by Atul Hatwal
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a parliamentary vote that transformed Labour politics. It was July 2015, in calendar terms quite recent, but politically another century. The Labour leadership contest had just begun and the government’s welfare bill was coming up for a vote at second reading.
Only one leadership candidate voted against, the others abstained, saying they would vote against if it couldn’t be amended in committee.
Abstention was what moderates thought was the judicious approach – avoid supporting the bill while depriving the Tories of the ability to paint Labour as free spending, welfare junkies. I’m a moderate, I thought it was the only sane option.
What did we know? We were fighting the last war, the general election. The war to come was to be fought before Labour members and supporters not the public. They wanted passion, clarity and, above all else, full-throated opposition to the Tories.
Jeremy Corbyn’s vote against the welfare bill in July 2015 was the catalyst for a surge that deposited him in the leader’s office.
For the 2015 welfare bill, read Brexit. Squared. Any MP who aspires to lead the party one day should pay heed.
Brexit has utterly transformed Labour’s internal politics in terms of what defines the party ideologically and Jeremy Corbyn’s personal standing.
The common narrative is that Labour is more divided over Brexit than the Tories. This mistakes what is happening at Wesminster for the party in the country.
Certainly there are divisions in the PLP but among members and supporters across Britain, opposition to the Tory government’s Brexit plans is near uniform. There is a level of unity not seen in years.
Two-thirds of Labour’s 2015 voters would opt to Remain if given a choice today and if pared back to those in Labour’s leadership selectorate, the proportion would rise significantly. Add in turnout effects – party officials suggest that voting in the two recent leadership elections has been proportionately much higher in the big cities – and the voters that would pick Labour’s leader in a future contest are hugely anti-Brexit.
The ideological divide between most centrists and the soft left, a gap that has grown for decades, is being bridged by opposition to Brexit. For the first time since the 1990s, the majority of Labour members and supporters passionately believe in the same thing. Stopping Theresa May’s plans on Brexit defines the new right and wrong in Labour.
Leadership hopefuls would do well to understand this, particularly as Jeremy Corbyn clearly doesn’t.
His performance in opposing Brexit is doing far more damage to him in the eyes of members and supporters than anything that the press or his PLP opponents could manage.
Inexplicably, he has placed himself in the position of the other 2015 leadership contenders, on the welfare bill vote. Where once he painted his policies in vivid primary colours, now he is offering a canvass of muddled grey.
The confusion in Corbyn’s response to Brexit, from the morning of June 24th last year when he called for Article 50 to be triggered immediately, to his equivocation over whether there would or would not be a three-line whip in favour of its trigger, is defining a narrative within the party that connects Labour’s atrocious poll ratings with the leader.
Suddenly, for many in Labour’s key internal swing vote group, the soft left, Brexit is the main cause of Labour’s woes rather than conniving press barons or rebellious parliamentarians.
The growing exasperation is even seeping into the hard left. George Monbiot’s recent tweets summarise what many are feeling.
I hoped Corbyn would be effective in fighting the government and articulating a positive alternative vision. Neither hope has materialised.
— GeorgeMonbiot (@GeorgeMonbiot) January 26, 2017
Even the Canary is attacking Corbyn over Brexit.
Owen Smith might have fought a patchy leadership campaign last year, but he was right in identifying Europe as a key wedge issue. It was probably too early in summer 2016, but one year on, its potency is increasing daily.
Losses in the Copeland and Stoke by-elections would almost certainly prompt a leadership challenge later this year, but even with victories, the challenge will likely only be delayed until 2018.
Corbyn himself has apparently told his inner circle that he does not want to remain leader all the way through to 2020 and wants to give his anointed successor – John McDonnell – sufficient time in the role before the general election.
Another leadership contest is coming sooner or later and regardless of what Corbyn’s team might want, it will be defined by the the Labour leader’s record on opposing Brexit. He won’t be the plucky underdog anymore but the leader who has failed to live up to member expectations on the issue that matters most.
When this contest comes, how potential candidates voted on triggering Article 50 will be a key litmus test for members and supporters, just as the vote on the welfare bill was in the 2015 leadership election.
MPs who harbour ambitions of leading Labour and challenging Theresa May should learn the lesson of 2015. Don’t run before you can walk. The electorate that matters, if you want to replace Corbyn, is Labour members and supporters.
Positions can be nuanced after the leadership has been secured. Until then, the people who will determine the success or failure of your career want to see passionate and committed opposition, not equivocation, in response to May’s Brexit agenda.
That means voting against triggering Article 50.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut