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Britain’s Labour Party Battles For Soul And Identity

By Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) — In the 1970s, a trio of socialists joined a battle to steer Britain’s Labour Party to the left. Within a few years, two of them had seized control of the council that governed London, running the capital for half a decade.

Almost 40 years on, the same three men, led by new party chief Jeremy Corbyn, are closer than ever to their goal of pushing the opposition party to the hard left. But in doing so, they have set off an internal war which could end its chances of winning an election for years.

Two months after 66-year-old Corbyn was elected leader on a wave of enthusiasm for change, some Labour lawmakers closer to the center are rebelling openly over his stand on vexed questions such as how to tackle terrorism and whether Britain should bomb Syria.

With slurs and accusations flying on both sides, the battle for the soul of the Labour Party is turning nasty.

Alongside Corbyn stand two old friends and colleagues who form the rest of the trio: Labour’s finance spokesman in parliament, John McDonnell, and Ken Livingstone, who led the now-defunct Greater London Council (GLC) and later served as the capital’s mayor.

Livingstone says he has seen it all before, not least when he became GLC leader in 1981. “I am watching what is happening to Jeremy and it reminds me of what I went through in ’81. I was depicted as a pro-terrorist, an agent of the Soviet Union,” said the 70-year-old, nicknamed “Red Ken” at the time.

“But like me, Jeremy’s not giving in to this and he’s not changing his policies because of these lies,” he told Reuters at his terraced house in northwest London. “It is very nasty, but he’s got four-and-a-half years before the next election to turn this around and I think he will.”

Corbyn may not get that long – rumors of plots to oust him are rife – but Livingstone and McDonnell are battling to protect him.

The three have worked together since the early 1970s, “usually on the same side on virtually every issue”, said Livingstone. In the mid ’70s, he said, they set up campaigns to get more socialists onto local councils.

While Livingstone led the GLC, McDonnell was the council’s finance chief, although their rule ended in 1986 when the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher abolished the body. Corbyn, meanwhile, headed to parliament, campaigning from the left while voters consigned Labour to opposition for almost two decades.

In 1997, Tony Blair finally won a landslide election victory for “New Labour”, but only after steering the party away from its trade union roots. There was now little room for the three leftists.

Blair even expelled Livingstone from the party for running for mayor of London as an independent in 2000, an election he won. Blair deemed him too left wing to represent Labour, although he was eventually let back into the party.

Now the pendulum has swung again; Corbyn and his supporters have moved quickly to break what they call the top-down tyranny of New Labour to return “democracy” to the party. While no longer a lawmaker, Livingstone has been appointed by Corbyn as the joint head of a committee reviewing party policy on renewing the submarines which carry Britain’s nuclear weapons.


The trio are “old-school” campaigners; Livingstone describes finding a leaflet while “shuffling through papers” from 1980 when he and Corbyn were the speakers at a rally intended to help make the GLC socialist.

Livingstone admires what he calls Corbyn’s honesty, one of the reasons cited by many of the mainly young new Labour members and supporters who backed his leadership campaign. Many also saw him as the only alternative to the party “establishment”.

But others, including many of Corbyn’s own lawmakers, see his refusal to compromise on his socialist principles as a problem and do not trust his closest allies.

Corbyn was elected on Sept. 12 after former leader Ed Miliband’s attempt to fuse centrism with a more left-wing doctrine failed to convince voters in last May’s election. Many did not trust Labour to run the economy well, while the legacy of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, backed by Blair’s government, also weighed heavily.

The party was already split when some lawmakers reluctantly nominated Corbyn for the leadership after facing what one senior Labour member described as an awful selection of candidates.

Starting as a rank outsider, Corbyn not only won the votes of the leftist old guard but captured the mood of younger members with his opposition to the Conservative government’s austerity measures to eliminate a large budget deficit.

Some senior party members refused to work with Corbyn but others decided to give him a chance when he brought moderates as well as more natural allies into his shadow cabinet, whose members hold portfolios mirroring those of the government.

But Corbyn then moved to tighten his control over the party by bringing in new advisers, endorsing a campaign to get leftists onto local councils and sticking closely to his principles, including an anti-war stance. Some more mainstream Labour lawmakers, wary of public opinion, became increasingly critical.


Social media has become the forum for often vicious spats, and the Labour Party seems at war with itself.

Following the Paris bloodbath on Nov. 13 claimed by Islamic State, Corbyn questioned the “shoot-to-kill” policy of British police in tackling such attacks. One lawmaker who criticized his comments was told to “get behind the leader or kindly go”.

It is not an isolated case.

Several lawmakers said they have had to distance themselves from his stance on the “shoot-to-kill” policy, his opposition to joining air strikes against Islamic State in Syria and his statement that if prime minister he would never use nuclear weapons. This, they said, was to persuade voters that Labour would keep the country safe.

