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21 March 2017

Why have Labour’s internal battles re-erupted?

The parliamentary Labour party's vow of silence over Jeremy Corbyn's leadership took a battering last night. Here's why.

By Stephen Bush

After a period of silence, Labour’s internal woes have erupted into noisy life once again. Yesterday’s meeting of the parliamentary Labour party was the most openly antagonistic since Jeremy Corbyn’s second landslide victory among party members.

What’s happening? After Corbyn’s second victory, Corbynsceptics came to a unified conclusion more or less organically: that sniping against the leadership had helped, rather than hurt the party leadership and that their best approach was to go quiet and let the leader’s office run aground of its own accord.

But that Corbyn has started to be mentioned more “on the doorstep” has MPs nervous, and that, according to two YouGov polls of the membership, the dimunition in Corbyn’s popularity looks to be smaller than many Labour MPs had hoped has frustrated others. Add that to a performance by the Labour leader that was “dire” in the words of one Corbynsceptic and “subdued” in the words of one Corbynite at this week’s parliamentary Labour party meeting and the ingredients for a ruck were all present.

The unanswerable question is what the temporary resumption of hostilities does for the ongoing battle for the party’s structures at a grassroots level. One reason why the vote over the so-called “McDonnell amendment”, the attempt to lower the nomination threshold to just five per cent of MPs, has a difficult path to being approved by Labour party conference is that the left is struggling to turn its people out without a loud enemy at Westminster to motivate them. The centre-left is doing a better job on the whole of keeping hold of the organisational structures of the party at a grassroots level.

The difficulty for Corbynsceptics is that while party members are less supportive of Jeremy Corbyn than this time last year, they have neither a “candidate [n]or a project” as one Corbynite frontbencher put it. That means that disillusioned supporters of Jeremy Corbyn are either staying at home and letting their memberships lapse or joining the Liberal Democrats or the Greens. They are not bolstering the ranks of Corbynsceptic activists, who are also letting their membership’s lapse or joining the Liberal Democrats. (But not the Greens, surprisingly enough.)

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It may be that even a brief outbreak of red-on-red fighting at Westminster is the spur the Corbynites need to reclaim momentum in the internal battles in the country that will decide the party’s longterm direction.