Britain’s Labour Party Leader Undermined by Labour Members of Parliament
Thomas Barlow, the Senior Editor of Real Media, analyzes the electoral panorama for the upcoming June 8 general election in Britain
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
The U.K.’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, on April 18th, called for a snap election. The U.K. parliament voted 522 to 13 in favor of holding the election and gave her approval to go ahead. So, the question is: why did they agree to this snap election with such an overwhelming majority?
On to talk about this with me today in our studio –- in our Baltimore studio –- is Thomas Barlow. Thanks for joining us.
THOMAS BARLOW: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thomas, the Labour Party is in complete disarray at the moment, particularly since Jeremy Corbyn has been elected. What’s going on there?
THOMAS BARLOW: The Labour Party in 2015, the membership, elected Jeremy Corbyn as the leader. It was the first time there had been a membership election, where one member had one vote each, and he overwhelmingly won, when he was supposed to be a rank outsider, the left wing candidate that no one wanted.
Since that point, the parliamentary Labour Party, the MPs, the congress people, essentially, have undermined him in the press at every turn. And eventually they tried to get rid of him in 2016, after the Brexit referendum –- which they failed, because the membership still support him.
The problem is, to the public, the party looks incredibly divided. There’s the membership and the leadership on one side, and then there’s the Members of Parliament on the other, and those Members of Parliament look like they will refuse to work for Jeremy Corbyn, which gives no one any confidence in him.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Tony Blair just the other day came out and said he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, support Jeremy Corbyn, in terms of running for prime minister. Give us a sense of what that was all about.
THOMAS BARLOW: Well, I mean, every time Tony Blair came out during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign in 2015, and said he hated, or disliked, or couldn’t support Jeremy Corbyn, it helped him. It bumps him up in the polls. People hate Tony Blair. Most of the members hate Tony Blair. The public hates Tony Blair.
So, every time he makes one of these interventions, there are people in the establishment who listen to him and go, oh, well, you know, he’s an important voice; he’s a former prime minister. But mostly that doesn’t do Jeremy Corbyn any harm — in fact, does him quite well.
Tony Blair has been out supporting the Liberal Democrats, when previously he said people who joined the Labour Party, from the Green Party and other parties, should be expelled from the party –- they weren’t true Labour members, because they had previously supported other parties. So, Tony Blair is proving himself to a be a hypocrite, and giving people another reason to dislike him, which they already do.
SHARMINI PERIES: What gave way to these kinds of divisions within the Labour Party? Give us some nuances in terms of the membership issues of the Labour Party; in terms of the Labour Party membership actually grew extensively during the last leadership election.
How did that happen? And how did that contribute to these kinds of splits within the Labour leadership, and the Labour members at this time?
THOMAS BARLOW: Yeah. I mean, yes, Jeremy Corbyn, when he ran both in 2015 and 2016, increased the membership by around about 100,000 members each time. And the Labour Party apparatus tried to expel a lot of those new members, saying they’re not, as I mentioned, true Labour Party supporters, because they’re afraid that all these new members -– well, ordinary people in the public -– who supported Jeremy Corbyn, and not the same old, same old, establishment politics that we’ve seen previous to this.
Because essentially Tony Blair, and the party… he took the party in a direction where he said, “I am an child of Thatcher, this is Thatcher’s party now,” you know, “We are a party of the upwardly mobile,” and so forth. And it became another free market party in the late ’90s.
So, that is something the membership never wanted. In fact, up until 1994, the Labour Party was an explicitly socialist organization that said they believed in the parliamentary road to socialism, and was founded by the trade unions and the cooperative movement. So, the membership never liked the direction of the party under Tony Blair, but he did win elections. He appealed to a part of middle England, and he used very significant media techniques.
But also, he would have won anyway, the consensus of being governing for around about 17 years. They were about dead in the water, and in fact, the polling for a left wing candidate who was the leader before Tony Blair, looked around about the same as Tony Blair. So, it looks like the Labour Party could’ve stayed left wing.