Some were branded Tories, or Conservatives. Others feared they would be hounded out of their jobs.

McDonnell, 64, has also ruffled feathers among centrists, notably when he brandished a copy of Chairman Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book — a collection of the Chinese communist leader’s thoughts — in parliament.

Livingstone himself prompted outrage when he responded to a lawmaker’s criticism of his appointment to the defense review by suggesting he needed “psychiatric help”. The lawmaker had a history of depression and Livingstone was forced to apologize.

Richard Angell, director of Progress, a group of Labour “modernizers” which has been touring the country to gauge public feeling, says Corbyn has alienated centrist members by surrounding himself with leftists. “His controversial appointments are of individuals more enthusiastic about his leadership than even he might be,” Angell told Reuters.


Livingstone points out that Corbyn has strong support among party members who now number more than 380,000, up from about 270,000 in August and close to the more than 400,000 figure when Blair was elected in 1997.

He condemns the attacks on Corbyn as disloyal and blames a hostile media owned by “corrupt, tax-dodging billionaires” for demonizing the Labour leader.

With control over much of the party’s apparatus, the leftists are also trying to boost their wider appeal through a group called Momentum.

Some Labour lawmakers say Momentum is “a party within the party” and portray it as little more than a lynch mob to get rid of moderate parliamentarians. Momentum denies this.

Its aim is “to open up the Labour Party to make it more like a social movement” developing what one organizer, 28-year-old James Schneider, calls “a more democratic and equal society”.

An opinion poll this month by YouGov research group for the Times newspaper showed 66 percent of Labour members believed Corbyn was doing well. However, a ComRes poll showed the general public was now more than twice as likely to say they have an unfavorable view of Corbyn as favorable.

For John Mills, a Labour donor and businessman, there needs to be “some sort of synthesis” of the idealism of Corbyn and “the pragmatism and experience” of the Labour right to take the party forward and end the Conservatives’ grip on power.

“In the end the Labour Party will reorganize itself,” he said. “No, I don’t think it’s dead.”

(Editing by David Stamp)

Photo: Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party addresses the Scottish Labour Party conference in Perth, Scotland October 30, 2015. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

David Cameron’s Wizardry

WASHINGTON — Prime Minister David Cameron’s surprising success in winning an outright majority of seats in Britain’s Parliament is the result of a paradox: The center in Britain held and flew apart at the same time.

Neither the polls nor the pundits predicted the extent of Cameron’s triumph in Thursday’s voting. While they have something to answer for, their miscalculations also reflected the Conservative leader’s ability to translate a very modest increase in his share of the overall vote into many more additional seats than anyone thought possible.

On the latest count, Cameron’s Conservatives won just under 37 percent, roughly one percentage point more than they won five years ago. The center-left Labour Party, led by Ed Miliband, won roughly 30.5 percent, up about a point and a half. Yet Labour’s result was disastrous, in part because it was wiped out in Scotland by the separatist Scottish National Party.

That the two big parties could not even manage 70 percent of the vote between them is one sign of Britain’s political distemper. Another is the electoral revolution in Scotland.

Labour’s roots run deep north of the River Tweed. Scotland was always its bastion. Not this time. By giving the SNP all but three of Scotland’s 59 seats — Labour held 41 of them before the election — its voters signaled not only their frustration that Miliband’s party had taken them for granted over many years, but also that they were fed up with London politicians altogether.

Cameron profited twice over from the nationalist surge. Even on a better day, Labour could not have assembled a majority in Parliament without its Scottish base. And at the close of the campaign, Cameron almost certainly picked up votes in England by warning that Labour could only form a governing majority if it were willing to put the country in hock to separatists. Cameron presented himself as the man who would never pay a ransom and was thus the only choice for English voters who cared about political stability.

But the price of this gambit could be high. The Conservative majority is almost entirely an English majority. Cameron’s approach stoked English nationalism and anti-Scottish feeling, which can only aggravate Scottish resentment. Containing British disintegration will be Cameron’s biggest second-term headache.

His genius for cool political calculation was on display in another respect: In embracing the once center-left Liberal Democrats as coalition allies in his first term, he crushed them. Many on the right-wing of Cameron’s party disliked governing with the Lib Dems. But Cameron understood that allying with Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg would allow him to live up to his promise to create a more moderate brand of Conservatism — and would ultimately discredit Clegg’s party with its own voters.

During Prime Minister Tony Blair’s time in office, Liberal Democrats were to the left of Blair’s Labour Party. The abrupt transformation of the Lib Dems’ identity as enablers of a center-right government was too much, too fast.

