You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Labour Party’s Role in the Brexit Crisis

Major fumbles have left British leftists ill-equipped to help guide their country.

Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

Three years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and two weeks after it was supposed to have left, Prime Minister Theresa May returned to Europe this week, hat in hand, to ask for a second, last-minute extension. Hanging in the balance were Britain’s access to certain food and medicine, the stability of its financial markets, and peace at the Irish border—all of which would be threatened were the U.K. forced to exit the EU with no deal in place.

Late Wednesday, the EU offered not the short-term extension May had sought, but a six-month delay. Through the revised timeframe, a second referendum and a general election would seem to be back on the table, throwing both Brexit’s and the prime minister’s future into doubt—if, that is, the opposition can finally rouse itself to action.

Even in these less-than-normal times, one would expect such high-stakes, eleventh-hour games to produce a change in government. Perhaps more than that, one would have expected the two no-confidence votes, the three rejections of the prime minister’s Brexit deal, the twenty-two ministerial resignations, and the humiliation of a 26 percent approval rating to have ousted Theresa May and the Tories out of power long before this latest turn. But even as the prime minister has lost the support of her party, her Parliament, and her people, her political fortunes have remained buoyed by the misfortunes of a divided and desultory opposition.

For the past two and a half years, the Labour Party has been conspicuously absent from the political crisis that has been described as the nation’s greatest since the Second World War. Part of the reason for that is simply structural, a consequence of Britain’s majoritarian Parliament. Without a division between the legislative and executive branches, without a second elected chamber, and without a filibuster, there is little in place to empower political minorities who have not been included in the governing party’s coalition. In theory, this can release much of the gridlock that builds up in a more bipartisan system like the Untied States’. In practice, however, it simply tosses one set of partisans to the side.

A bigger factor, though, has been the Labour Party’s general disarray. While much attention has been paid to the Conservative Party, its divisions, and its messy mismanagement of the Brexit process, the reality is that Labour has not been much better. “Labour’s divisions are comparable to the Conservatives’,” Thomas Raines, head of Chatham House’s Europe program, told me. In fact, the divisions are nearly a mirror image: Where 39 percent of Conservative voters voted to remain and 61 percent voted to leave, 65 percent of Labour voters voted to remain and 35 percent voted to leave—burdening both parties with fractured constituencies and fragile mandates. And just as a Remainer, Theresa May, was uncomfortably put in charge of the more pro-Brexit Conservatives, a Leaver, Jeremy Corbyn, was left in charge of the generally anti-Brexit Labour. The new political identities have not sat well with either party, leading both sides to be split, perhaps irrevocably so, and giving Corbyn good reason to keep his party’s fight from coming to the fore.

However, on the few occasions that Labour has had to present a position, its problems have been put in plain sight. After initially making some noise about a “jobs-first Brexit”—a plan for the U.K. to stay in the EU’s customs union and single market—Labour nominally threw its weight behind a second referendum. But when Parliament was given the opportunity to put their votes where their mouths were in “indicative voting” last month, both the jobs-first Brexit and the second referendum suffered fatal defections by Labour MPs. The showing of party cohesion and conviction on Labour’s side was, remarkably, nearly as poor as on the Conservatives’ side.

In truth, however, Labour’s problems go well beyond Brexit. They start with a controversy over anti-Semitism that has dogged Labour and its leader for much of the past few years. Corbyn’s past claims that Hamas and Hezbollah were his “friends” and his eyebrow-raising wreath-laying at a memorial for the perpetrators of the 1972 Munich Massacre opened new fractures in the party just as he was coming to lead it. After he took the helm, the controversy only continued as Corbyn refused to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism and ignored complaints within the party about anti-Semitism. The ramifications of this have been felt not only in the confrontations between MPs—of which there have been many—but also at the polling stations and, consequently, in Labour’s presence in parliament.

This much was made clear in 2017 when Theresa May called a snap election to strengthen her parliamentary majority, a plan which backfired as Labour picked up 30 seats and the Tories were forced to form a coalition government. But Labour’s gains, according to Daniel Allington, a computational social scientist at King’s College, could have been far greater. In an area of northwest London known as “the Bagel Belt,” Allington found a decisively negative relationship between the number of Jewish voters and Labour’s share of the vote. Small though Britain’s Jewish population may be, turning off Britain’s Jewish voters cost the Labour Party up to three seats in Parliament, Allington told me. In a Brexit saga that has seen important votes come down to margins that small or smaller, it was a steep price to pay.

Left unresolved, tensions in the Labour Party have only grown since 2017. Several months after Jewish MP Margaret Hodge was threatened with disciplinary action for speaking out against the Labour leader, the party was rocked by the departures of eight MPs critical of Corbyn’s handling of both anti-Semitism and Brexit. The creation of a new “Independent Group” this February further divided and distracted the left at one of its greatest moment of opportunities—directly between the first and second defeats of May’s Brexit plan in Parliament.

The crisis has continued to the present. Most recently, The Times revealed this past Sunday that Labour has failed to investigate 454 anti-Semitism complaints over the past few years, with Corbyn’s office proving to be an obstacle. The news was met with immediate outrage, right when cross-party talks were beginning to start up, as the Jewish Labour Movement proceeded to cast a no-confidence vote in Corbyn and declare the party “institutionally anti-Semitic.” “We would much prefer to get back to the issues and values that are important to us and to the party,” Mike Katz, the chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, told me. “But the fact is that this issue is existential.” Neglecting the concerns of MPs and constituents alike, particularly when anti-Semitic violence is on the rise in the U.K., has done serious institutional and reputational damage to Labour—the consequences of which have been felt both in Parliament and at the polls.

In place of party-wide attempts at reconciliation, Corbyn’s critics—be they motivated by anti-Semitism or Brexit or anything else—are increasingly threatened with “de-selection,” the damning prospect of local party organizations removing support for MPs and forcing them to run against more left-wing Labour opponents. In the long-run, it may succeed in remaking Corbyn’s party and removing his critics, but so far it has been remarkably ineffective. The specter of deselection has given dissenting MPs little choice but to defect, as The Independent Group has done, or dig in, as many more have done. And as MPs in both parties increasingly defy the whip—vote against their parties’ positions—it has been increasingly difficult for Corbyn to maintain a party line.

Given that it was the Conservative Party that brought about Brexit and that it has been the Conservative Party that has continued to vote against it, there has been little critical attention to spare for the Labour Party these past few years. Nor has there been much opportunity or reason for Labour to intervene, given Britain’s majoritarian system and the dictates of political strategy. Put simply, Corbyn seems to be holding to a Napoleonic creed: “Never interfere with an enemy in the process of destroying himself.”

But the reasons for inaction are greater than that. In truth, Brexit has produced new political identities at odds with the former dichotomy of “Labour” and “Conservative” that have complicated attempts at governing in both parties. What’s more, populism’s rise has brought anti-Semitism to the fore, catching a Labour Party still struggling with its language on Israel largely unprepared. And above all, Corbyn’s conquest of his party, his campaign for deselection, has created too many divisions and distractions for him to lead and for MPs to follow.

As a result, Labour has been unable to fill the void that the Conservatives, in their jockeying and backstabbing, have left. Now, even as Brexit drags on for six more months, there is little to indicate that the party’s problems or the country’s crisis will find solutions on the left.