Jack Ashworth speaks to a student on the left of the Manchester Labour Students society to discuss how the alleged current split reflects the party’s national problems
In the wake of the tumult surrounding the United States’ controversial decision to elect Donald Trump as President, the University of Manchester is set to be rocked by another hotly contested election — in the form of the Committee Elections for Manchester Labour Students (MLS).
Members of MLS have recently cast their votes online, hoping their respective candidates will be victorious in securing positions on the Committee of what has been hailed the “biggest Labour Students Club in the country” — according to the Labour Students website. Running for positions included Secretary and Treasurer, Events Officer, Campaigns Officer, LGBT officer and many more, candidates campaignined in the run up to the election convince would-be voters.
The candidates were allegedly largely divided into two broad camps, the left and the Labour Moderates — who dominate the current Committee — which is reflective of wider divisions within the Parliamentary Labour Party itself, something which has been very much ongoing in the last 15 months, coming to a head with Corbyn’s re-election in September this year. Although a decisive victory for the left of the party, much of the grievances held by many Labour MPs and members have yet to be resolved — leaving many ongoing divisions in an already tense political environment.
Edward Rosier, a member of the MLS and Manchester Marxists, said in regards to the supposed split within the organisation that “there were clear divisions in the society last year — the scope of which varied depending on who you talk to” and went on to comment that “this year in the only open meeting that has been held so far the divisions were brought up repeatedly by certain members”. With the majority of positions seeing the incumbents being challenged by people on what Mr. Rosier identifies as “the left” of the party, many of the challengers have called for an opening up of political discourse within the society, highlighting the limited amount of open discussion currently allowed.
Mr. Rosier highlighted the lack of open meetings and debates within the society. “The divide seems to be between Corbyn supporters who want to have open meetings and discuss change within the Labour party and those who were happy with the way the society was being run with little political discussion and a focus on unity (the kind of unity where they run the society at least)”.
This split between Corbynites and moderates is not something isolated to the student movement, but is reflected in wider political discourse within the Parliamentary Labour Party itself. Many Labour MPs have openly expressed contempt for Corbyn in the wake of his re-election as leader, indicating that there has been little reconciliation amongst warring factions.
This was exemplified by scores of Labour MPs abstaining from the Party’s own motion to pressure the government to withdraw support for the Saudi military invasion of Yemen, which can be seen as a concerted effort to rebel against Corbyn. Rosier agreed that there is a split within the Labour movement, citing “when Peter Mandelson called, immediately after the democratic election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, for him to be forced out”.
This open rebellion goes hand-in-hand with calls to reclaim the political centre-ground by many in the PLP. In the wake of developments within the global political climate, particularly the marked shift to the right in America and Europe, these cries for political moderacy have only intensified — calling for policies such as mild austerity, social welfare reforms, and a limited embrace of market economics. Rosier however, rejects these cries for what he calls the “non-existent centre ground” and many of those within the Labour movement both in Manchester and nationally seem to agree with him, as can be seen by Corbyn’s increased majority in the recent leadership contest.
Rosier described this split as similar to the one between “those who see the need for a change and those who are resistant to it” within the society. Many are worried that the lack of unity within the left is something that may have a detrimental effect on the fight against the right, which has seen enormous gains since the last election — in particular with the advent of Brexit, the rise of UKIP and the aforementioned election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency.
While many within the Labour Party and the British Left at large have called for a more concerted effort at unity, to counter-act the resurgence of the right, some have instead called for a consolidation of leftist principles. Owen Jones, writing for The Guardian this month, called for a “new populism… rooted in working-class communities” — critiquing the very centrist-policies many in Labour are trying to return to, which he feels have failed to engage the majority of the working class both domestically and internationally.
Despite these divisions however, both sides would agree that Labour needs to progress as a unified party in order to stand a good chance in the next election. However, as both sides of the party have such different perspectives for how the left should progress, finding common cause will prove difficult. Mr. Rosier believes that the best option for the party would be to embrace “Corbyn’s vision for a more compassionate, socially democratic UK” and also advocates mandatory reselection and decries attempts by Labour centrists to “replace Corbyn with a leader no one has ever heard of so they can avoid listening to the members” —referring to Owen Smith.
Supporters of Smith, and others who would identify as being in opposition to Mr. Corbyn within the party, whilst supporting many of the positions held by Corbyn and his followers, would instead argue for a re-embracing of some of the policies prevalent within the New Labour years. Aiming to unify the party behind a more traditional, broad-church style leader — who they hope could reach out to all factions in the Labour movement.
This train of thought is something that has been largely adopted by past Committees of the MLS, who hope to avoid disagreement and internal dispute, by aiming to foster an environment of unity and consensus. This is evident in the lack of discussion that has been present in the last year, according to Mr. Rosier.
By contrast, candidates on the left claim they aim to challenge this and instead hope to find common cause through debate and discussion both within the society, whilst also endeavouring to engage with other activist groups — this could mean groups such as Socialist Students, or BME Manchester — both of which have acquired a substantial presence on campus.
We would like to state that we did reach out to many members of the Labour Students across the entire political spectrum, but with the exception of Mr. Rosier they all either refused to comment, or simply did not reply.