When David Cameron announced he would step down as prime minister after Britain voted to leave the E.U., it appeared the Conservative party would descend into an intractable crisis that endangered its future as a political institution. But only three weeks after the referendum, Cameron is out, Theresa May is installed as prime minister, everything’s done and dusted, and they’ll get on with the business of governing. Crisis? What crisis?
If only things were so simple on the Left.
It wasn’t just Cameron who lost the E.U. referendum. It was also Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party and Remainer, albeit a very reluctant one. A lightning rod for criticism from the start, Corbyn has polarized the party, dividing it into the Corbynites (the loyal) and the anti-Corbynites (the conspirators). The nexus of anti-Corbynite sentiment lies within the party’s parliamentary delegation, which voted 172–40 to express no confidence in his leadership after the referendum.
A leadership contest was in the cards from that point on. Now that contest has begun to take shape. Angela Eagle and Owen Smith, both of whom resigned from the shadow cabinet in protest of Corbyn’s leadership, have launched bids to challenge him for Labour’s top job. The question of whether Corbyn would be able to contest the election remained, for a time, unanswered: Normally, prospective candidates must receive the signatures of 20 percent of the party’s MPs to appear on the ballot. Given the extent of parliamentary dissatisfaction with Corbyn, he would likely have failed to pass that threshold. But in a saving grace for the Corbynites, Labour’s national executive committee narrowly ruled yesterday that the 20 percent threshold does not apply to sitting leaders.
This means Corbyn will be on the ballot, and the rebellion against him is on life support. For the uncomfortable reality is that Corbyn is enormously popular among Labour’s 500,000 rank-and-file members. To be clear, Corbyn’s victory is not assured; the committee’s decision to close voting in the leadership contest to those who joined the party within the last six months, unless they pay a fee of 25 pounds within the next two days, is a blow to the Corbynites, who have worked tirelessly during their short time in power to pack the party with loyalists. But his challengers still face a steeply uphill struggle in their efforts to unseat him, especially given that their efforts are likely to endure a factional split between those who prefer Eagle and those who prefer Smith.
That his own MPs oppose him so vehemently should point to an unavoidable fact: The man is unelectable, poisonous to Labour’s chances of ever retaking the country.
That leaves the Labour party in a bit of a pickle. The Labour faithful may support Corbyn, but that his own MPs oppose him so vehemently should point to an unavoidable fact: The man is unelectable, poisonous to Labour’s chances of ever retaking the country. His supporters argue that he’s never lost an election; in fact, they say, he’s proved a potent electoral force, at least in his Islington constituency and within the Labour party. That’s true, if we confine our analysis to elections in which he stood as a candidate. But in the one election that mattered most — the E.U. referendum — the side he backed suffered an embarrassing loss, to a large extent because a combination of Corbyn’s incompetence and ill will undermined its campaign. He’s good at preaching to the converted, sure, but acquiescing to the numerous distasteful compromises required to win a national election is a whole separate matter. That May appears to have largely co-opted Labour’s past rhetoric on social inclusion and “burning injustice,” while also adopting an inclusive one-nation message, only makes Labour’s hole deeper.
And for Labour MPs, who are primarily interested in their side’s victory — as opposed to Corbyn, who is interested in ideological purity — that may be the crux of the matter.
Which is why it’s not so outlandish to posit that, in future years, when historians tell the story of the political turmoil that swept the United Kingdom in the tumultuous summer of 2016, they may look back on the ruling to include Corbyn on the leadership ballot as the first step in the breakup of the Labour party. Let’s assume Corbyn defeats Eagle and Smith, as seems likely at the moment. What then? A parliamentary party simply cannot operate when the vast majority of its members of parliament oppose its leader. That sort of internal division is the bane of political potency, and it could keep the party’s civil war festering for years, polarizing ideological ruptures within the party and distracting from the (ostensibly more important) matter of defeating the Tories.
A breakup of the party is one logical outcome of all this internecine strife. The 172 MPs who voted against their leader in that no-confidence motion would split off and form their own party, while Corbyn’s small circle of loyalists would compose the depleted ranks of the Labour party proper. Corbyn’s rump-Labour could represent the anti-cosmopolitan working class of northern England, while Labour 2.0 stood for the London multicultural class, perhaps working in partnership with the Liberal Democrats.
What such a split might mean for the health of the country’s politics as a whole is less clear. With Corbyn as leader, Labour’s standards of professionalism and expertise have greatly declined. Parliamentary democracy requires a robust opposition, one that can dog the prime minister and her initiatives every step of the way, forcing the government to adhere to certain levels of transparency and remain accountable even as the accumulation of power tempts you to do the opposite. A robust opposition stops the spread of the sort of laziness that tends to corrode unchallenged government. And at no time is the opposition’s function more crucial to the health of the country than in the midst of a political crisis on the level of Brexit.
The current Labour party was unable to fulfill this role even before it launched into civil war, and keeping Corbyn won’t change that fact. A socialist radical who cannot command anything even resembling a majority among his own party’s MPs and is blithely incompetent at running a national campaign has no place leading Labour, which is, for the moment, the only party not called the Tories that has any chance of winning a majority. If Corbyn survives, as looks likely, the United Kingdom will continue to go without a functioning opposition party. Brits, and the world, will be worse off for Labour’s decline.
— Noah Daponte-Smith is an intern at National Review.