Wednesday

16th Aug 2017

Column / Brexit Briefing

Brexit vote devours UK's Labour Party

  • Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is "a very nice man but incapable of leading". (Photo: Reuters)

If the chatter in Brussels and capitals across the EU is about how and whether the bloc can survive Brexit, the same questions are being asked of the UK and its political parties.

“We’re doomed” messages started popping up on my phone from Labour party officials shortly after midnight on Thursday as the numbers from Newcastle and Sunderland in the North East of England indicated a decisive swing to the Leave campaign.

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Some of the post-referendum political carnage was easy to foresee. It was always likely that Scotland would vote strongly to remain in the EU.

Every Scottish region voted heavily for remain. A second Scottish referendum on independence is inevitable and could take place within a year.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon described the result as “democratically unacceptable” and, on Monday (27 June), said she was “determined to explore every avenue to retain Scotland’s EU status”.

“It is, therefore, a statement of the obvious that a second referendum must be on the table, and it is on the table," said Sturgeon.

Similarly, David Cameron’s immediate resignation in the event of a Leave vote was entirely predictable, with his political assassin Boris Johnson the likely successor.

Yet after a campaign in which the Conservative party descended into an entirely predictable civil war, and the result prompted a prime minister’s resignation, there is a strong case to say that the opposition Labour party is more broken.

Corbyn the saboteur

If the Conservative MPs were evenly split between Remain and Leave, it was assumed, rightly, that most Conservative party members and supporters would back Brexit. In other words, a Remain vote would have to be delivered by Labour voters.

It wasn’t, and the party may well be finished as a political force as a result.

Polling data suggests that 63 percent of Labour voters backed Remain, and Labour supporters in their city heartlands, particularly London, came out in their droves for Remain. But swathes of Labour seats in the North East, South and West Yorkshire, saw Leave majorities of 60-40 and more.

The blame for the failure lies primarily with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn utterly failed to persuade the party’s base, particularly the white working-class, to vote Remain.

Both Corbyn and his finance spokesman John McDonnell are left-wing eurosceptics in a party that is overwhelmingly in favour of EU membership.

The Labour Remain campaign was under-resourced and repeatedly marginalised by Corbyn’s team, led by press secretary Seamus Milne, a former journalist noted for his sympathy towards Russian president Vladimir Putin. As a result, Labour’s campaign was tepid to the point of non-existence.

On migration, Corbyn’s most significant contribution was to comment that it was impossible to control numbers as long as free movement of labour existed.

“Rather than making a clear and passionate Labour case for EU membership, Corbyn took a week’s holiday in the middle of the campaign and removed pro-EU lines from his speeches,” wrote Will Straw, the director of the Remain campaign, and a former Labour candidate, on Monday.

“Rather than confronting concerns about immigration with Labour’s values of contribution and reciprocity, Corbyn distanced himself from the manifesto commitment to restrict in work benefits for new arrivals to this country and planned a trip to Turkey to talk about 'open borders'.”

By Monday lunchtime most of Labour’s shadow ministers had resigned as part of a mass walk-out to force Corbyn’s resignation. The 230 Labour MPs will vote on a no-confidence motion on Corbyn on Tuesday and his removal or a fresh leadership election appears inevitable.

See no evil

A year after being demolished by the Scottish National Party in Scotland, what is to prevent the story being repeated in northern England, where UKIP took second place in dozens of seats in the 2015 election?

“Corbyn is useless. A very nice man but incapable of leading,” one party official told EUobserver on Friday, before the mass walk-out of shadow ministers started on Sunday.

The UK’s campaign-fatigued electorate will probably be sent back to the polls in October for a snap general election. In the absence of a functioning government or opposition, Nicola Sturgeon is the only senior UK politician offering leadership. For those who fear the collapse of the UK, this should be deeply worrying.

A Brexit vote was always going to open a Pandora's box. But nobody imagined how many layers and sub-sections it would have. The Leave campaign slogan to ‘Take back control’ won’t happen any time soon. In the meantime, UK politics, not to mention its economy, is in complete disarray.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy and a freelance writer.

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