It didn’t, and, as such, now, Jeremy Corbyn who represents really what the membership in the party is all about now has a whole load of MPs who are not really about what the party is about.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thomas, let’s shift gears and look at the Conservative Party here. Theresa May calling for a snap election at this time, obviously to strengthen her prime-ministership, and also support in the Parliament. Give us a sense of where she’s at.
THOMAS BARLOW: Yeah. Well, Theresa May said last year, and she said repeatedly… she said these exact words: “I say what I mean, and I mean what I say. There will be no snap election. There will be no election before 2020.” Proving yet again that, quite frankly, you can openly lie as a politician. And not… and in certain political sides of the debate, you can openly lie, and not get called out on it.
She is doing well in the polls, and it’s certainly useful for her to improve her position in Parliament. At the moment, she’s only got a majority of 12 MPs, which is very tiny. And a lot of those MPs do not agree with her, in the way that she’s managing the post-referendum Brexit, the way that we are going to leave the European Union.
So, she wants to strengthen her position in the party, because the polls put her in a good place to get another hundred MPs, and they would all be loyal to her, and she could do what she wants then. She’d like to also smash Labour, and decrease the opposition from that side of things.
But, most importantly, the Conservative Party has been under investigation since 2015 for electoral fraud. And this implicates at least 20 MPs, which is more than her majority, and if these… and it was announced on the evening that she announced her election, that the Crown Prosecution Service — essentially the federal court, or the people who prosecute — where prepared to prosecute 30 Conservative members around election fraud scandal.
This could mean MPs going to jail, and significant fines, and them being barred from Parliament for election fraud. So, she announced this shortly afterwards, that there was going to be an election, so her party doesn’t collapse, her government doesn’t collapse, and in fact she can strengthen it. This cannot be understated, the importance of this election scandal.
SHARMINI PERIES: When you say on the eve of the courts deciding that these certain Members of Parliament would be investigated, or charged, she called for the election. Give us a better sense of the timing of this.
THOMAS BARLOW: Well, there was a report the week before, by the Electoral Commission that said clearly wrongdoing had been done, and that clearly people were going to be prosecuted. The announcement that there was going to be a prosecution came after she announced the snap election, but clearly she read the Electoral Commission report, and that must have figured into her considerations about whether to run or not.
I mean, clearly, she must have thought, I could be running a government that could collapse, a party that collapses, and I will be held responsible –- and correctly so –- because she was a Member of the Cabinet during that time, for defrauding the public.
Now, in Britain, the electoral laws, the spending laws, are very tight. You can only spend very small amounts of money. We’re talking 10, 20, 30 thousand pounds, max. So, small amounts extra, busing in volunteers, using extra money on very smart marketing techniques, can disproportionately affect the outcome of the election.
And it turned out, around about 25 seats were won by a thousand votes, or less. And in fact it was about… in a population of 70 million people around about 25,000 votes decided the entire election, which is quite incredible.
So, to come from that, everything that comes after that is sullied. The referendum should have never happened, because the Conservatives wouldn’t have been in power, they’d have been in a coalition, and the coalition would’ve never had a referendum. So, we wouldn’t be leaving the EU.
So then, we wouldn’t… she wouldn’t be Prime Minister, so everything from this point onwards is sullied, and she’s trying to hide that by calling an election -– in my opinion.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thomas, you bring up two very good points that I want to take up in our Segment 2. Which is we wouldn’t’ve had Theresa May if it wasn’t for the Brexit vote. And now we may have Theresa May and an election because of the Brexit vote, as well. So, let’s discuss that further in our Segment 2. Thanks for joining us for now.
THOMAS BARLOW: Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network -– and please join us for Part 2 with Thomas Barlow.
SHARMINI PERIES: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
And speaking with Thomas Barlow, who’s here from the U.K. He’s with The Real Media as a senior editor there, and we’re talking about the upcoming U.K. elections on June 8th. And if you haven’t watched Segment 1, please do, because this is a continuation of that conversation.
Thanks again for joining us, Thomas.
