Last week I declared that the Labour Party would be the chief casualty of Brexit. What I couldn’t have anticipated is how quickly the wheels would begin to fall off. Yesterday saw seven Labour MPs defect from the Labour Party in protest at the party’s approach to anti-Semitism and Brexit. Those MPs are: Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes, Gavin Shuker and Ann Coffey. It is unclear at this stage whether or not more defections will follow. But given that this group includes heavyweights like Umunna and Leslie, this is more than a mere annoyance for Jeremy Corbyn. It is symptomatic of a wider crisis for Labour of which Brexit is the key catalyst.
Mr Corbyn said he was “disappointed” that the MPs felt they were unable to continue working towards delivering the policies that “inspired millions” in the 2017 general election. But the truth is that Corbyn’s election performance in 2017 was a red herring – let’s not forget that Theresa May won 42.3% of the popular vote for the Conservatives in 2017, up from 36.8% in 2015. But nobody was reporting the Tory surge. That’s because the dividing lines for the 2017 election were heavily influenced by the way people voted and subsequently felt about Brexit. The Labour Party were the obvious choice for those Remainers who wanted a softer version of Brexit (or indeed no Brexit at all).
So where does Corbyn go from here? It appears that one of the precipitating factors for the Labour defections could very well have been Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to call for a second referendum on Brexit. As we now know, this has alienated large swathes of the party membership and the Parliamentary party, who see Corbyn’s lily-livered stance, in the face of an undoubtedly weak Conservative Party, as unfathomable. Here Corbyn is at odds with his youthful support base of avocado-munching Momentumites and Party Members, who back a second referendum almost to a man and woman. Among his own MPs, there is also deep unhappiness about the party’s ambivalence towards Brexit – as was made clear today.
A lot now hinges on how the party machinery – now completely in the hands of the Corbynites, according to the defectors – reacts to this new threat. If it decides to instigate a purge whereby other ‘Blairite’ MPs are earmarked for deselection, the trickle may well turn into a landslide. The possibility of the latter is underlined by none other than Deputy Leader Tom Watson’s comments: “I love this party. But sometimes I no longer recognise it, that is why I do not regard those who have resigned today as traitors.” The fact that Watson sometimes no longer recognises his party is because, bit by bit, it is being consumed by the Corbyn movement, whose only currency is undying loyalty to the Dear Leader.
Labour’s position is much more precarious than the Tories’, as the fault lines are more numerous. Whereas the Tories’ divisions are essentially limited to the shape of Brexit, Labour is divided over the entire direction of the party. The defectors declared that Jeremy Corbyn was unfit to take office as Prime Minister and that his policies were anti-aspirational. There are many others within the Parliamentary party that privately hold the same views. But the major fissure lies within the electorate. How much longer will mainstream voters tolerate a party that retreats ever deeper into its past and speaks only to its own narrow intellectual clique?
It is too early to tell whether or not this new “Independent” movement will be a repeat of the SDP breakaway movement of the 1980s, but what is clear is that Brexit has opened Pandora’s box for Corbyn’s Labour Party. Corbyn preaches tolerance for the views of others but he and his acolytes have fostered a climate of intimidation and recrimination. This should come as no surprise: it is merely a precursor of the coercion that all socialist regimes require in order to function.
Once the dust has settled on Brexit, the Conservatives can – and will – recover. The Tory Party is nothing if not ruthless and its animal spirits will eventually kick in to find the strongest leader and the optimal way forward. Meanwhile, the Labour Party’s ostensible commitment to ‘party democracy’ will leave it disjointed and lacking cohesion in comparison, unable to unseat a leader that’s supported by the hardcore party membership but not by the electorate.
Whilst I cannot help but feel a sense of schadenfreude at the Labour Party’s well-deserved misfortune, there is a serious point to make here. Brexit has been a complete curve-ball to Labour, which has found itself completely out of touch – and in many ways, at odds – with its core constituency of working-class voters. To compound matters, it has also alienated many of its supporters who occupy the centre ground of politics. With all those voters and politicians looking for a home, who will step into that vacuum, I wonder?
Perhaps it will be the Independents, but I’m not so sure. History teaches us that insurgent parties find it very hard to succeed in Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system. The 1980s SDP/Labour split confined Labour to opposition for more than a decade. There is a major opportunity here for the Tory Party to make its mark as the party for the many, not the few.