BY MICHAEL ZELLER
It is a tumultuous time in British politics; intra- and inter-party forces are wreaking havoc on the previously durable ‘two-and-a-half-party system’ of the United Kingdom. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has gained utter dominance in Scotland and, through no fault of their own, functions as an insignificantly opposed predominant party in its sphere of control. Liberal Democrats received their just rewards for broken campaign promises and were consigned to obscurity by the electorate; time will tell if the dustbin of history awaits the party and its plucky, diminutive leader. Edged toward one extreme of the spectrum, cast simultaneously as party leader and rebel, the once and once again U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) boss Nigel Farage represents at once a menace to the ideologically adjoining Conservative Party and to his own party fellows. David Cameron and the Tories—the party of power, governing alone, the big tent, or, as Chancellor George Osborne dubbed them at the 2015 party conference, “the true party of labor”—may not be appreciably harassed from without, but undoubtedly are facing stark internal divisions, particularly over the forthcoming in-out European Union referendum. Yet with these fascinating developments proceeding apace, they all nonetheless pale before the ongoing theatrics of the Labour Party, tragedy or farce depending on your perspective.
In the past week Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn conducted, to the tempo of a funeral dirge, a cabinet reshuffle. Internal party grumblings, taunts from David Cameron across the dispatch box, and exasperated groans from the pundit community arguably obscure a pivotal implication of this activity: Corbyn is not oblivious to political realities. He means to remain leader, longer at least than Blairites, hopeful of a speedy coup, had estimated.
Briefly, the results of the reshuffle are this: Michael Dugher, shadow Culture Secretary, and Pat McFadden, shadow Europe minister were both sacked, replaced by outgoing Defense Secretary Maria Eagle and Pat Glass, respectively. Emily Thornberry, a Corbyn stalwart that shares the leader’s opposition to Britain’s Trident nuclear program, becomes the new Defense Secretary. Three shadow ministers, Jonathan Reynolds (rail), Stephen Doughty (business), and Kevan Jones (defense), resigned in protest of what they called a ‘revenge reshuffle.’ And Hilary Benn, the shadow Foreign Secretary that stirred members of all parties and persuasions (apart from Corbyn and his allies) with his speech in favor of a bombing campaign over Syrian territory occupied by Daesh, retains his position amid speculation of being ‘muzzled’ from further rebellion against the leadership.
Corbyn’s leadership, though arguably not broadly appealing to the British electorate, holds enough currency in Labour’s traditional heartland to sustain him.
To many this may seem merely a fleeting curiosity of an opposition party in the wilderness, something to be forgotten even before Corbyn’s ill-starred leadership has come to an end. But such a view overlooks the resiliency that this episode reveals. A resounding by-election victory in the Oldham West and Royton constituency, this reshuffle, and a dogged perseverance through public relations pratfalls show that Corbyn’s leadership, though arguably not broadly appealing to the British electorate, holds enough currency in Labour’s traditional heartland to sustain him. The campaign and personal conduct that has modeled Corbyn as the longstanding rebel thrust into leadership, a good and honest man thrown into a position of political exigencies, while certainly not disingenuous—Corbyn is almost indubitably those things—masked the now clearly revealed willingness to play the game of politics. However unwillingly, however distasteful it may be to him personally, Corbyn, along with his advisors, has acceded to the role of political leader rather than the chief of an evanescent ideological movement.
What does this portend for the wider scene of British politics? Labour, divided against itself and regressed to the broadly unpalatable ideological stance that characterized the party under Michael Foot in the early 1980s, can scarcely present a viable alternative government. Disaffected voters may turn to “the true party of labor” under Prime Minister Cameron, to the bombastic figure of Nigel Farage (particularly so long as the EU and immigration remain prominent issues), or, in the case of Scotland, even further toward the SNP. For nearly a century the politics of Britain were characterized by competition between the Conservatives and Labour, with an occasionally significant impact by the Liberals—marked by nothing so much as its predictability. Now: diffusion of voters throughout a truly multiparty system, the increasing threat of a decisive split in Labour, and a Conservative government held in place by a thin majority and confronted with its own internal divisions; it suggests at most political atomization and at least a new dynamism, distinguished above all by irregularity.
About the Author
Michael Zeller holds an M.A. in Political Science from Corvinus University of Budapest. His B.A. is in Political Science from the University of Louisville.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.