In the 12 days running up to Christmas we’ll be posting blogs reviewing the year. Today, Amy Fedeski looks at development in the UK Labour party in 2016. We’ll be tweeting a discussion about the blogs with #Crickmas.
2016 was a year of transformative political change- often shocking, usually unpredictable, and sometimes completely ridiculous. For the UK Labour Party, the year was particularly tumultuous.
In September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour Party leader in a landslide victory. Since then, party membership has risen dramatically and Corbyn has gained high approval ratings among party members- yet his tenure has been marred by controversies, culminating in this summer’s leadership challenge.
The challenge came not from party members but from the parliamentary Labour Party. Members dismayed by the party’s shift leftwards under Corbyn have criticised his leadership since the election. However, it took two particular issues in 2016 to galvanize anger into action, and to bring about the summer’s leadership challenge.
Image credit: Ron F./flickr
The first began with allegations that a number of party members and politicians had made anti-semitic remarks. The scandal first made headlines in April, when Facebook comments made by Labour MP Naz Shah came to light. After Ken Livingstone came to her defense in an interview in which he too made controversial statements, both he and Shah were suspended from the party pending an investigation.
The second issue centered around Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of the EU Referendum campaign. In the run up to the vote, he backed the Remain campaign- but his ‘Out’ vote in the 1975 referendum, combined with some less than enthusiastic statements about the EU before becoming leader, prompted some to argue that he was, at heart, a Eurosceptic.
Corbyn was attacked by the media, and-critically- by some within his own party for his handling of both of these issues. Critics called his referendum campaign lacklustre and unenthusiastic, while his response to allegations of anti-Semitism was criticised for what opponents saw as a failure to recognise the scale of the problem within the party, and an insufficient dedication to stamping out such prejudice.
Anger over these two issues spilled into action just days after the referendum result was announced. Four days after the EU referendum, 23 of Corbyn’s 31 shadow cabinet ministers had resigned, and the leader struggled to replace them. The following day, a vote of no confidence motion passed, and a formal leadership challenge soon began.
At this point, the division between the party’s membership and the parliamentary Labour Party, which had been bubbling under the surface since Corbyn’s election, came to the surface. There was some doubt about whether Corbyn would even have been able to stand had he needed 51 nominations, as his challengers did, given that he had the support of only 40 MPs in the no confidence motion. However, there was no such doubt about his ability to convince Labour members- polls reflected their overwhelming support, and the eventual result gave Corbyn a huge landslide victory.
This combination of low parliamentary support and overwhelming membership support puts Jeremy Corbyn in a unique position. So what might 2017 hold for his leadership, and the party as a whole? If recent reports that Corbyn walked out of a Labour karaoke night when MPs sang ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ are to be believed, tensions between anti-Corbyn MPs and a pro-Corbyn party membership are likely to continue for some time to come.
Amy Fedeski is Administrative Assistant at the Crick Centre and a third year undergraduate at the University of Sheffield Department of Politics.
Notes: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre; the Designing for Democracy project; or the Understanding Politics blog series. To write for the Understanding Politics blog series please contact firstname.lastname@example.org