As the questions of Ireland and free trade divided British political parties in the 19th century, in the last 50 years the great source of division has been Europe, Europe, Europe. The announcement by seven Labour MPs opposed to leaving the European Union they would form an independent group in the House of Commons is the latest sign of the inability of the political class to address the Europe conundrum.
Their decision all but destroys Prime Minister May’s hopes of getting Labour MPs to cross the floor to back her unworkable deal, which only plunges the U.K. into years of “Brexeternity” trying to negotiate a new relationship with endless divisions in the Commons going into the 2020s.
Labour MPs who might wish to back May will not want to face the accusation of aiding and abetting the Tories as the tsunami of hate and insults starts to fall upon their seven colleagues whose departure seriously damages Labour.
For Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, it is all déja vu. He was elected in 1983 soon after the breakaway of Labour MPs into the Social Democratic Party rendered Labour unelectable for nearly two decades.
It was mainly the European issue that led to the creation in 1981 of the SDP—initially a defection of just four, not seven Labour MPs—who could not support the turn against Europe by the party’s leadership of that era under Michael Foot and Tony Benn after Labour’s defeat in 1979.
There were other issues then like unilateral disarmament which lingers in the background today, as Jeremy Corbyn is not a supporter of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Today, the compounding issue has been the atrocious handling of anti-Semitism by the Labour leadership.
In 1983, Labour’s election manifesto had as its top line Brexit—a pledge to leave the European Community. Then Margaret Thatcher was a committed European poised to force through the Single Market legislation, which abolished national vetoes in core areas of sovereign government policy.
She demolished Labour’s anti-European pretensions which up to 1983 were backed by Labour MPs like Neil Kinnock, Robin Cook, Jack Straw, and David Blunkett who went on after 1983 to re-center the party and make it electable.
But it took a long time—a 14-year wait. Today, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour shadow cabinet seem to be as ardent proponents of Brexit as Theresa May. Corbyn and his team reject the existing Customs Union for their own fantasy variety. They reject the Single Market and its so-called “four indivisible freedoms” of movement of goods, capital, services and people just as in the single U.S. wide market.
When 700,000 people filled the streets of London in October to march against Brexit—the kind of mass mobilization of progressive, internationalism that once Corbyn would have led—the Labour leader not only disappeared but ordered all the shadow cabinet to boycott the demo.
Ninety percent of Labour Party members want the British people to be asked again in a new referendum on amputating the U.K. from Europe. Corbyn responds with indifference to their demand even if it is now official Labour Party conference policy.
The seven defecting MPs represent north and south England, South Yorkshire, and Merseyside, industrial Manchester, the carmakers and Easyjet employees of Luton, young MPs with a glittering future and older MPs in their last parliament.
They are already being covered with bilious hate attacks in The Guardian and The New Statesman, the kind of “Enemies of the People” and “Traitors” language of the right-paper press attacking Tory MPs who oppose Brexit.
Corbyn’s life-long commitment to opposing European construction like Michael Foot’s life-long commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament has a following on the left. But it is a guaranteed way not to get a majority to form a government. Labour has lost nearly all support in Scotland where Scottish voters, especially non-Tory ones, are pro-European. Without Scotland and without English seats where the Jewish community has a presence, Labour’s chances of winning an election are zero.
What happens now? We shall see if the Magnificent Seven as they will inevitably be dubbed have real money and organizing networks. There are 30 Labour seats with majorities of under 500, and 30 Tory seats with majorities of under 1000. A new party candidate may not win the seat under the first-past-the-post system but if he or she just attracts 500 to 1000 votes that is enough for an incumbent MP to be booted out.
Within hours of the seven MP walking out, a further 20 Labour MPs and some Tory MPs were identified, if not named, as willing to join the Independents to protest the kamikaze Brexit policy endorses by both May and Corbyn. The walkout overshadowed Honda’s decision to shut its U.K. plant. The Japanese automaker has repeatedly said that losing access to the EU Single Market as both May and Corbyn back means there is no future for Japanese automakers in England.
In the 1980s, trade unions rescued Labour after 1983, shutting down de-selections of MP’s, expelling far-left Militants, and re-centering Labour. There is no sign of that happening today. Nor are there young Tony Blairs, Gordon Browns, Mo Mowlams, or John Smiths on the Labour horizon. Of the 26 members of the shadow cabinet 22 will of pensionable age—in their 60s, 70s, and one will be 80—at the time of the next general election in 2022.
But there are two conclusions now to be drawn. Brexit is a super-glue that is clogging up government, but Brexit is also a solvent that is dissolving existing political structures. Neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn with their support for leaving the full Customs Union and Single Market and all the decision-making bodies of the EU have been able to convince their parties of the wisdom of their line.
The seven Labour MPs who have left will put pressure on Labour MPs who are currently backing Theresa May to come back into line and show loyalty to their colleagues and the party by opposing her unworkable deal. Her chances of getting Labour MPs to back her deal have gone down sharply.
The resignation has accentuated the Brexit crisis. Either the hard-liners win and there is a No Deal crash out; or the Government has to ask for a much longer “Revoke and Reflect” period or it may finally accept the maxim advanced once by a top Tory MP and anti-European, David Davis, the former Brexit minister that “a democracy that cannot change its mind ceases to be a democracy” and ask if the people would like to re-think via a new referendum.
Alternatively, as in 2017, there is the gambler’s throw of a general election. But although Labour can quickly find hard-left candidates to stand in the seats of the departing seven it is doubtful if a new election would produce a Commons with a clear majority line on Brexit.
Both Labour and the Tories would enter the election divided, at each other’s throats and demoralised. Former Tory Prime Minister David Cameron and his toady, former Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg who endorsed his Bexit plebiscite decision, have a lot to answer for. So, alas, does Jeremy Corbyn.