The Labour Party Split: The View From Portsmouth

Our contributing editor Maddie Wallace investigates the local consequences of the biggest crisis in the Labour Party since the formation of the SDP in 1981.

As even people living in steel bubbles on Mars will know, the Labour Party is in disarray. In June, an overwhelming majority of Labour MPs passed a vote of no confidence in their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and staged a coup which triggered a leadership challenge less than a year after Corbyn was elected with the largest mandate in political history. What is going on, and how does it affect Portsmouth?

There’s been a 400% increase in new members of Portsmouth Labour Party – before Corbyn there were 400, now there are 1500. The figures are reflective of what’s going on nationally given that the Labour Party now has a total of half a million members. Many of the newbies – in Portsmouth and beyond – are Corbyn supporters and involved in the grassroots movement Momentum.

The problem is, while Corbyn is hugely popular with the membership, and has clearly brought fresh blood into the Labour Party, many in the Labour establishment disagree with his anti-austerity policies. As Cllr John Ferrett, leader of the Portsmouth Labour Group and councillor for Paulsgrove told me, ‘The vast majority of the PLP realise how difficult it is to win elections and how difficult it’s going to be for us to win enough seats to form a Labour government, and the reality is we have to win seats that are currently held by the Conservatives to do that.’

Cllr Ferrett’s view that Labour should be trying to gain ground in the centre of politics is one that motivated the parliamentary coup. The current crisis has seen those on the left of the party call those on the left ‘Blairites’ and ‘scabs’, while right-wingers dub leftists ‘Trots’ and ‘Corbynistas’. Former Portsmouth North Labour MP Syd Rapson added a bizarre insult to the compendium: ‘aliens’.

Name calling aside, it’s been a bitter battle, with the party more divided than it’s been since the 1980s. Locally, the influx of newcomers has caused consternation amongst those with decades of experience in the party. Cllr Ferrett has been a member of the Labour Party for 27 years and has stood as a candidate in both local and general elections. There are, he believes, people coming in now ‘with a sort of revolutionary zeal about them.’

That yearning for a revolution in politics is driving the left of the Labour Party at the moment. Corbyn’s policies for ending austerity, ditching tax breaks for big business and creating a fairer playing field for all isn’t just winning over new members, it’s got economists and political pundits debating the end of neoliberal politics as we know it. With Bernie Sanders nearly beating Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party Presidential nomination in the US, and the rise of far right parties in Europe again, there is no denying that local, national and international elites are worried that their carefully managed status quo is being undermined.

When elites are threatened they mobilise propaganda against their enemies. A recent report by Birkbeck University College London and the Media Reform Coalition uncovered clear and persistent bias against Jeremy Corbyn in mainstream media reporting, particularly on the supposedly balanced and objective BBC. The same broadcaster has been accused of aiding the coup against Corbyn because its correspondent Laura Kuenssberg appeared at regular intervals throughout the wave of resignations from the shadow cabinet to decry Corbyn and his supporters.

As well as attempting to smear Corbyn as anti-Semitic, misogynistic and terrorist-supporting, the mainstream media has been peddling any story it can find which paints the Labour leader in a less than flattering light. When a video was released by Corbyn’s team showing him sitting on the floor of a packed train to Newcastle, Virgin boss Richard Branson released a picture on Twitter from the train’s CCTV cameras showing Corbyn apparently walking past empty seats on the train. Within hours the internet erupted with #traingate. However, passengers from the same train tweeted pictures showing how crowded it was and confirming the empty seats were reserved.

Michael Skiggs, Chairman of Bransbury ward Labour Party Branch and Chair of the Portsmouth Momentum group, told me that the media representation of Corbyn has been ‘almost Stalinesque in its approach’.

We should question how much can be believed from a press which is owned by corporations with their own political interests and affiliations. People are turning more and more to independent sources like Star & Crescent to get a more balanced viewpoint to counteract what they are seeing and hearing in the mainstream media.

In July, Corbyn-friendly left-wing news site The Canary rose above the The Spectator and The Economist SimilarWeb UK Media Index popularity rankings, implying that the public are losing faith in the mainstream media’s ability to present the issues fairly and accurately.

The Labour Leadership result will be announced on 24th September, and both Cllr Ferrett and Michael Skiggs, along with hundreds of thousands of other Labour Party members, expect Jeremy Corbyn to win again. But how can those on the right of the party be expected to support policies they don’t agree with – and is it fair to expect them to?

‘I think if Jeremy wins, given that 172 members of the PLP have expressed no confidence in him, that is almost impossible to overturn, it’s an untenable position,’ said Cllr Ferrett. ‘It would mean MPs going out at election time saying we have no confidence in our leader, please vote for us, and that is not going to work.’

Perhaps it is local issues that will begin to heal the divisions of the party at a national level. Michael Skiggs outlines several matters that both the right and the left of the party can agree on: ‘Homelessness, the NHS, cutbacks in the city, the scrapping of the Hate Crimes unit and the domestic violence cuts.’

Certainly, if the Labour Party is to continue in its current form, then it must unite behind whoever is elected leader on September 24th and work together to offer a viable alternative to Conservative austerity, tax dodging and continual undermining of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Corbyn’s opponent, Owen Smith, has stood for Labour leader on a platform that is very similar to Corbyn’s own, suggesting that some on the right of the party may well be coming round to the idea that to win seats Labour needs to properly distinguish itself from the Conservatives and offer a truly oppositional platform instead of trying to win the same ground.

Of course there is also the possibility that the Labour Party could split if Corbyn is re-elected, but that would be a disaster locally and nationally, and is something both sides should be striving to avoid. Perhaps if Labour members in Portsmouth and other constituencies can come together to campaign for the same issues, then the divisions in the party will begin to heal.

One thing the Labour Party in Portsmouth can certainly unite on is the Brexit vote. Whether you agree with Cllr Ferrett that Jeremy Corbyn didn’t do enough and ‘wasn’t forthright enough in his views on Europe’ or with Michael Skiggs that Corbyn is being made a scapegoat for the referendum, both sides agree that the outcome of leaving the EU has had disastrous consequences locally.

Portsmouth has many residents from diverse backgrounds, and they are worried, given the 57% growth in hate crimes that has happened since Brexit. A united Labour party in the city could offer them the support and trust they need to move forward from this vote and feel secure living in our city once more.

Let’s hope Labour can resolve its issues before it’s too late, because the poor, the vulnerable, and the disenfranchised need its support now more than ever.