BREXIT UPDATE 7: REMAINERS BECOME QUITTERS
In Brexit Update 6, mention was made of the split in the Conservative Party between Leavers and Remainers. But, as I pointed out in Brexit Update 2 and also in Brexit Update 4, there is also a split in the Labour Party between Remain and Leave. A majority of Labour Party members voted Remain in the referendum; but at the same time, many Labour MPs represent constituencies that voted Leave. Labour’s core base of voters (as opposed to its members, many of whom are middle-class) is the impoverished non-urban working-class – particularly in Labour’s traditional heartlands in the Midlands and the North of England — that overwhelmingly voted Leave. So the leadership is very reluctant to adopt a platform of Remain.
Added to this electoral consideration is Corbyn’s personal support for Lexit, the left-wing version of Brexit supported by the Bennite wing (named after the famous left-wing Labour MP Tony Benn) of the Labour Party from which Corbyn and his close associates originate. Ever since the referendum result was announced in 2016, Corbyn has made it clear that – though he campaigned on a platform of Remain and Reform – he accepts and respects the democratic decision of the British people and, if elected as Prime Minister, will seek to implement a “soft” Brexit that keeps the UK in a customs union and strong single market relationship with the EU and that works for “the many, not the few”. This is in the Labour Party manifesto issued during the June 2017 General Election.
But many Labour MPs have never reconciled themselves either to Brexit or to Corbyn’s leadership of the Party. These “centrist” MPs — who call themselves “moderates” but are often called “Blairites” by their opponents — want a return to the “New Labour” policies instituted by Tony Blair. But supporters of Corbyn – the “Corbynistas” — see themselves as returning to Labour’s Socialist roots, which, they believe, were abandoned and betrayed by New Labour.
In the summer of 2016, nine months after Corbyn was voted leader, anti-Corbyn MPs tried in vain to force him to resign by passing a non-binding vote of no confidence in his leadership. This was followed by a leadership challenge that saw Corbyn again win overwhelmingly. Corbyn’s position among the membership (as opposed to the Parliamentary Labour Party) is unassailable. So, having failed to force Corbyn out of the leadership, the anti-Corbyn faction of MPs began to say that their only solution was themselves to leave the Party – to resign from Labour and set up a new “centrist” party. Talk of a new party has been going on for some time; and as I mentioned in Brexit Update 4, the subject has recently been revived.
At the start of this week (Monday February 18), a group of seven anti-Corbyn MPs took the first step, resigning from the Labour Party to form a grouping called – not exactly snappily or imaginatively — The Independent Group. The seven are: Luciana Berger, Ann Coffey, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith and Chuka Umunna – all strongly anti-Corbyn and pro-Remain. They have given two main reasons for their decision: 1) Corbyn’s stance on Brexit; 2) the alleged “antisemitism crisis” in the Labour Party (it is interesting to note, however, that only one of the seven, Luciana Berger, is Jewish). The two issues, which have nothing to do with one another, have nonetheless become more and more intertwined, because they have both become sticks used by Corbyn’s opponents with which to attack him.
The “Labour is Institutionally Antisemitic” Issue
Jewish communal leaders such as the Board of Deputies do not want a British government that will – as Corbyn has pledged to do – recognise the State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel and work for a genuine two-state solution, thus overturning decades of British government policy that (despite official government opposition to settlements and some lukewarm criticism of Israeli atrocities) has permitted Israel’s Occupation and periodic massacres of Palestinians to continue. When it became clear in the summer of 2015 that Corbyn, known to be a supporter of Palestinian rights, was likely to win the leadership, he was accused by the Jewish Chronicle of association with anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers; and ever since he became leader of the Labour Party the myth of an “antisemitism crisis in the Labour Party” has been fostered by an alliance of Jewish communal leaders and other apologists for Israeli government policies, right-wing Labour MPs who want a return to New Labour and Conservatives who want to undermine the Labour Party.
Corbyn’s Facebook posts, tweets, articles and speeches were gone through with a toothcomb in the attempt to dig up dirt on him (it is difficult to see how anyone could withstand such scrutiny without something being found to use against him or her). On the whole, however, this campaign was relatively restrained – Corbyn himself was not accused of being personally anti-Semitic, but was described, in terms of guilt-by-association, as tolerating and mixing with anti-Semites. At this time, Corbyn, despite his unassailable position within the Labour Party, was seen as unelectable by the country as a whole.
