Amid the shouting and the booing, it was hard for Tom Cardwell to remember that everyone here—technically—was on the same side. Cardwell was in Liverpool in spring, listening to Louise Ellman, his Member of Parliament, speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Or he was trying to listen—a group of 20 or 30 people in the crowd were drowning out Ellman, a 70-year-old Labour Party MP who has represented the Liverpool Riverside constituency in Parliament since 1997, the year the party was swept to power in a landslide under Tony Blair. “I very politely said to them, ‘Guys, I’m sick of you shouting all the time, can you please be quiet?’” says Cardwell, a 51-year-old marketing executive. “A couple of guys in their late 20s said they’d take me outside and beat me up.” Cardwell says he was also called a “Ziofascist” for his support of Ellman, who is Jewish.
Cardwell’s upbringing in the rough Liverpool area of Dingle kicked in, and, he says, “I got very angry and they backed off.” Yet the protesters he faced off against were not opponents, but fellow Labour members. Such confrontations are a symptom of a civil war that has engulfed Britain’s main opposition party since it was crushed by the Conservatives in last year’s election. Labour, which created Britain’s welfare state, is as divided over the leadership of hard-leftist Jeremy Corbyn as the Republicans are over Donald Trump in the U.S. Like the Republican presidential nominee, Corbyn was elected by a groundswell of supporters disillusioned with his party’s mainstream politicians. And even more than Trump, Corbyn is deeply unpopular among the party’s MPs and Establishment figures, many of whom openly question his suitability for top office.
Caught between an extremist base and more-centrist MPs, Labour is barely able to perform its basic role of holding the Conservative government to account—let alone prepare to take back national leadership. And that matters for more than just despondent Labourites. With Labour hopelessly divided and occupied with petty insider feuds, the nearly half of Britons who voted to remain within the E.U. fear that the dominant Euroskeptic wing of the Conservative Party will be free to push through a sharp, sudden break with the 28-nation bloc. This “hard Brexit” would end the U.K.’s unfettered access to the E.U.’s single market, a tariff-free trading area that is worth 4% to the economy. At the very least, such a plan would require parliamentary scrutiny by a strong, united government-in-waiting. And that’s Labour’s job in what is essentially a two-party state. The traditional third party, the Liberal Democrats, has only eight of Parliament’s 650 MPs, while the Scottish National Party, with 54 seats, is mostly concerned with matters in Scotland.
But Labour seems more intent on fighting itself. “Quite a lot of people in the party have always cared more about power in the party than power in the country,” says Alastair Campbell, Blair’s former head of communications. “Look what’s happening on Brexit now. We’re utterly powerless.”
Corbyn didn’t seem much of a threat to the party’s Establishment when he ran for the office of leader in 2015. The 67-year-old backbencher had a reputation as a leftist rebel, having voted against his own party more than 400 times since entering Parliament in 1983. But he attracted an army of grassroots supporters largely made up of young people and older leftists who had been left out in the cold during Blair’s rule. The Corbynites were energized by their leader’s principled and consistent stance on left-wing issues, ranging from increased public funding for every kind of government service to resolute pacifism. He won the party’s leadership in September 2015, buoyed by the same forces that have led to the rise of populist, anti-Establishment parties across Europe—from Syriza in Greece to the Five Star Party in Italy.
Under Corbyn, however, the Labour Party is larger than them all, its more than 550,000 members making it Western Europe’s biggest political party. But a passionate base hasn’t meant national success—far from it. With Prime Minister Theresa May new to office, Labour is 18 points behind the Conservatives, according to the latest Ipsos MORI opinion poll. Labour MPs fear they are on course for electoral catastrophe at the next election, which is expected in 2020.
After the June 23 referendum on the E.U., 172 of the party’s 232 MPs backed a motion of no confidence in him, infuriated by what they viewed as a lackluster performance during the referendum campaign. Yet Corbyn ignored them. “I refused the invitation to resign by the members of the parliamentary Labour Party on the grounds I had been elected on a mandate from the wider party membership,” he tells TIME. In late September, his devoted following helped him defeat challenger Owen Smith with nearly 62% of the vote. He used his mandate to double down on his authority, surrounding himself with his closest allies and pushing out those perceived to be establishment plotters. “We had another election, and I was elected as leader with an even bigger majority,” he says. “So I think there is a perception now that that is the result. That is the position of the party.”
Ideological tension is practically written into the DNA of Labour, which was formed in 1900 out of an uneasy alliance of socialist and center-left groups. Yet the party helped shape Britain’s progress during the 23 years it was in power over the course of the 20th century. Clement Attlee’s government created the publicly funded National Health Service (NHS) in 1948, while Harold Wilson’s administration brought in a host of liberal social reforms in the 1960s, legalizing homosexuality and scrapping the death penalty. Blair introduced the country’s first national minimum wage in 1999.
