In what might turn out to be halcyon days for Labour, during the Tony Blair-led era, when Labour Party not only had power but boasted a large majority after the 1997 and 2001, Labour and its supporters had the rare opportunity to look on at the Conservatives and laugh at a party that was both rudderless and divided through its inability to unify. During the period from spring ’97 until Blair’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, the Conservatives, under William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard were a mess.
But laugh is all the Labour party did. Labour enjoyed their time in the sun, but lacking the ruthlessness of their rivals, missed the opportunity that their political rivals are now inflicting upon them; even if Tony Blair did manage to transform the party from perennial losers into an electable force through mimicry rather than revolution. Ten years on from Blair and Labour’s last electoral success and not only are the Tories back and laughing at Labour’s implosion but they’re also making every effort to ensure that the Labour Party are never again in a position to be an electable party, aided enthusiastically by the right-wing press who love nothing more than to create a figure of hate.
It remains to be seen whether the Labour Party will even exist in its current form in the next decade. The identity crisis brought on by the general election defeat means that the divisions in the party are clearly widening. The leadership contest offer little in the way of variety for the seasoned Labour voter, apart from the anti-austerity campaign of Jeremy Corbyn. The rest – Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper offer a hair’s breadth of political difference between them, and have set out their stalls reactive, or sympathetic to, Tory austerity and victim-blaming.
Last night’s abstention of the government’s Welfare Bill by the all but 48 Labour MPs, meant that the government’s proposal to cut £12bn – meaning cutting tax credits and capping benefits – went through unopposed in the first reading. It represents a double crisis for Labour in that, the party could not bring themselves to oppose a bill that will likely induce further poverty on families suffering through cuts to state payments and austerity measures.
Harman had asked MPs to abstain in order to show voters that the Labour Party were serious about the nation’s economic health. This seems counter-intuitive and illogical: If the party want to prove to voters that they are electable then it’s more likely to convince if it can show both integrity and unity. By asking the party to abstain, Harman has given the Tories a free run at a bill that should clearly be contested by a credible opposition. If there was any sign of a potential rebellion, it would be far more credible to tell the party to vote against it, abstentions would then be a ‘default’ disagreement of the party whip – as it traditionally is.
David Blunkett said today on BBC’s ‘Today’ programme that Labour rebels had ‘fallen into a trap’ set by the Tories, which by any stretch of the imagination is a sound piece of doublethink. Labour MPs one would assume, have a primary duty to their constituents rather than the image of the party in the eyes of their opponents. Yet the party seem more concerned about their membership to the Westminster gravy train, than about the people who still vote for them.
Labour are punch-drunk and still floundering on the ropes since 8th May elections – the actions of a party that are disorganised, directionless and without an idea what they want for themselves, let alone a country. In order to be considered electable, the first thing they have to do is find their unique identity, and not the one set out for them within Conservative parameters. While Blair won his golden ticket, through Tory-lite (in some cases) policies, with a garnish of socialism (minimum wage or banning of hunting, for example) the landscape has undoubtedly changed. The sharp economic divides that now exist in society, along with the championing of individualism mean that Labour will find it tough to ‘out-Tory’ the Tories.
The identity of the party and its future are now is at stake: the growing divide between ‘blue’ Labour, who are in thrall to win Conservative voters with Tory friendly policies, and the old guard – who believe that Labour needs to stand by its values and represent social justice and representing the working-class and not just the aspirational class. The latest stand-off between the two factions merely highlights the problems that Labour will face when it has to elect a leader in the autumn. Whoever is elected faces the task of keeping the party together before he or she can consider winning back the trust of the electorate.