U.K. Labour Party Is Split as Officials Aims to Stem Bloodbath

  • Corbyn and headquarters said to pursue separate strategies
  • Tension between bid for victory and reduced losses, people say

Britain’s opposition Labour Party has at least two plans to fight the election Prime Minister Theresa May called on Tuesday. And one of them doesn’t involve trying to win.

Even as leader Jeremy Corbyn campaigns for victory on June 8, officials in the party’s headquarters see him as a liability and are focused instead on minimizing the scale of defeat, according to two people familiar with the strategies, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Corbyn will tour districts the party needs to win to gain a majority in Parliament, as staff at headquarters, who control party funds, plan the defense of seats they think the party might be able to hold against an onslaught from May’s Conservatives. That could mean only those with majorities of 5,000 votes or more, according to one person.

“Normally you would expect leadership tours to tally closely with the party’s list of target seats, but Corbyn’s not the electoral asset you would expect leaders to be,” Justin Fisher, professor of politics at Brunel University, said in a telephone interview. “The challenge Labour faces is focusing their campaign on the local contests rather than the national party.”

May called the election to crush opposition and win an “unassailable” mandate to navigate Britain’s divorce from the European Union, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said Thursday. Labour lags the Conservatives by as much as 24 percentage points in opinion polls and 12 of the opposition party’s lawmakers have said they will not defend their seats.

Fringe Figure

Labour’s structure means that even though Corbyn is leader, he doesn’t control the party. Before members elected him in 2015, he was a fringe figure in Labour and doesn’t have the headquarters staff’s deep knowledge of the battleground and years of experience fighting elections.

Although the 2010 and 2015 elections were defeats for Labour, the party’s Field Operations team can point to some individual successes. In 2010, they helped to stop David Cameron’s Conservatives from winning a majority and five years later the party gained seats in England, a result masked by its near-wipeout in Scotland.

It is now identifying a defensive line, according to people familiar with the plans, which one person said might mean targeting resources at seats with majorities of around 5,000 or more.

“I don’t think that this election is about changing the government,” Labour lawmaker Helen Goodman told ITV News on Thursday. “This election is about preventing the Tories from getting such an overwhelming majority that there is no possibility of dissent in this country.”

Working Together

The party’s press office contradicted this on Friday and insisted that the party and its leader are working together for victory. “There is one campaign with a united aim to elect a Labour government for the many, not the few,” it said in an email.

Relations between Corbyn’s office and headquarters have been tense since the moment he won the leadership in 2015. In August last year, they boiled over in public, with ex-staffers writing an open letter condemning his treatment of their former colleagues.

The split campaign, though, is one area of paradoxical agreement. Polls show Corbyn is even less popular than his party, so it suits Labour headquarters and the party’s lawmakers not to have him campaigning in districts they wish to hold.

John Woodcock, who is defending a majority of just 795 votes in Barrow, north west England, has put a video online assuring constituents that he would never vote for Corbyn to become prime minister.

Jess Phillips, fighting to keep a seat in Birmingham, central England, where she has a majority of more than 6,000, is making her own arrangements for funding. She has set up an internet appeal to pay for her campaign and has already raised more than 6,500 pounds ($8,300).

“The crowdfunder is something I’ve used before as it means people from all over can get involved in a campaign,” she said. “Local campaigns are always run on the ground by the candidate and local party because we know our people.”

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