(Economist) Jeremy Corbyn’s party is in no shape to form an effective opposition to the Tories.
THE aim of British elections is not only to produce a government. It is also to produce a plausible opposition. Its task is to provide a check on Britain’s overmighty executive, a voice for the losers in the ruthless first-past-the-post electoral system and, by holding ministers to account for shoddy legislation and bad behaviour, to act as a spur to good government. A vigorous opposition is all the more important at a time when Britain is embarking on a revolution in its relations with the European Union on the basis of a narrow result in a single referendum.
Alas, the chance of a robust opposition emerging from this miserable election campaign is vanishingly slim. The Labour Party is not so much an organised political group as a battlefield between two rival ones: Jeremy Corbyn’s gang of far-left zealots and the parliamentary party of moderates. Until recently the moderates hoped that Mr Corbyn would do the honourable thing if he leads Labour to defeat and resign, leaving them to embark on the laborious work of rebuilding their party. Now it looks as if that is the last thing on Mr Corbyn’s narrow mind. He is busy shoring up his base by campaigning in safe seats and redefining “success” as getting the same share of the vote that his predecessor, Ed Miliband, got in 2015. His aim may be to survive until Labour’s annual conference in late September so that he can introduce a vital change in the rules for selecting his successor, reducing the proportion of MPs and MEPs needed to nominate a candidate from 15% of the parliamentary party to 5%. This would not only increase the chances of Labour’s next leader being another hard-leftist but also help to shift control of the party from the MPs to the grassroots.
If Mr Corbyn stays on, the issue facing the Labour moderates will be the timing of the bloodbath. Should they wait for the party conference in September to try to dethrone the left, or strike quickly and form a separate parliamentary party after the election? Some plotters point out that they are well prepared for the conference, with lots of sensible delegates. Others argue that the far left is too entrenched and that immediate action is necessary. There is talk of a hundred Labour MPs forming a separate parliamentary Labour Party after the election. One thing is clear: holding the Conservative government to account will be a secondary concern. If Labour splits, then Theresa May will be confronted with two warring opposition parties; if it holds together until September, she will face a divided party obsessed with allotting blame for its election defeat and fighting leadership battles.
Even if Mr Corbyn resigns it will be a long time before Labour is fit for opposition. The party will spend time finding a new leader. Possible left-wing successors include Rebecca Long-Bailey and Clive Lewis; in the centre, Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna are expected to stand. Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit spokesman, and Tom Watson, the deputy leader, may also run. Whoever wins will hardly have an embarrassment of talent to call on in forming an opposition. The parliamentary party is dominated by courtiers to Tony Blair or Gordon Brown who have spent their lives in politics (such as Ms Cooper) and members of political dynasties (like Stephen Kinnock and Hilary Benn).
The wilderness years have deprived Labour of bright sparks. Some high-flyers such as Tristram Hunt have abandoned political careers and others have decided not to embark on them. The party has also been deprived of ideas. The battle between moderates and extremists has been so all-consuming that neither faction has done much fresh thinking. This week’s manifesto is an uneasy compromise between Ed Miliband’s policies and Mr Corbyn’s. Mr Blair’s Labour Party held John Major’s Conservatives to account because it had a self-confident leadership replete with new ideas. Whatever happens after the election, it will be years before Labour is again in that position.
What about the other opposition forces? The second-biggest is likely to be the Scottish National Party which, by its nature, is uninterested in much of the government’s business in the rest of Britain. (The SNP is bad for the art of opposition because it simultaneously entrenches one-party-rule north of the border and deprives Labour of seats and talent.) The Liberal Democrats will not win enough seats to act as an alternative opposition, and may be engaged in a leadership struggle of their own given Tim Farron’s mediocre performance. Lord Ashdown, a former Lib Dem leader, is among those promoting a “progressive alliance” of anti-Tory forces. But forming alliances is difficult even when the parties involved are not in chaos. And the Labour Party is too large and proud to compromise its identity by forming anything other than the loosest of pacts. The great problem with Labour is that it is too weak to win an election but too strong to cede the position of the official opposition.
Strong and unstable government
The enfeeblement of the parliamentary opposition is already generating talk about extra-parliamentary resistance. On the far left, groups such as Momentum argue that the “real” opposition must come from the streets. On the moderate left there is talk of the BBC stepping in to fill the void, or the Supreme Court or even European institutions. These ideas are noxious: the far-left version of extra-parliamentary opposition would turn Britain into the Weimar Republic and the soft-left version would politicise institutions whose authority lies in being above politics.
Yet it is easy to see why so many people are entertaining them in the face of Tory hegemony. The late Lord Hailsham, a Tory grandee, wrote that the danger of the British constitution is “elective dictatorship”. Parties that win majorities have no restraint on their powers other than the ones that the opposition can conjure up. Thanks to Labour’s civil war and the fragmentation of the other parties, Britain is about to engage in a period of revolutionary upheaval without the safeguard of an opposition.