And on Thursday, the party’s vote was cut by two-thirds, from 23 percent in 2010 to just under 8 percent. The Lib Dems went into the election with 57 seats and salvaged only eight of them. The Conservatives won more than two dozen of the lost Lib Dem seats, providing Cameron with his new majority. It was a two-step: Weakened by the loss of voters on their party’s left end, the Lib Dems were easy pickings for Cameron, and his party apparatus ruthlessly targeted his one-time allies.

In a lesson for American conservatives, Cameron went out of his way during the campaign to reassure economically hard-pressed voters with promises that he reiterated in his victory speech Friday, including, “3 million apprenticeships,” and “more help with child care.” Cameron was the candidate of a kinder, gentler austerity. By making enough concessions to Miliband’s argument that the working class was hurting, Cameron could focus the country’s attention on good economic news and the SNP threat.

But now that he has a parliamentary majority, Cameron will be challenged inside his party to move away from his signature moderation. Harder-line conservatives will point to Thursday’s thunder from the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party. UKIP won just one seat, but became the country’s third largest party in popular votes, quadrupling its share to nearly 13 percent. On immigration and Britain’s future with the European Union, Cameron will have limited maneuvering room.

David Cameron has proven himself an electoral wizard. Now he’ll have to reveal a good deal more about what’s behind the curtain.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is Twitter: @EJDionne. 

Photo: Number 10 (Official Flickr Account of the Prime Minister’s Office)

Britain’s Cameron Promises Reforms, EU Referendum After Election Win

By Bill Smith, dpa (TNS)

LONDON — Prime Minister David Cameron promised Friday to deliver all the economic and political reforms in his manifesto after his Conservative Party won an outright parliamentary majority in the general election.

“We will deliver that in-out referendum on our future in Europe,” Cameron said, referring to his promise to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership and hold a referendum by the end of 2017.

He said five years of the Conservatives’ coalition government with the Liberal Democrats had “laid the foundations for a better future.”

“As I said in the small hours of this morning, we will govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom,” he said outside his residence in London’s Downing Street after visiting Queen Elizabeth to inform her of his plan to form a new government.

“That means ensuring this recovery reaches all parts of our country, from north to south, from east to west,” Cameron said, adding that he plans to expand devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland “as fast as I can.”

Cameron earlier hailed the “sweetest victory” of his political career, with the win giving the Conservatives around 330 seats and a clear mandate for another five years in office.

The Conservative majority in the 650-seat parliament surprised most political analysts.

The Conservatives’ main rivals, Labour, won some 230 seats, meaning it had lost about two dozen of those they had held since 2010. Their leader, Ed Miliband, resigned the party leadership after calling Cameron to congratulate him on the election result. Of his own position, he said it was “time for someone else.”

“The responsibility for the result is mine alone,” he said.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg also resigned his party’s leadership, after accepting responsibility for the “catastrophic” loss of seats in the election.

The Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives’ coalition partners for the last five years, lost 48 of the 57 seats they held in 2010, with several seats still to be counted.

“It is now painfully clear that this has been a cruel and punishing night for the Liberal Democrats,” says Clegg, who served as deputy prime minister in the coalition.

He is one of only eight members of his party to have won a seat in Thursday’s election.

The London stock exchange was up around 2 percent during mid-day trading while sterling was gaining on the dollar and the euro.

“Clearly we have a mandate to get on with the work that we started five years ago,” Chancellor George Osborne said.

Most pre-election polls had forecast no more than 285 seats for Osborne’s party.

There was a rise in support for the right-wing UK Independence Party, although it won only one seat and party leader Nigel Farage failed to get one. He later resigned the party leadership.

In his resignation speech, Farage blamed his defeat on prospective UKIP voters choosing the Conservatives because they “were so scared” of a possible coalition government between Labour and the Scottish National Party, which right-wing tabloid newspapers had presented as a “nightmare” scenario.

Farage lost out to Conservative candidate Craig Craig Mackinlay, a former UKIP deputy leader, in the South Thanet constituency.

The Scottish National Party won 56 of the 59 seats in Scotland, wiping out all but one of Labour’s seats in what party leader Nicola Sturgeon hailed as a “historic watershed.”

The election shapes Britain’s economic future and could have major implications for the country’s welfare services, its relationship with the European Union — and even the future integrity of the country.
Cameron said the country “must hold” a promised referendum on EU membership and allow greater devolution for Scotland and Wales “as fast as we can.”

Turnout in the election was about 66 percent, a similar level to the last election in 2010.

In Brussels, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker congratulated Cameron on his victory.

The commission “stands ready to work constructively with the new British government,” said spokesman Margaritis Schinas, adding that it will examine any requests for a change in Britain’s relations with the European Union in a “polite, friendly and objective way.”

