Behind the Brexit vote, Labour remains dangerously divided

Delegates vote to support all Brexit options at conference in Liverpool. Stefan Rousseau/PA

One of the ironies of Brexit is that, while the Conservatives were long seen as divided over Europe, it is Labour’s internal divisions that could play a vital role on the road ahead. Labour’s conference was the scene for a tug-of-war over whether the party should endorse a second referendum on a Brexit deal. It has put the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in the uncomfortable position of being out of step with his most ardent supporters. It all throws up important questions about power in the party and the Corbyn project, as well as Brexit.

Since the 1980s, Labour has adopted a strongly pro-European stance. A pocket of eurosceptics remained in the party, but they were politically insignificant. Some were maverick centrist MPs, like Frank Field and Kate Hoey. The old Bennite left was also hostile to European integration, seeing the EEC (later the EU) as a “capitalist club” that would make it difficult for a left-wing Labour government to manage the commanding heights of the economy.

Today, Labour’s MPs, individual members and affiliated trade unions are overwhelmingly pro-EU and hostile to Brexit. All but about ten Labour MPs voted “Remain” in the referendum. A recent poll of party members found 90% would now vote for Britain to remain in the EU. The problem is that the party leader doesn’t always seem to share their enthusiasm.

Beyond left and right

Labour’s internal dispute over Brexit cuts across the left-right division. In the figure below, the four quadrants represent four factional positions. In the top-right quadrant are centrist pro-Europeans, including most “moderate” Labour MPs – no friends of Corbyn. In the top-left quadrant are pro-EU left-wingers, a category that comprises almost the entire party membership and most trade unions, the bedrock of Corbyn’s support.

However, Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, hail from the Bennite left and are found in the bottom-left quadrant. Corbyn voted to leave the Common Market in 1975, he opposed the Maastricht Treaty, and although he campaigned for Remain in 2016, his efforts looked distinctly half-hearted. Finally, in the bottom-right quadrant are a handful of pro-Brexit MPs, who have voted with the government on Brexit.

How Labour divides on Brexit. Author provided

Most factional infighting in the Labour Party since Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015 has pitted the leader, the membership and the unions against centrist MPs. As long as calls for a second Brexit referendum were confined to these MPs, Corbyn could safely dismiss them. But as Britain’s departure from the EU draws nearer, the grassroots have increasingly mobilised. This year’s conference saw members calling for a second referendum, to the consternation of the leader’s inner circle. Brexit is a genuine fissure within the Corbynite coalition.

With most of the party opposed to Brexit, Corbyn has had to tread carefully. He allowed his shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, to devise six tests that Labour would demand of a Brexit deal. On a second referendum, Corbyn has opted for the holding pattern of preferring a general election to enable a Labour government to negotiate its own Brexit goals. But there is little thought about how to trigger an election, beyond hoping for the government to collapse. Critics suspect that Corbyn hopes Brexit will take care of itself.

Several interesting points arise from Labour’s Brexit divisions. First, despite the party’s internal debate about democratisation, considerable power lies in the leader’s hands. If Labour had a leader in favour of a second referendum, that would already be party policy. Its membership wants it (86%) and most MPs probably do likewise.

Corbyn has acted as a brake on adopting this policy. Shifts towards a second vote are quickly followed by retreats, as with McDonnell’s suggestion that any second referendum should not include remaining in the EU as an option. The resolution backed by the party committed it to seeking a general election in the event of no Brexit deal, and failing that, keeping all options open, including a second referendum. It’s not the most decisive statement of intent.

Second, Brexit is a problem the leadership needs to manage because of the danger it poses to the Corbynite project. There is no prospect of members suddenly allying with “moderate” MPs: pro-EU activists sported “Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit” t-shirts and bags at conference, signalling their continued commitment to the leader. But the standing ovation they gave Starmer, who insisted that Remain should be an option, was a shot across Corbyn’s bows.

Third, Labour’s position on Brexit matters because the minority Conservative government has problems controlling its own pro-EU rebel MPs. Outright support from Labour for single-market membership, for instance, could have caused the government problems. But Corbyn instructed his MPs to abstain on an amendment to the EU withdrawal bill prioritising European Economic Area membership (which entails single-market membership).

Fourth, Corbyn’s caution is arguably more in step with Labour voters as a whole. While two thirds of Labour supporters backed Remain in the referendum, one third voted to leave – but few in the party are representing them. To dismiss their significance, as Remainers sometimes do, is astonishingly complacent. Corbyn’s middle-way position of accepting the referendum result but criticising the government’s Brexit goals, was the key to defusing Brexit during the 2017 general election and holding on to numerous seats in the North and Midlands.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the small band of pro-Brexit Labour rebels (bottom-right quadrant above) have been vital in giving the government its slim majority on Brexit votes. Five Labour MPs (Field, Hoey, John Mann, Graham Stringer and the suspended Kelvin Hopkins) voted against an amendment to the trade bill seeking customs union membership. The government won by six votes. Field and Hoey subsequently lost no-confidence votes in their local parties and Field now sits as an independent MP.

Eurosceptics may comprise a small part of the Labour Party, but events have made them disproportionately influential. They control the party leadership and, in the case of the centrist Brexiteers, they are pivotal in steering Brexit through the hung parliament. Against all expectations, Labour Euroscepticism looks set to play a key role in Britain’s departure from the EU.