The Labour party are critically split under Jeremy Corbyn: not exactly a surprise revelation. Since Corbyn’s election in September, much media attention has been diverted to Labour’s internal divisions, cultivating an image of the party as a fractured, disaffected 80s throwback, with an infinite number of headlines following the same basic format: ‘Should Labour split?’, ‘Labour goes to war with itself’, ‘Labour in turmoil’. What’s more, the party have done little to discourage them; Corbyn’s leadership has heralded a “kinder, gentler politics” in which moderate Labour MPs are visibly disaffected on the backbenches, cabinet reshuffles take days and shadows ministers stage mass resignations in protest against decisions made by their elected leader.
Even so, this considerable evidence of rifts within the party is no reason for it to be relayed to the public practically every day. Labour’s various divisions are perpetually featured in the press, but what about splits amongst the Conservatives? Aren’t they also heavily divided on several key issues?
Since their surprise election victory in May, however, there have been a number of instances of ruptures within Cameron’s Conservative government. In October, George Osborne was openly defied by over 20 Tory MPs concerning his proposal over tax credit cuts, effectively ensuring the bill would never pass through the Commons, given the Tories’ razor-thin majority.
2016 has also begun rather dismally for the Tories in terms of unity, with Europe, as usual, being the dominant topic for discussion. Last month, whilst Corbyn was desperately reshuffling his cabinet in order to consolidate his authority, Cameron sneakily used this news story as cover for the revelation that his cabinet has been given a free vote on the EU referendum. Boris Johnson, Chris Grayling, Liam Fox, Theresa Villiers and Iain Duncan Smith are all top figures in the cabinet expected to join the ‘Out’ campaign, but this has not been nearly as extensively covered in the newspapers as the perceived divisions within Labour. Nor has there been much coverage of the PM’s renegotiation with the European leaders, not until now, as the cracks are really beginning to show within the Tories.
This is, as anyone interested in political history will already be aware, déjà-vu for the Conservatives. In the last three decades of the 19th century, party divisions over Europe helped to ensure the Tories remained in the political wilderness, as did the implosion over the Maastricht Treaty under John Major. Like Major, Cameron only won the election with a small majority, which could easily deteriorate over the course of this parliament due to by-elections. If Cameron’s authority wanes, then the more right-wing spheres of the media, and indeed the news in general, will have an easier time criticising him; there’s always interest to be found in situations where politicians find themselves vulnerable, no longer indispensible to their own party or to the electorate. This is why Corbyn is easy flak for the press – either that, or Cameron is simply blessed with far more competent spin-doctors.
Either way, as unpredictable as British politics was last year, it’s looking like 2016 may be the year of Westminster parties becoming more anarchic than ever before, and of leaders living on borrowed time.