The 28-member bloc’s governments must decide on any EU treaty changes, Schinas said, warning that freedom of movement — an issue challenged by many eurosceptics in Britain — is a “non-negotiable” right that is essential to the bloc.

(c)2015 Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH (Hamburg, Germany), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: The Prime Minister David Cameron delivers his victory speech at the Witney Constituency Parliamentary Count, Witney, Oxfordshire, on May 8, 2015 after winning his seat in Witney the previous night. (Andrew Parsons/i-Images/Zuma Press/TNS)

6 Lessons Drawn From Cameron’s Big Victory

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LONDON — The British election results Thursday night took even the seasoned by surprise. A race that was supposed to be tighter than a bearskin hatband and even potentially set off a parliamentary crisis turned out to be a romp for David Cameron’s Conservatives, who according to the tally so far defeated Ed Miliband’s Labor by 327-232 seats.

The events had implications for the United Kingdom’s two major parties as ?well as many others across the spectrum. We break down the lessons from a seismic day in British politics.

It’s a phenomenon that shares elements with the shattering losses of Democrats in several U.S. midterm elections: A party that once bore the working-class mantle is decimated by a conservative party,? especially in blue-collar areas. Labor’s demise in ?Scotland (to the nationalist-left Scottish National Party) and Northern England (to the Conservatives) was thorough, and will occasion hand-wringing for whoever takes over the party.? (Ed Miliband, who resigned Friday, tweeted that “the responsibility for the result is mine alone.”) Of course, politics loves a comeback. Miliband’s brother David, outmaneuvered for the head of Labor in 2010 and currently in New York as the head of a humanitarian group, could well return to the U.K. to fanfare and expectation, tasked with reversing a Democrat-esque collapse. And speaking? of blue and red state divides …

A burgeoning post-referendum movement for homegrown representation ?turned into full-blown political revolt Thursday as the Scottish National Party took 56 out of 59 seats it was running for. The Scots have been throatily endorsing the SNP, which also runs the country’s own (modestly mandated) Parliament and is led by Nicola Sturgeon, a straight-talking figure who is one of the fastest-rising stars in British politics (if also, for the right, one of its most polarizing). There’s a sense among many analysts that these are the first stirrings of another Scottish independence referendum and even eventual separation from the United Kingdom. The fact that the SNP will now be in the opposition instead ?of a Labor-led governing coalition should only boost those efforts _ members can snipe at and thwart Cameron’s agenda from the sidelines, delighting constituents, without being faulted for the government’s futility or ?unfavorable actions.

This is supposed to be the era of Big Data.? So how did all the polls _ from the BBC to the Guardian/ICM _ get it wrong? The surveys all predicted neck-and-neck races; indeed, the margin between Conservative and Labor was never more than 2 percent in nearly all the major polls dating back months.
One simple answer is the sampling methods. Pre-election polls tend to look at national sentiments, discounting the local and granular forces that make up a Parliamentary election. (After all, the House of Commons is pieced together via about 645 small local elections.) Or it’s possible that many voters who planned to vote Labor got to the booth and decided to stick with the Conservative status quo. Still, it will prompt some pollster soul-searching.

THE LIB DEM-ISE. It was just five years ago when Cleggmania gripped Britain and? the centrist-minded Liberal Democrats rode a strong election to 57 seats and a spot with the Conservatives in the governing coalition. But that time may as well have been the Tudor era ?on Thursday night_the party captured just eight seats, effectively sidelining it from the political scene, at least for now, and reversing Nick Clegg’s rocket ride, at least for now. (He narrowly won his seat Thursday night and stepped down from the party leadership Friday.) There will be much ruminating about what went so wrong for a party that not so long ago had seized the British public’s imagination.? But the coalition, and the party’s rough place in it, did it no favors.? Neither did a larger polarization of British politics.

On that subject of polarization, it was hardly a big parliamentary win_just one seat. Party leader Nigel Farage couldn’t even keep his own seat. But the United Kingdom Independence Party, a hard-right anti-immigration party, still notched over 10 percent of the popular vote. The result suggests that the party’s ideology is still popular with good chunks of the British population and that the country’s own version of France’s National Front is alive and well. Farage even says he hopes to come back.

David Cameron will claim a mandate after his party’s sound victory.? And given how many seats the Conservatives won over pundit predictions, he’ll have a case. But a number of close contests with Ukip candidates means he’ll continue to face pressure from his right. And he’ll encounter new challenges ?a-plenty in his second term, not least of which on European Union membership, an issue on which Cameron pledged a referendum in 2017_and which could cause a bitter Britain-wide fight that will be hard for a prime minister to stay above?.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times.Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
AFP Photo/Leon Neal