The British Conservative Party is known, rather aptly, as ‘a broad church’. Within it sit a wide range of opinions and ideological stances, from Thatcherites to tax-and-spend liberals. Often, they are happy. Often, they are not. Yet their traditional opposition party, the British Labour Party, seems at the moment, to be an equally broad church — and equally divided. Under Tony Blair, the Labour party moved to the right, compromising pure ideology for power. It seemed that the party accepted this transition with remarkable ease, as it ended a stretch in the opposition benches that had lasted since 1979. Yet with the somewhat unlikely assumption of power by Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, ideological differences between his traditional, hard-left outlook and the more modern ‘New Labour’ faction have begun to emerge. Although the rank and file are hugely supportive of the new leader, backbencher MPs, sure that Corbyn would sail a sinking ship into the General Election, made almost ceaseless rumblings to remove him; these ceased when the exit polls first emerged.
Yet the surprisingly good election result have merely papered over the cracks. The paper has torn again over the recent crisis in Venezuela — hardly a hot-button issue when it comes to UK politics, but it has served to again highlight the differences between the hard line left currently in charge and the moderates who make up the bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The MP for Islington North has, for a long time, been a great fan of the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and his ‘Bolivarian Revolution’. It’s because of this support for the leftist government that he has come under increasing pressure, as the leader of a major party, to condemn the surge of political violence that has erupted under Chavez’ successor, Nicolás Maduro.
Corbyn’s own Shadow Foreign Secretary has spoken out against the regime; as Western politicians gradually adopt a more condemning tone of Maduro’s use of violence, his refusal to do so is a notable exception. Corbyn has called Nicolás Maduro personally to congratulate him on his 2014 election win, and was called by the leader “a great friend of Venezuela.” So far, Corbyn has pointedly refused to condemn his erstwhile ally — in fact, when commenting on the situation, the Labour leader continued to express a degree of support for the regime. Rather than talk about the huge death toll in the South American nation, Mr. Corbyn continued to talk about recognising “that there have been effective and serious attempts at reducing poverty in Venezuela, improving literacy and improving the lives of many of the poorest people.”
This refusal to outright condemn the actions of what is fast becoming a dictatorship, rather than a democracy, is seeing the Labour leader again facing criticism from moderates. Corbyn is not facing these alone, and has some support even within the PLP for his position, but it is very limited. The leader managed to spin a better-than-expected election result into the landslide of the century — and many Labour backbenchers are less opposed to Corbyn’s platform now they know it is more electable than first thought. However, his policy of “no enemies to my left” may remind internal dissidents of his more radical beliefs. If he continues to speak out about a crackdown on democracy his opponents — both internal and external — may be given more ammunition with which to attack him.
He is far from having to choose to make a stand, one way or the other, at the moment. The Labour leader may attempt to “ride out the storm” by taking a non-position, much like his party has done on Brexit. It may go further, forcing him to choose a position. However, the damage has likely been done — his soft denial of any specific wrongdoing on the part of President Maduro has served to remind those filling his backbenches of their differences.