These policies have become parts of the country’s fabric, and no Conservative Party would dare touch them now. Out of office, however, Labour has often been directionless and fractious. The party’s biggest crisis occurred during the 1980s when the hard-left Militant faction took control of Liverpool’s Labour group and the city’s local government. Liverpool had suffered a sharp decline in heavy industry and was struggling to cope with union reforms brought in by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives. Militant vowed to replace slum housing and joined 14 other local governments in a rebellion against Labour, after the Conservatives restricted their spending. Ultimately, Militant could not afford its housing pledge, and the Labour leadership, under Neil Kinnock, expelled the faction. After Kinnock, himself a left-winger, lost the 1992 general election, Labour moved to the center ground under Blair, who rebranded the party as New Labour and successfully defeated a demoralized, scandal-ridden Conservative Party in 1997.
Although Labour won more elections under Blair than any other leader, many leftists never abandoned the conviction that he was an ideological traitor who deregulated the financial sector and let the private sector run state services for profit, including some in the treasured NHS. His divisive support for George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq eventually turned Blair into a despised figure on the left and the right, and in 2010, Labour would lose power three years after Blair’s exit amid a financial crisis laid at his successor Gordon Brown’s door. As David Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition government undertook an austerity program of public-sector cuts, Labour struggled to find a coherent identity under the leadership of inexperienced, gaffe-prone Ed Miliband. Conditions were ripe for Corbyn’s rise.
Campbell blames the “consequences of globalization” for the Labour Party’s move leftward—young, less well-off people frustrated by stagnant wages and austerity cuts, even as the rich got richer. But he is convinced a hard-left Labour will never achieve national electoral success. “Only one Labour leader has won a general election in the last 40 years,” says Campbell, referring to Blair. “This is not a country that regularly gives Labour long periods in office.” Not that Campbell feels that matters to all Labour members. “I think that the Labour Party has often had periods where there is almost a sense that opposition is purer,” he says.
When asked when he knew that Corbyn wasn’t up to the task of taking on the Conservatives on Brexit—the issue set to define the next decade of British politics—Kinnock points to the morning of June 24. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, senior politicians had trod a cautious line on exactly when Britain should trigger the formal departure from the E.U., so as to calm the financial markets and retain the U.K.’s negotiating power. Corbyn, however, called for Britain to immediately start the two-year period of negotiations to disentangle Britain from the E.U. “He did that without a thought for the millions of jobs and billions of investment involved,” says Kinnock, now 74. “Whatever negotiating hand the U.K. has in its future relationships with the E.U. would have been blown away if the government had followed his suggestion.”
Kinnock predicts that under Corbyn Labour will win a “ballpark” 165 seats in the election due in 2020. That’s the same number the Conservatives won in 1997, a near wipeout that allowed Labour to dominate British politics for the next 13 years. Conservative voters then looked on aghast as their MPs were unable to effectively oppose what they saw as clear mistakes, like Brown’s decision between 1999 and 2002 to sell off more than half of Britain’s gold reserves at the bottom of the market. Now Labour centrists fear divisions within the party would make them unable to confront or defeat any controversial policy presented by the government—on Brexit, or otherwise.
Corbyn loyalists say it’s the divisions created by the centrists that are making it hard for the leader to counter the government. “There are a small number of Labour MPs who would rather see a Tory government than a Jeremy Corbyn–led government,” says Clive Lewis, shadow secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy. “I’m not alone in finding that deeply, deeply distressing.”
It may take another election to resolve the feud. Lucy Powell, a former shadow education secretary and ally of Miliband, says that allowing Corbyn and his policy platform to fail in 2020 will be the only way to shatter the illusions of the party’s far left. Others disagree—Alan Johnson, who was Britain’s Interior Minister when the last Labour government lost power in 2010, argues Corbyn will still have “the cult of personality and private army” at the end of the decade that could see him stay in the post whatever the result. Johnson thinks a new candidate should be put up against Corbyn on an annual basis, as the party’s rules allow, creating a cycle of yearly contests that might sap enthusiasm for the leader and allow someone else to build a rival movement.
(Read more: 10 Questions with Jeremy Corbyn)
Corbyn’s acolytes have already begun planning a counterattack, potentially deselecting MPs seen to be allied with the Establishment and replacing them with leftist lawmakers. That’s already led to complaints by some long-term Labour members and MPs of intimidation, as well as sexist and anti-Semitic abuse similar to what Tom Cardwell experienced in Liverpool. Corbyn has vowed to stamp out “hateful language or debate, in person or anywhere else,” but many MPs have a sense that he is not in control of the movement so much as the movement is in control of him. If it’s successful, some fear the party that was created to bring Britain’s sprawling left wing together might end up tearing itself apart. If Corbyn leads the party after 2020, Johnson says, “people might seriously start thinking this is the end of the Labour Party.”
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