Any Labour leader would have problems managing the party’s response to the EU withdrawal Bill, Diane Abbott, the shadow Home Secretary, said today. She is absolutely right. The party has a structural fault. It supported staying in the EU, but when the people voted in the referendum to leave, it divided between those who accepted the result and those who want to fight it.
Hence the resignations from Labour’s front bench as the vote on the Bill approaches. Jo Stevens, the MP for Cardiff Central, quit the shadow Cabinet today; Tulip Siddiq, the MP for Hampstead, resigned as a shadow junior minister yesterday. Their departures have little to do with Corbyn’s leadership and a lot to do with the new dividing line of British politics.
Since the 1950s, Labour and the Conservatives have taken it in turn to be divided over Europe. First it was Labour, then, since the middle of Margaret Thatcher’s time, it was the Tories who were torn. Suddenly, on 24 June last year, the Tories snapped together, united (apart from Kenneth Clarke) behind Brexit.
At the same time, Labour split. Jeremy Corbyn was on TV at 7.30am saying: “We must respect that result and Article 50 has to be invoked now.” Many in his party were horrified. They reacted viscerally rather than rationally, and launched a doomed challenge to his leadership behind a candidate, Owen Smith, who advocated a second referendum.
Curiously, that leadership election concealed rather than exposed Labour’s division, because it was fought mostly on the proposition that Corbyn lacks any of the qualities of leadership required by a functioning opposition. This may be true but it was irrelevant while large numbers of Corbyn supporters felt he had not been given a fair chance to fail.
But the division is deep and irreconcilable. It is not between Corbynites and non-Corbynites. After all, among Labour MPs there are hardly any Corbynites. Yet Corbyn finds himself on the side of the majority of the parliamentary party on the question of Brexit.
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