To the left, to the left… To the right?

What the past week says about the future of Labour and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, according to Signe Norberg.

This week the Government’s insistence on £12 billion in savings from the welfare budget and 40% budget cuts in departments’ spending have been overshadowed by Labour Party divisions over its strategy in opposition. The Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill produced a revolt against the Labour interim leadership, and threw up the challenges the Party faces in the leadership election, reconciling its members and supporters, and redefining itself after its General Election defeat.

At the start of the week, 48 Labour MPs defied the party whip to abstain from the vote on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. This move, to abstain from a Bill that will lower the household welfare cap to £20,000 a year, limit child tax credits to two children, freeze working-age benefits, change payment thresholds for tax credits and move mortgage support from grants to loans, caused uproar among key MPs and candidates in the Labour leadership and London Mayoral elections. Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, David Lammy, and Sadiq Khan were amongst those that opposed the Bill. Andy Burnham, although he chose to abstain, argued that Labour had made ‘a mess’ of its position, and that he would oppose the bill if he were elected Leader.

It is Corbyn’s success that epitomises the immediate divisions emerging in the party. At a leadership hustings, Liz Kendall stated she would not include Corbyn in her shadow cabinet should she win, and Burnham “joked” that Corbyn would have a place in his potential cabinet. Yet polls recently suggest Corbyn has gained healthy lead on first preferences over his colleagues in the Labour leadership election. Political commentators and Labour veterans may disagree with many of his policies in terms of the future viability of the Labour Party, but it is undeniable that he has struck a chord with many new Labour members and connected to sections of Labour’s traditional membership and union affiliates.

His ascent has moved Tony Blair to warn against moving Labour to a “traditional leftist platform” and for the Party to “move on”.

The Welfare Bill revolt and Corbyn’s rise are one powerful example of a Party still deeply divided over whether or not to position the party as an out-and-out anti-austerity force, and how to develop an electable alternative.

This points to serious questions about the effectiveness of Labour in the years to come. Labour’s dilemma is brutal, and compounded by the loss of its Scottish seats. The SNP has not been shy about criticising the Official Opposition about their ability to effectively challenge the government. As key Labour MPs are most of the time elsewhere campaigning on the various campaigns underway, the SNP has primarily shaped the tone of the opposition to Cameron’s majority government and it has noted Labour’s absence at key debates thus far in Parliament.

Clearly disagreements persist on Labour’s position vis-à-vis the Government’s neoliberal policies, the SNP threat, its own internal politics, and its traditional working class support. For even if Corbyn is currently (and perhaps surprisingly) considered to be in the lead, the fact remains that it is quite probable that Labour elects one of the other candidates, who to varying degrees do not appeal as much to traditionally left policies. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper have however been courting the left of the party throughout their campaigns. How that leader would be able to navigate the internal tensions of a party that appears as (if not more, depending on the commentator) divided as in the 1980s when the Party split.

The uncertainty of the state of Labour has in practice meant that the current Government has been able to implement several controversial policies that would, under normal circumstances, be heavily opposed. It will be interesting to see how the landscape will form and what remains for the Labour Party to dispute, and by the time Parliament returns after its summer break, Labour could be a significantly different to the Opposition we have come to know under Harman.