Turmoil in UK’s Labour Party after election loss

May 18, 2015, 9:19 AM
Harriet Harman the acting leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party speaks during a press c...
Harriet Harman the acting leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party speaks during a press conference at their party headquarters in London, Monday, May 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
(AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

LONDON (AP) — Britain’s opposition Labour Party is struggling to regain its balance after suffering one of its worst election results in modern times. Shocked by the extent of the loss, leaders are trying to figure out how to rebuild the party and regain the public’s trust.

There is turmoil everywhere.

The country’s biggest union — and top funder — has signaled it will have its say in the leadership contest and a front-runner for the job quit just days after launching his bid. Its leader in Scotland won a confidence motion — but resigned anyway.

“Today the Labour Party stands at a crucial juncture — either we realize how bad our defeat was, learn from that and advance,” Mark Ferguson, editor of the LabourList blog, wrote in a commentary. “Or we deny the scale of our electoral, cultural and emotional rejection by the British people, curl up into a ball and, slowly but surely, slip out of existence.”

Labour, as the name implies, is supposed to be the party of the working man, and woman — a left-leaning organization with the unions at its core. The unions actually created the party over a century ago to promote its causes in Parliament.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair made great efforts to unshackle the links when he became leader in 1994. His decision to move the party to the center — so-called “New Labour — was a recognition that the country had changed fundamentally. The original foundations of the Labour Party were no longer there as the steelworks closed, the shipbuilding yards were shuttered and the coalmines abandoned.

Attracting the middle classes was the mantra of Blair’s years at the helm. His party’s comfort with wealth creation and its insistence that income taxes would not be raised worked — Labour won three consecutive election victories under Blair, something it had never done before.

The changes Blair instituted sat uneasily with many in the old ranks of Labour, who thought the party had moved too far away from its core principles. Ed Miliband, who led the party to its defeat on May 7, tried to bridge the gap and introduced a series of modest but headline-making tax-raising plans. But his strategy didn’t work and the party remains divided — and it shows.

Labour won 232 seats in the May 7 election, 26 fewer parliamentary seats than in 2010 when Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, lost heavily in the wake of the global financial crisis. Labour’s current plight is best-exemplified by its collapse in one of its supposed heartlands, Scotland, where it lost all but one of its 40-odd seats.

“Everyone was surprised by the scale of the defeat,” said Daniel Kenealy, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. “There is genuinely a degree of shock.”

Miliband’s resignation soon after the election result was the starting gun for the leadership contest.

Rising Labour star Chuka Umunna, 36, joined the race but then stunned the political establishment by withdrawing abruptly days later, citing intrusions on his privacy. Other leading contenders, such as Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendall, will be pushed to show what they can do it keep the party together — and to fundamentally rethink how to win over the electorate.

“There is no off-the-shelf political strategy … that would produce guaranteed political success in 2020,” said Patrick Diamond, a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London. “In the meantime, the Conservatives will introduce reforms of the U.K. political system, reducing the number of parliamentary constituencies and redrawing the constituency boundaries, which will make Labour’s task far harder next time around.”

Tensions over the future were laid bare last weekend when Jim Murphy, the leader of Labour in Scotland, resigned and described the head of the biggest union, Unite’s Len McCluskey, as the “kiss of death” to Labour.

McCluskey hit back, arguing that so-called “Blairites” like Murphy were the ones responsible for Labour’s loss and that any leader should keep the party’s roots in mind.

“It is the challenge of the Labour Party to demonstrate that they are the voice of ordinary working people, that they are the voice of organized labor,” he told the BBC. The union may discuss a break with Labour, but he insisted he didn’t support such plans.

Acting Labour leader Harriet Harman insisted on Monday that everything would be up for consideration when the party holds its conference in September to elect a new leader, despite its “dark days.”

“We have had a lot of soul searching to do across all parts of our party and we will have robust discussions,” she said.

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Turmoil in UK’s Labour Party after election loss