THOMAS BARLOW: Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thomas, in the previous segment we ended with why we are in the situation we are in -– largely because of the Brexit vote, and the referendum that was held. And in fact, Theresa May argued that this was all about the Brexit, when she announced the election.
She said that, “I cannot get the support I need from Members of Parliament, to negotiate what’s in the best interests of the U.K. in exiting the European Union.” Is that a legitimate way to frame this upcoming snap election?
THOMAS BARLOW: There’s some truth in it, which everyone recognizes, which is that, because of the small majority she has, she can’t do what she wants. Having said that, what she wants to do, is also what most of the public don’t want to have happen. Which is to turn Britain into a bargain basement tax haven.
You know, a rainy sort of Bermuda, where there’s no corporation tax, companies can do what they want, and it’s the Wild West. You know, that we sell off the NHS to private healthcare companies from the U.S., and all sorts of things like this.
So, she doesn’t have a mandate for it, a popular mandate for what she wants to do. But she also recognizes that the Labour Party is weak, and that she could get more of a mandate for what she wants to do, even if there isn’t public support. So, there is truth in what she’s saying, but these are not good reasons. It’s not in the public interest to do this.
Also, she’s trying to make the election about Brexit, because she knows Labour are weak on that. If she made it about any other topic, she’s almost certainly hated, and she’s also not very charismatic, so she couldn’t win people over to her positions. So, if Brexit wasn’t happening, I don’t think the election would look like it looks right now -– and she wouldn’t be calling it.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, the Brexit vote itself slipped through with a very, very small margin, when people did approve to leave the European Union. In your opinion, is this a vote on the Brexit itself, once again?
THOMAS BARLOW: That’s what the Conservatives would like, and I think, to be honest, it is a major constitutional change. It will change the face of the country. It should be about Brexit, it should be about who’s best to manage this enormous change that is going to happen in the country. There could be a great opportunity here. Under European Union rules, you’re not allowed to re-nationalize industries.
If we had a socialist prime minister, we could re-nationalize the railways, the Royal Mail, all sorts of industries, that it would be incredibly popular to bring back into public ownership. So, there could be a great opportunity here. So, there is a debate to be made about Brexit.
But by talking about Brexit solely, as if it is a single issue, she gets to frame the debate as if, like, it’s all about who’s strong enough to negotiate with the European Union, and the other people. Whereas actually what we need to do, is judge the Conservative Party on whether they’re going to be able to protect the NHS, deliver us healthcare, education, jobs, wealth –- you know, the things that are important to us –- and fighting climate change.
The reality is that in three years’ time, in 2020, when the election should be, she will have done the negotiations. They will almost certainly have made the country a poorer place, a worse place to live. She’ll have damaged the economy; she’ll have damaged the environment further, and damaged workers’ rights.
And she almost certainly would be not elected in 2020. And I think she’s well aware of that, and she’s well aware that when she does the Brexit she wants, she will be held responsible for that at the ballot box.
This way, she gets five years to do what she wants, and I think that’s really what she’s interested in.
SHARMINI PERIES: And in terms of this upcoming election on June 8th, where is the United Kingdom, in terms of Scotland, and other parties, that are within the union now, how are they planning, or how do you think they will react to this election, and how will they do?
THOMAS BARLOW: It’s… it’s very varied. Scotland… for the SNP, the Scottish Nationalist Party, who want independence from the U.K., this is a win-win for them. If the Conservatives win with a huge mandate and do what they want to do, they will almost certainly alienate the Scottish population. And there is a far better chance that there will be independence, a second referendum, and Scotland will go independent, and maybe join the EU… rejoin the EU.
In Northern Ireland, it’s very worrying for a lot of people; a lot of people are worried about the Troubles starting again. The Democratic Unionist Party, the essentially pro-British party, have for the first time, not got a majority in the local Parliament in Stormont. And people are talking about maybe reunification with Ireland to become part of the EU, because otherwise the border will become hard again, and people are not going to be able to cross from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland.
People are worried in that case; there will be flare-ups of violence between the Unionists and Republicans. That’s a very dangerous situation, and we don’t know how that’s going to play out.
