The Labour Party recently has been plagued with a myriad of controversial events. Front-bench resignations, shadow-cabinet reshuffles and reports of bullying have engulfed the normal day-to-day operation of the party to such an extent, that its effectiveness as an opposition and prospective government has come into question. In light of this, you would be right to think that matters couldn’t get worse. But they have, with two recent by-elections in Copeland and Stoke central bearing this out.
Friday 24th February saw two by-election results at polar opposites. Fortunately for the party, amidst the plunging opinion poll ratings of Jeremy Corbyn, Labour achieved a close result in securing Stoke Central; an industrial stronghold since 1950. The Labour candidate, Gareth Snell won 7,853 votes to UKIP’s 5,233. Yet, forty-five minutes later, the success of Mr Snell in Stoke Central was at once undermined after the historic defeat of Labour’s stronghold- Copeland.
The Conservatives seized Copeland with an overwhelming majority. This is one of the most devastating by-election results for Mr Corbyn and the party, losing a seat that it has held since 1935. The shift from Labour to the Conservatives in Copeland was as high as 7 percent, extraordinary for a governing party, yet to the detriment for the opposition. This revelation, along with other events, has certainly given the Labour leader more than food-for-thought.
It seems that the Labour Party is suffering from an identity crisis. The working class, the essential component of what Labour stands for, is in critical danger of vanishing permanently. The controversial political issue that is Brexit has simply thrown the party into disarray, with the referendum last June highlighting the various divisions within Britain.
Ironically, divisions were most prevalent between Labour and its voters in the Midlands and the North. 149 out of 243 constituencies voted ‘Leave’ during the referendum, in spite of the large majority of the party’s professional membership. In reference to Copeland, 62.0% voted to leave the European Union. Although the lack of a visible answer to the ‘nuclear question’ from Jeremy Corbyn would have determined the result of the Copeland by-election, it seems the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ rhetoric, pedalled by the Conservatives has proved to be a more popular concept with Labour voters.
The class divide between those in support of Remain and those of Leave and the blatant disregard of its voters regarding the EU has placed Labour on the opposite side of the working class heritage. In areas of policy, such as immigration, the liberal approach adopted completely defies the consensus of longstanding strongholds. The party risks plunging into operating, as one commentator noted, with 0% strategy. At once the party is clearly not Brexit-ready for the Leavers yet, not Europhile enough for Remainers, who are swarming to nest with the Liberal Democrats.
A perfect time then, in light of the election results, to herald ‘Merrie England’, a collection of influential essays, written by Robert Blatchford in 1893. The compilation of essays called for a Socialist transformation of the most advanced capitalist economy in the World. And, it was this collection that proved influential to many in Britain; the critique of the economics of free markets and the culture of individualism became part of the nascent Labour party.
Significantly, Blatchford, under his pen name and with the employment of satire, called for collaboration to override competition; replacing the driving force in human life. This vision, of a new society based on compassion and collective living, built in downtrodden areas of the industrial North, was, of course, a popular prospect and an instant classic. When the series of essays were published, the original 30,000 run sold out almost instantly. This called for a new ‘penny edition’, with copies purchased in quick succession by mill workers, porters and railwaymen.
This era was an exciting time for the British working class who growing in confidence began to take its first political steps. It has been a century since the emergence of this ‘golden age’. Yet, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Labour could use a copy of ‘Merrie England’.