Why is the Labour party divided?

Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015, the party has faced growing animosity and flaring tensions. There has even been talk of a break away party. Corbyn’s election was widely seen as a victory for Labour’s left wing.

But what makes him distinct from Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown or Tony Blair? Why is the Labour party seemingly more divided now than it has been in nearly 40 years?

The answer can be found in differing ideals. Jeremy Corbyn’s faction is unashamedly socialist, a position that rejects some of the fundamental principles of a capitalist economy. The Labour right, often identified with Tony Blair, are more inclined to accept the market economy and work within the economic paradigms that have existed since the 1980s.

This distinction can be felt most keenly in Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution, a document that outlines the core beliefs of the movement. Clause IV committed the party to government ownership and state management of key sectors like transport and energy. This commitment had been part of the Labour vision since 1918. But in 1995, Tony Blair successfully altered Clause IV, moving the party away from state ownership.

He did this because, at the time, the Labour Party had been out of power for 16 years. The belief was that Labour needed to change if it was ever to be a party of government again. Blair developed a position called ‘New Labour’ that moved away from older forms of socialism that had been dominant in the party.

Instead, New Labour committed itself to both social justice and free markets, attempting to meld together elements of both left and right. This position was summed up by one of the architects of the New Labour project, Peter Mandelson who said he was: “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes.”

For Corbyn’s democratic socialist ideals, this position makes little sense. The free market itself is what creates injustice. His 2017 election manifesto put forward a ‘mixed economy’, where the state manages certain industries and restricts markets that are seen as damaging to broader society.

Many of Corbyn’s commitments involved higher levels of government investment. A flagship policy is the creation of a National Education Service, where citizens have the right to teaching from cradle to grave. Such policies require higher levels of taxation – taxation that will be levied on businesses and the rich.

Fundamentally, the left-right split in Labour comes from differing visions for the relationship between the state and the market. Where New Labour allowed an unfettered free market, on the condition that they could redistribute some of that wealth, Corbyn’s Labour wants to change the rules of the game.


Cover image credit: Garry Knight

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