Two worlds of Labour, Britain's opposition party struggles to unite

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 26, 2017 1:19 PM

By Elizabeth Piper

BRIGHTON, England (Reuters) - A baby gurgles in the background, posters defend workers' rights and between DJ decks and a well-stocked bar of an old nightclub, dozens of young activists flesh out their demands that Britain's Labour Party become a wider movement for the left.

Across the road, in the southern seaside town of Brighton's main conference center, and in the nearby hotels and restaurants, Labour's established lawmakers are discussing Brexit, policy and how to oust the governing Conservative Party.

Welcome to the two worlds of Britain's main opposition party: a division centered around Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who after months of fighting off attempts to depose him, is more cemented at its helm than ever.

It is not the only division at Labour's annual conference, where the party is struggling to unite over Britain's departure from the European Union. But it is one that may define Labour's future -- for beneath the outward "comradeship" is a fight for direction.

"I'm more convinced now than I ever have been that MPs (members of parliament, or lawmakers) aren't as relevant as they think," said Laura Pidcock, a Labour lawmaker who was elected for the first time to parliament in June and has frequently spoken out about it as an elitist institution.

"I bet there's people in this room who have felt this during this conference, or are experiencing this now, that you shouldn't really be there," she told an audience gathered to talk about "Corbynism from Below" organized by a group called The World Transformed.

The World Transformed grew out of Momentum, a campaign group which drummed up support for veteran leftist Corbyn to lead Labour and acted in his defense when centrist members in the party tried to oust him, unconvinced his leftist views could ever win over voters.

But June's general election changed all that.

Corbyn, running on a manifesto that instead of austerity promised an end to university tuition fees, renationalization and increased public spending, won more votes than expected, many from younger voters who wanted change.

The vote forced Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May into a minority government, and set the mood at this conference mostly upbeat, with Corbyn feted by almost all wings of the party.

His face adorns T-shirts, mugs and posters on sale. "Oh Jeremy Corbyn" -- sung to the chords of The White Stripes' 2003 hit Seven Nation Army -- can be heard across the conference, much as it was at the Glastonbury rock festival earlier this year.

For those activists behind The World Transformed, it is a chance to revel in their moment and press for change in a parliamentary party populated what some describe as the "suits".


It is a sea change for the Labour Party, which last won power in 1997 with the business-friendly, center-ground policies of former prime minister Tony Blair.

Once Momentum was written off by some Labour lawmakers, seen as little more than a cult following for a leader whose politics, his critics said, were little changed from the 1980s when the party wrote what was described as "the longest suicide note in history" for helping the Conservatives to victory.

Now, with Labour closing the gap in opinion polls to stand roughly level with the Conservatives and Corbyn in sight of becoming prime minister if an early election were called, it has the power to influence party policy.

Earlier this week, several Labour lawmakers criticized Momentum for blocking a main conference debate on Brexit after the group urged its members to vote for other issues to be included on the official conference program.

In response, some activists accused lawmakers of wanting to undermine Corbyn by speaking about an issue that divides the party.

"Jeremy Corbyn wouldn't be the first Labour leader to fix a conference vote," said Alison McGovern, a Labour lawmaker who is leading a campaign to keep Britain in the single market after Brexit.

"I just think it's a mistake on their part. Conference wants to talk about Brexit ... The World Transformed has been wall-to-wall Brexit chat."

And nothing seems to be off the agenda at the venues used by The World Transformed, which offers child-friendly spaces for discussion of everything from bringing the game of football back to its roots to "How to Run a Kickass Social Media Campaign".

But the overriding message is, don't let this opportunity slip.

"The fight really isn't over if we get a Labour government," said Maya Goodfellow, a writer and researcher.

"We hear people chanting Jeremy Corbyn's name which is great. Great that so many people are enthused, but the state will kick into power, there will be moves to stop a radical government from doing what it wants to do."

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.)