” It was a shock to the Tories and also members of his party.
McDonnell was quick to offer explanation for this sudden “U-turn”. In an interview on Sky News he said: “I went to Redcar and I met the steel workers and I had families in tears about what has happened to them as a result of the government failing to act, failing to intervene. I came back and I realised … that people are actually going to suffer badly and it brought it home to me. I don’t want the Labour party associated with this policy.”
The Tories won the votes by 320 to 258 with thirty seven Labour MPs failing to vote. This included sixteen who were “allowed” to be absent. The Shadow Chancellor blamed the loss on the “confusion” of the MPs as a result of the “U-turn”.
It was obvious the party was labouring to save face from this embarrassing turn around of the leadership. To stem the wave of rebellion that rose with the new leadership’s lack of total authority, Mr Corbyn gave permission to senior MPs to absent and abstain from the voting on the fiscal charter. This, to many observers, is a face saving move by a leader who within a short period of time in office has indicated that reversing decisions will be a regular feature of his leadership.
It has emerged that the Fiscal Charter “U-turn” is not the only policy the Corbyn-led Labour has made. In another surprise move, the party has hinted that it might be supporting military action without United Nations’ support as opposed to its initial position of blanket opposition to air strikes against the Islamic State (ISIL) in Syria.
Critics are already predicting Labour’s slide into political oblivion. Fortunately or unfortunately the slide is being supervised by a leadership that seem not to have a clue on what to do to reverse the political misfortunes. The “chaotic nature” of the leadership has brought question marks to the sincerity of some members who had gone out of their comfort zones to endorse it.
In the run up to the leadership election, it was obvious that the party would not be the same again. Infact the signs were all written on the wall that the Labour Party was on a losing stride when Ed Milliband was elected the leader in 2010. The pundits did not lose their bets, when earlier this year, the party suffered the greatest electoral defeat in recent times.
There was hope of rejuvenation after Milliband voluntarily gave up the leadership in May this year. Unfortunately the events that followed his resignation had not in any way helped matters, as top party leaders found themselves, rather than cooperating, jostling for the leadership position. And in “striking” for the post, they all left the party “defence” so porous that the left winger Jeremy Corbyn sneaked in and won the hearts and souls of many of the old and “new” members.
It was easy to analyse why Corbyn swept the leadership polls. The members needed a change in direction for the party and could not see any of the notable leaders take them on this journey. To many, the victory of Corbyn, though not ideal for the party, was unstoppable.
Corbyn was a candidate many of the Labour members would not have touched with a long pole. He was the opposite of what the party stands for. Corbyn had always been a thorn in the flesh of the Labour leadership. He is reputed to be a rebel against party’s directives. He did not help matter too as he made controversial policy statements in the campaign for the leadership position. But he seemed predestined to be the Labour leader.
Recent polls after the party conference has however placed Corbyn in the history books as the least popular leader in recent times. His popularity rating measured against Milliband’s at same time, was put at minus eight. This is an all time low for a Prime Minister in waiting.
But who is going to save Labour Party? Or, what will save Labour Party? It may seem too early to predict what will happen in the years ahead, but we need no crystal ball to know that the party has a lot to contend with before another electoral victory.