LONDON (Reuters) - The leader of the main opposition Labour Party says a reshuffle of his top team has brought the unity needed to “win elections and change our country for the better” - but he faces a struggle to convince his own lawmakers.
Some Labour MPs say this month’s changes by Jeremy Corbyn have merely deepened divisions and herald the start of a battle over national security that could tear the party apart and leave it out of power for more than a decade.
After days of what some aides said were difficult talks, Corbyn sacked two top-ranking officials for disloyalty and moved his defence spokeswoman to another role, bringing in a lawmaker who shares his opposition to nuclear weapons.
With security now taking centre stage, the reshuffle was seen as the first move in a fight over whether to renew the Trident submarine programme - Britain’s sole nuclear weapons system - which a Labour government won parliamentary support for in 2007.
Pat McFadden, who was sacked as Labour’s Europe spokesman in the reshuffle, urged Labour members not to focus on his dismissal, which was condemned by several lawmakers, in both Labour and the ruling Conservative Party.
“The longer-term importance from the reshuffle is not whether I‘m there ... it is probably the question of Trident and what happens now,” McFadden told Reuters in an interview.
“There will certainly be different views about it.”
A battle for the soul of Britain’s Labour Party seems to have entered a new phase.
Corbyn believes the cost of renewing and maintaining Trident, which Reuters puts at more than 167 billion pounds ($234 billion) over 32 years, is too much and the money could be better spent. But many in his party think Britain cannot unilaterally disarm in an increasingly hostile world.
The veteran left-wing and anti-war activist was elected on a groundswell of desire for change among Labour’s grass-root members in September following a heavy election defeat. Since then, his followers in the party, often holding more radical views than their elected representatives in parliament, have clashed with some Labour lawmakers.
After weeks of slurs and accusations in the largely anonymous realm of Twitter, some of the divisive language is now being used in parliament, with lawmakers who resigned their senior party positions in protest at the reshuffle dubbed a “right-wing clique” by one of Corbyn’s closest allies.
The two sides seem further apart than ever, and despite Corbyn’s attempts to tighten his control over the party, the Trident debate looks set to add fuel to what is becoming an increasingly public, and damaging, battle.
Corbyn’s election as leader represented a sharp break from the legacy of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who shifted Labour from its left-wing roots to the political centre. He took a party that had been out of office for almost two decades to three straight election victories after becoming leader in 1994.
Blair quit in 2007 and Labour - dogged by criticism and internal soul-searching over its participation in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and its handling of the economy during the Blair years - lost the next two elections.
Now Corbyn’s push to turn Labour more to the left is exposing its faultlines.
The reshuffle, in which Corbyn sacked McFadden and Michael Dugher, former spokesman for culture, media and sport - both more centrist politicians - triggered several resignations among junior members of his team.
But explaining the reshuffle in a commentary piece in the Guardian newspaper, Corbyn wrote: “For all the media sound and fury ... (the) shadow cabinet reshuffle has made us a stronger, more diverse and more coherent leadership team.”
“It will help make Labour a more effective champion of the people who need us to give them a voice, to win elections and change our country for the better,” he wrote on Jan. 9.
He says he has the mandate of thousands of new party members to push through change, but after he promised a new, consensual politics where differences of opinion could be aired, some Labour voters feel let down by the sackings in his team.
Carl Gardner, 51, a former government lawyer, said he had been wondering about leaving the party since it became clear in August that Corbyn would win the leadership election.
After joining Labour in 1994, when he said Labour had “finally become a sensible, electable centre-left party which could do good things in this country”, London-based Gardner feared the party was turning back to its 1980s hard-left stances such as unilateral disarmament.
“The question is why didn’t I leave before?” he said.
Instead Gardner, who now teaches law, said he stopped paying his Labour subscription on Jan. 7, his birthday.
“I waited four months for it and if there was a last straw, it was the reshuffle ... I don’t really hear principled voices of the best of the Labour Party speaking up against the wholly wrong-headed direction that Labour is going in.”
Others disagree. Party membership has grown to 380,000 people, up from about 270,000 in August, and a majority of members - more than 200,000 people - signed up since the former Labour leader Ed Miliband left in May last year, after suffering the overwhelming defeat by the Conservatives.
But it is largely Corbyn supporters - dubbed Corbynistas - who make up the new entrants, who are increasingly dominating local councils and associations.
“This new membership is overwhelmingly pro-Corbyn, which should give us a decent idea of just how strong a position he is in,” said LabourList, a Labour website, in a commentary.
“If he is able to mobilise and organise them effectively, doing things like changing Trident policy should be a doddle.”
Labour launched its Defence Policy Review on Friday, calling on party members and the public to get involved.
While Labour has not given a deadline, former London mayor Ken Livingstone, a leftist Corbyn ally who is overseeing the review along with the party’s new defence spokeswoman, has said he hopes to finish the report on the nuclear submarine programme in eight to 10 weeks.
Many party members say they fear Labour might return to its stance on unilateral disarmament, something they believe will not appeal to an electorate increasingly confused by Labour’s new politics.
Fifty-two percent of Britons interviewed by pollster YouGov between in late November said Corbyn was doing badly as Labour leader, while 30 percent felt he was doing well.
On defence, he had a trust rating of minus 34, another YouGov poll in September found, and the Conservatives have worked hard to paint Corbyn as a threat to national security.
Some Labour lawmakers suggest they might resign if the party decides to scrap Trident - a policy that Labour in Scotland adopted late last year. And Corbyn will face a tough battle against some of his trade union supporters, who will say that cancelling Trident will cost jobs.
A former senior Labour activist said the party was more split than ever after McFadden was sacked for his criticism of the left-wing Stop the War Coalition, which Corbyn used to chair.
McFadden opposed the group’s view that the Paris attacks were France reaping “whirlwind of western support for extremist violence in Middle East”, saying terrorist acts were not always a reaction “to what we in the West do”.
“The McFadden sacking is the perfect excuse because Stop the War, security and terrorist links are where Corbyn shows his politics most clearly,” said the former activist, who asked not to be named.
“He has given the moderates their moral out.”
Editing by Pravin Char