And in Wales, we’re seeing the Conservatives doing really well. Plaid Cymru, who are the Welsh nationalist party, not necessarily picking up as many votes as we thought. The country -– the United Kingdom –- is becoming more and more divided, and certainly is less tenable to see our country remaining a single nation, over the next decade.
It almost certainly will not be, and probably will reduce to England and Wales, at some point in the future –- I think.
SHARMINI PERIES: Although there is extensive discussion in the U.K. about Brexit, yes or no vote, the understanding of the relationship of the people in Britain to the European Union, was highly misunderstood. By this I mean, for example, the issue of mobility in Europe. The right for individuals to cross borders, and work in other countries in Europe and so on, which is a very popular thing, particularly among the young, was seen as a benefit that a lot of people were not willing to give up on.
However, it was also confused with… people didn’t quite understand the economic ties related to the European Commission, and the ties, compliance, that the U.K. had to have in terms of its ties to the European Union. People didn’t understand that. That seemed a bit more abstract for people.
So, when the vote came down, the shock was, wow, we’re not going to be able to move about Europe and go anywhere and work anywhere. But is that an adequate understanding of the issue, and what are the problems that mainly the left had? Because some people in the left also argued that Brexit would be a good thing, for example, rhetorically.
THOMAS BARLOW: Yeah. Well, the thing is, the understanding amongst the British public was maybe slightly different than you characterize. Because the Daily Mail, the right wing press, who are equivalent to Fox News — and 80% of the press are far right publications — have made migrants and the EU, the two single reasons for every problem the country has faced for the past 30, 35 years.
And some of that is fair criticism, but most of it is not. But there are certain truths that the free market, that is at the heart of the EU, meant that jobs were off-shored, that people didn’t equally share in the benefits of globalization and the trade deals.
But mostly that the de-industrialization, the poverty that has occurred in Britain over the past 35, 40 years, has been largely due to the fact that we’re governed by free market parties in the U.K. We’re considered within the European Union as the far right of the European Union, economically, certainly.
So, people had a varied understanding of it. Emotionally, I think it seems quite clear that people just wanted a change –- like, a significant change. They’re sick of the same old, same old, and people were told that this would get rid of the experts, the elite, the kind of people who’ve been telling people and looking down their noses at people for a long time, but saying everything’s good, everything’s going to be fine. You’ve got a passport. That means you can go to France without a visa. You know, it’s all good.
And that wasn’t good enough for anyone. There was no clear, positive argument for the EU. The Conservative Party ran a campaign, like they had in Scotland, called Project Fear. They called it Project Fear, too. And that hadn’t really worked in Scotland. It actually had increased the independence vote from 33% to 45%. And it failed here, because they didn’t tell any stories that were inspiring about the EU, what benefits there were. And most of us remained kind of unconvinced about that. Within the left, yes.
People argued quite correctly and logically, that the EU is an imperialist organization, that impoverishes Africa, and a good deal of the world, uses an aid budget to prop up dictators, start wars. It also impoverishes the periphery –- Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland –- all made poorer by the European Union. Britain doesn’t. Britain sees the benefits often.
But they made the argument –- and that divided the left, the other half of the left, or the majority of the left, certainly the liberal left — said, look, this is going to lead to increases in racism and racist attacks, and it’s going to give more power to the right and the far right.
And what we did see, is that there was a far right… there is now a far right wing government. Whereas there was a sort of liberal right wing government before, there is now a far right wing government in control. And so, that critique seems to have been borne out by what’s happened, which is that actually Brexit would be a negative thing.
But people were very undecided, and it was quite a complex issue. It was very difficult for actually people to make a decision, and a lot of people decided in the booth.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thomas, there’s a lot more we can talk about, and this swing to the right. And also in terms of what’s going on in France, and Europe at large. But I think we’ll continue this discussion with you, on the other side of the pond, as they say. I look forward to those discussions. Thank you for joining us today, Thomas.
THOMAS BARLOW: Thank you very much.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network, and stay tuned for more analysis and election coverage in the U.K. with The Real News. Thank you.