With accusations that he didn’t give 100% to campaigning for remaining in the EU over the past few months, and resignations coming thick and fast from multiple shadow cabinet members, it’s increasingly likely that Jeremy Corbyn will need to stand down as leader of the Labour party. All parties need to choose their leaders wisely, but in the chaos of the post-Brexit political meltdown, Labour needs to be extra careful.
If a leadership election is held, it’ll take place in the context not only of a Conservative leadership battle, but in an increasingly hostile climate of debate – not just on the referendum result itself, but on the process and terms of the UK’s withdrawal.
Labour’s leadership election procedures require candidates to be nominated initially by their fellow MPs. That means the people currently renouncing their support for Jeremy Corbyn will be the ones selecting the field of candidates to stand against him. Only once these overwhelmingly pro-Remain MPs have made their decisions will the party membership be able to choose its next leader.
And even though many core Labour voters in the party’s heartlands voted overwhelmingly to leave, only ten Labour MPs publicly campaigned for Brexit. And none of them have been touted as future leaders.
So the next Labour leader will inevitably come from the Remain side, but will be tasked with winning back the support of voters who turned against the party on Britain’s most consequential political decision for generations. They’ll need to take a careful line on the EU – one that doesn’t isolate Labour Brexit voters and focuses on getting the best outcome for the UK.
Any new Labour leader will also need to be installed pretty quickly. The Conservative party dogfight to choose the next Prime Minister will be deeply acrimonious and may overshadow the Labour leadership debacle.
But the fact remains that there’s now a gaping chasm in terms of opposition in British politics. That presents an irresistible opportunity for the second opposition party: the SNP.
After a strong start following last year’s general election, the SNP MPs in Westminster have proven themselves to be everything that Labour is not. They are supremely co-ordinated, united and cohesive. Their few hiccups (such as the suspensions of Natalie McGarry and Michelle Thomson) have been quickly forgotten and, on the whole, they’re still coming across as a group of committed, passionate politicians who are highly active and well respected in the House of Commons chamber.
What’s more, at a time when the referendum result is being interpreted as a sign of growing discontent with a seemingly out-of-touch political elite, they echo the down-to-earth style of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. As the only party to be united in its position on EU membership, the SNP will be looking to capitalise on the chaos within the Labour Party to cement its already strong position at Westminster. This could give it the extra bargaining power they want as they try to secure the best post-Brexit deal for Scotland – and of course, in the push for another referendum on Scottish independence.