The British Parties’ Internal Battles after Brexit Vote – PM May Victorious, Corbyn Struggles

UK, 26 Jun - 24 Jul 2016
Labour: Corbyn vs. Owen and the struggle for supremacy ++ Tory: New PM Theresa May wins conservative leadership race ++ Party leadership contests explained. by Alex Braley
Labour: Corbyn vs. Owen and the struggle for supremacy

What happens within a parliamentary democracy when parliament and democracy do not see eye to eye? That is the question tearing apart the Labour party at the moment as a leadership contest looms. Jeremy Corbyn, current leader of the Labour party, has commanded little support from his fellow 232 Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) since becoming leader of the party. However, this lack of parliamentary support has always been countered by the strong democratic mandate he received from the party membership in his landslide victory in the 2015 leadership election.

A fragile working relationship between the left wing and the more business-orientated right wing (so-called ‘Blairites’) of the Labour party was respected for the sake of party unity. However, breaking point was reached following the outcome of the UK’s referendum on membership of the European Union. Corbyn was widely criticised for not mobilising the Labour vote for remain as large parts of the country, many traditional Labour heartlands, voted to leave.

Mass resignations from the shadow cabinet followed coupled with and a vote of no confidence on 28 June. Despite the attempted “coup”, Corbyn has insisted he is going nowhere and has reshuffled his cabinet as well as openly condemning the “internal manoeuvring” during Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQ). These events have undermined the effectiveness of the Labour party as an opposition at a time when they should have capitalised on the Conservative’s own infighting.

Angela Eagle’s announcement on 10 July of her intention to challenge Corbyn gave rise to questions as to whether Corbyn would be able to stand or not, given that he could not gather the necessary parliamentary support. However, Labour’s National Executive Committee ruled that the current leader should automatically be included on the list. This decision has been heavily criticised by anti-Corbyners and is facing a legal challenge from Labour donor Michael Foster.

Indeed, the only previous occasion on which a sitting Labour leader was challenged dates back to 1988 when Tony Benn took on then-leader Neil Kinnock, who had to obtain the backing of a sufficient number of Labour MPs in order to stand. It is argued that this sets a precedent. However, Corbyn argues that the Electoral College system that was in place at the time has since been replaced by the rule of one member one vote.

In the meantime, on 13 July, Owen Smith also entered the race to become leader of the Labour party and is now supported by Angela Eagle, who has stepped aside. The results of the contest will only be announced at a special conference in Liverpool on 24th September.

How the Labour leadership contest works

The Labour leadership contest will take place in two steps: nomination and election.
In a first step, candidates wishing to challenge for the leadership must have the backing of at least 20% of existing Labour MPs and Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), which currently translates into 51 supporters. The existing leader is automatically included in the contest following Labour’s National Executive Committee’s ruling on 12 July 2016.

Once the list of eligible candidates has been established, they are put forward to the electorate, made up of the Labour membership, affiliated trade union supporters and registered supporters who vote by ranking the candidates in order of preference. The winner is elected by simple majority and if no winner emerges, the lowest scoring candidate is eliminated and their votes redistributed according to the order of preferences until one candidate obtains more than 50% of the votes cast.

Tory: New PM Theresa May wins conservative leadership race

British politics is moving fast. Following David Cameron’s resignation as prime minister of the United Kingdom in wake of the referendum result on membership of the European Union (EU), a Tory leadership race opened up which resulted in Theresa May becoming leader of the Conservative party and prime minister of the UK on 11 July 2016.

The outcome of the Conservative leadership race was initially expected to be confirmed on 9 September 2016 (in time for the October party conference); however, due to Theresa’s May ‘coronation’, she has already taken up her new role and ended a possible prolonged period of uncertainty.

The Conservative leadership race is decided in a three-step process: nomination, selection, and election. The contest is overseen by the party’s 1922 committee of backbench Members of Parliament (MPs), which, in a first stage, sets a deadline for candidates to announce their candidacy (needing the support of at least 2 MPs). Once candidacies have been gathered, a list of valid nominations is published. The next step in the process depends on the number of valid nominations declared: If only two valid nominations are received, both names go forward to the party’s general membership, who subsequently elect one of the two as leader.

If there are more than two valid nominations, a selection process takes place in which a series of secret ballots among Conservative MPs is held every Tuesday and Thursday with the lowest scoring nomination eliminated at each turn until the list is whittled down to just two nominations. These two are then put forward for election to the party’s general membership with the winner becoming the leader of the Conservative party.

There also exists the possibility of a ‘coronation’, in which a candidate stands unopposed. This was the case for Theresa May, after Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal on 11 July following a series of secret ballots in which the list of nominations had been whittled down from an original five to two. The other three nominations either withdrew or were eliminated during the secret ballots - Michael Gove (eliminated), Stephen Crabb (withdrew) and Liam Fox (eliminated).

Given the speed at which the contest was concluded, David Cameron announced that he would stand down earlier than originally planned and Theresa May was officially appointed prime minister on 13 July 2016.

Theresa May’s cabinet includes several surprises: Boris Johnson was made Foreign Secretary, one of the top three portfolios in government; David Davis was made Secretary in charge of exiting the EU whilst the Department for Energy and Climate Change has been scrapped. High profile sackings include George Osborne, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Stephen Crabb, former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and Nicky Morgan, former Education Secretary.

The Conservative party’s successful leadership contest may enable it to further consolidate its dominant position within British politics with the Labour party’s ability to provide an effective opposition undermined by infighting and its focus on the lengthy leadership contest it has become engulfed in as a result.

However, Theresa May’s coronation leaves her without a real democratic mandate. Although her supporters argue that she was a major figure in Cameron’s government and therefore she does, this does not seem to be sustainable in face of the major decisions associated to the UK’s probable departure from the EU that will have to be taken. Whether Theresa May takes the bold risk of calling an early general election to overcome that obstacle may be an indicator of the kind of premiership we can expect from her.

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