British voters’ rejection of European Union membership in last week’s referendum has set in motion the biggest political crisis Britain has faced since World War II. The surprise is that the real storm has hit not the ruling Conservative Party, but the opposition Labour Party.
The immediate fallout was expected to be worst for the Tory leader, David Cameron, who had promised the referendum to pacify euroskeptic rebels in his ranks. Having in effect staked his job as prime minister on winning for the Remain campaign, Mr. Cameron announced his resignation. In Parliament on Monday, he conceded that a general election might soon follow a party leadership contest.
But it is the Labour Party that has fallen apart most spectacularly in the aftermath. By Monday afternoon, a full-scale rebellion was in swing. Most of Labour’s “shadow cabinet” — its alternative government — had resigned, and on Tuesday, Labour members of Parliament passed a no-confidence motion in the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, by 172 votes to 40. Mr. Corbyn has vowed to fight on, believing he retains the support of the party’s wider membership, which elected him by a landslide last year, but his position hangs by a thread.
Many criticized Mr. Corbyn’s lackluster performance in the referendum campaign. But the real concern of Labour parliamentarians was not their leader’s lukewarm effort for Remain, but the way large numbers of Labour voters defected from the party.
More than one-third of those who had voted for Labour in last year’s general election opted for Brexit. These voters were concentrated in historically solid Labour areas of the deindustrialized north of England and Wales. This desertion was a signal to many of a disastrous failure of leadership by Mr. Corbyn.
A referendum intended to prevent a split in the Conservative Party has thus caused one in the Labour Party instead.
Labour should have had few of the problems the Tories have with Europe. Labour’s policy for more than 30 years has favored British membership in the Common Market, now called the European Union; only a handful of Labour members of Parliament persisted in public dissent.
Among those anti-Europeans who survived on the fringe of Labour politics were two left-wing members of Parliament from London, Mr. Corbyn and John McDonnell. Both were assiduous representatives for their constituents and ever-present on protest platforms. But if these two were the keepers of a hard-left anti-European (as well as anti-American and anti-Israeli) flame, then that flame looked likely to go out when they retired.
The 2003 Iraq war changed all that. A majority of party members opposed their leader Tony Blair’s decision to back George W. Bush’s war, but most Labour parliamentarians did not. In 2010, after Labour lost a general election in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, and Mr. Cameron became prime minister at the head of a center-right coalition government, grass-roots members took revenge on the party establishment. They elected as leader Ed Miliband, one of a small number of ministers in the previous Labour government considered untainted by the Iraq decision.
Mr. Miliband, however, failed to live up to members’ expectations and lost the 2015 general election. When he resigned, the membership — reinforced by an influx of young activists — took their revenge on the party establishment a second time. Against feeble opposition from party centrists, Mr. Corbyn was elected leader by a wide margin.
This accession was extraordinary: a victory for the radical left that would have been unthinkable a decade before. Mr. Corbyn chose his euroskeptic comrade, Mr. McDonnell, to be Labour’s chief economic spokesman.
From the start, the arrangement was fragile. As an opponent of foreign military intervention and avowed unilateral nuclear disarmer, Mr. Corbyn was at odds with most of his party’s parliamentary caucus and shadow cabinet.
The Europe referendum was the last straw.
The two Labour leaders and their advisers first decided that the party should not join a bipartisan pro-European campaign with Mr. Cameron. In the run-up to the referendum, Mr. Corbyn was all but invisible except for a TV program appearance on which he said he rated the European Union at “seven, or seven and a half” out of 10. Labour’s Remain campaign made no positive case for the free movement of workers in the union, but when the final days of the campaign turned into an ugly battle over immigration, Mr. Corbyn vetoed any notion of constraining it.
Was there deliberate sabotage of Labour’s Remain campaign? Perhaps, but it seems more likely that the Corbyn strategy, if you can call it that, was the product of incompetence and shortsightedness — a belief that the Europe referendum wasn’t very important and that Labour could benefit from Tory disarray. The failure to recognize the strength of feeling among older working-class voters that immigration was a problem proved disastrous, both for the wider Remain campaign and for the party’s standing. Mr. Corbyn himself came across as a shambolic and petulant grouch.
It’s probably also wrong to see the resignations and no-confidence vote as a long-planned coup attempt against Mr. Corbyn. There’s no doubt that anti-Corbyn parliamentarians have been pondering how to ditch him ever since his election, but any plot probably gained traction only as the scale of Labour’s Brexit debacle became apparent.
What next? There must be a Labour leadership election, but it’s unclear whether Mr. Corbyn will even get the minimum number of signatures from Labour members of Parliament he needs to make it onto the ballot. The rupture between Labour’s parliamentary group and grass-roots members now seems complete. It is just possible that the party could unify behind a new leader if Mr. Corbyn decided to step down gracefully. More likely is a summer of fratricidal bloodletting followed by electoral oblivion.
Paul Anderson, a former editor and columnist for the magazine Tribune, is an author of Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British Left.