Socialism in the UK: Britain’s Labour Party touts an alternative to Boris Johnson

By Christopher Tan (PZ ‘21)

Three years after it voted to leave the European Union, the United Kingdom continues to face more questions than answers over its uncertain future. Since 2016, Britain has dumped two prime ministers, limped through two bruising election campaigns (with a third on the horizon), and seen a rapid decline in the pound’s value. If anything in the U.K. is clear, it is that the furor around Brexit has careened its politics into an insurmountable crisis.

Enter Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, and a figure who could not be more different to the incumbent Conservative leader, Boris Johnson. In his adolescence, Johnson attended Eton and Oxford, studying classics, excelling in debate and joining the exclusive all-male Bullingdon Club; at the same time, Corbyn campaigned for nuclear disarmament, did volunteer work in Jamaica and participated in student demonstrations in Brazil. After Johnson’s chaotic summer, which started with the Conservative prime minister heavily losing every vote he faced in parliament and ended with the U.K.’s highest court ruling his suspension of parliament as ‘unlawful’, Corbyn, a self-declared social democrat, may emerge as his successor.

Boris Johnson’s controversial decision to prorogue parliament, (an act in British law that permits a leader to discontinue a parliamentary session) just weeks before the EU’s Oct. 31 deadline to force through a no-deal Brexit, speaks to his desperation to see Brexit through on his terms. With Johnson potentially facing a lethal vote of no confidence, another general election seems inevitable.

Offering a clear alternative to Conservative rule is Labour’s strategy. At the party’s annual conference in the resort town of Brighton, leaders crafted a platform more radical and left-wing than anything in recent memory. Labour proposed seizing the assets of private schools, expropriating a tenth of the equity of every large company, nationalizing key industries and imposing a four-day working week. In its manifesto, Labour also backed proposals to heavily regulate pharmaceutical companies by taking ownership of patents if misconduct was found, set targets to make Britain carbon-neutral by 2030, and proposed heavier social welfare spending.

On Brexit, an issue that continues to polarize MPs in Westminster, Labour pledged to support a new referendum if a general election is called. Should Labour win the election and, held another referendum, the party would re-negotiate a leave deal with Brussels and hold the vote between this option and remain

Should Corbyn deliver his mandate, the U.K. would be adopting policies described as “unabashedly socialist”, a far cry from the vast austerity cuts that have characterized Conservative rule since David Cameron. Is this what Britain needs? To those on the left, perhaps, but given the looming Brexit storm clouds, Corbyn must rally a bitterly divided party around his Brexit stance. In the lead up to the party’s conference, a clear split emerged between members who backed a stance supporting remain and those who backed a second referendum. 

This is a sticky issue for Corbyn, as he had been a staunch critic of the EU for decades. Although Corbyn campaigned for Remain in the 2016 Referendum, noting: “there is a strong socialist case for staying in the EU”, he has found it difficult to shake off his eurosceptic past. With close to a third of Labour voters backing Leave in 2016 despite Corbyn’s support for Remain, the Labour leader’s strategy of supporting a second referendum between a new deal and Remain hopes to avoid alienating voters on both sides of the issue. While a compromise intended to boost the party’s approval, this may prove to be a liability. 

As the Oct. 31 deadline for the U.K. to leave the EU edges closer, Britons have settled on one of two clear policy options. One supports getting Brexit delivered as soon as possible, while the other supports cancelling the vote completely. Unfortunately for Corbyn, Labour seems stuck in the middle of this mess, with the party at risk of losing votes in key constituencies to pro-Brexit parties and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats. No surprise then that the party remains behind in the polls, with the Tories maintaining a 12-point lead over Labour. 

Could Labour offer the decisive leadership needed to assuage Britain’s Brexit problems? Unlikely, at least for now. To the British public, Jeremy Corbyn is vastly unpopular, with some polls labelling him as the least popular opposition leader since 1977. The party, while putting on a united front with its new platform, remains marred by vicious infighting that threatens to break it apart. In the lead up to Brighton, Corbyn was fighting an open revolt by some senior MPs and party activists angered by his refusal to support a policy of remaining in the EU, while allegations of antisemitism have dogged Labour since Corbyn’s leadership election. Tom Watson, a prominent MP and Corbyn’s deputy, also narrowly avoided being ousted by Corbyn supporters angered by the deputy leader’s moderate stances. Although the vote to support a second referendum was passed, it was done so in the narrowest of margins. Party unity is desperately needed.

Astonishingly, Corbyn is still the most likely person to succeed Johnson as Westminster is in the midst of a parliamentary crisis. Despite parliament passing a law that would require the prime minister to ask Brussels for a Brexit extension until 2020, Johnson refused to support the move, prompting fears that he is planning on bypassing the law by asking other EU heads of state to veto the request. This has put Johnson in a desperate position. At the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, the prime minister reiterated his opposition to the Irish “backstop” – an agreement negotiated by former PM Theresa May for an open Irish border in her failed Brexit deal. Johnson instead offered a new plan that would re-create two borders in Ireland, with one between the north and south and, a new regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain. While it remains to be seen how this new plan will be received, another new suspension of Parliament appears likely and the country’s crisis is likely to drag on.

With Johnson holding onto a minority government and parliament not keen on risking a potentially chaotic no-deal Brexit, MPs from various parties reportedly hatched a plan to remove the prime minister by replacing him with Corbyn as caretaker with the sole purpose of triggering a general election.

To Labour, this is an opportunity after nearly a decade out of Downing Street. While the party’s left-wing populist agenda targets voters upset at how Brexit has glossed over social reforms, this election, more than previous ones, will be defined by how parties aim to handle the Brexit bedlam. To stand a chance of attracting voters, Corbyn and Labour need to put on a united show on where the party stands. While the prospect of a socialist Britain may entice disillusioned voters, convincing them of the need to resolve Brexit through a second referendum must take precedence. Labour should realize this if it has Downing Street in its sights. 

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