But when Corbyn destroyed the Conservatives’ majority in the General Election of June 2017, the attitude changed. Erstwhile comparatively restrained bodies such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews or the Community Security Trust (which provides security for the community and monitors anti-Semitism) adopted extreme, intemperate positions. The Jewish Establishment — struggling under pressure from, on the one hand, a community turning away from uncritical support for Israeli policies and on the other hand, virulently fanatical supporters of a far-right, nationalistic Israeli government — lost all sense of reason and moderation in the face of the likely prospect of a Corbyn-led government.
The Jewish Chronicle, together with its rival Jewish newspapers Jewish News and the Jewish Telegraph, ran a front page headline story claiming that a Corbyn-led government would be “an existential threat to the Jewish community”.  Stories abounded of packed suitcases in the attics of Jewish houses, waiting for when the moment came to flee the country. In the spring and summer of 2018 — as Brexit instability increased and Israel’s massacre of Gazan civilians involved in overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations aroused international condemnation — story after story alleging Corbyn’s personal anti-Semitism appeared in the press; much of this was recycled material that had previously not attracted much attention.
In this febrile atmosphere, the idea that the Labour Party is “institutionally anti-Semitic” has taken hold, so much so that to deny it is seen as itself a sign of anti-Semitism. Yet the latest data show that the cases of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party amount to about 0.1 per cent of the membership – hardly “institutional anti-Semitism”. It is in this context of what can only be described as a politically-motivated, manufactured mass hysteria (though even to say this is regarded as anti-Semitic) that the resignations of the seven erstwhile Labour MPs have to be viewed.
During the press conference given on Monday by the seven ex-Labour MPs, one of them, Gavin Shuker — who until that day had represented Labour in Luton – accused the Labour leadership (apparently with reference to Corbyn’s agreeing to talk to Theresa May and his letter to her setting out the conditions under which Labour would support her deal) of being “perfectly content to enable the hard Tory Brexit that will directly and negatively affect people in Luton”. But, as we have seen, Corbyn’s alternative Brexit plan calls for a “soft Brexit” that would keep the UK in a customs union and with a close relationship to the single market.
The view of the “Blairites”, however, is that Brexit is inherently right-wing, nationalistic and xenophobic. They do not believe any Brexit deal could work. A December Guardian article by the “Blairite” Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland attacking Corbyn’s Brexit proposal encapsulates the “Blairite” attitude. Freedland writes of Corbyn’s alternative plan:
“This is a plan in the same sense that I ‘plan’ to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon next year. It is not a plan at all, but a desire for something that is demonstrably out of reach”.
Freedland argues that a General Election would solve nothing “since even if Labour were to win, the question would not be settled, because it would be as unable to deliver its Brexit as May was hers”. Instead, he calls on Corbyn to end Labour’s “’constructive ambiguity’” (he puts this in inverted commas) on the Leave/Remain issue and go all out for a so-called “People’s Vote” – ie a second referendum. Freedland’s article ends with the usual “Blairite” criticism of Corbyn for not having shown enough enthusiasm for Remain during and since the referendum campaign, thus making the task of ensuring a Remain victory this time much more difficult.
Yet it is surely Corbyn’s “soft Brexit” plan – a divorce followed by a close relationship — that represents a “centrist” middle path or compromise between Theresa May’s “hard Brexit” (together with the even more extreme “managed No Deal” of the far-right Brexiteers with whom she has aligned herself) and the arrogant attitude of middle-class, comfortably-off Remainers who show nothing but sneering contempt for the democratic (even if narrow) decision of the British people for Brexit.
And to cite again the resolution on the party’s Brexit policy that was passed unanimously at Labour’s annual conference in September 2018 (this has already been quoted in Brexit Update 2):
“Should Parliament vote down a Tory Brexit deal or the talks end in no-deal, Conference believes this would constitute a loss of confidence in the Government. In these circumstances, the best outcome for the country is an immediate General Election that can sweep the Tories from power. If we cannot get a general election, Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.”
Corbyn is surely justified, at this time when May’s government looks increasingly likely to fall, in keeping up the pressure and continuing to push for a General Election rather than a second referendum.
The Independent Group
The new Independent Group was joined yesterday by an eighth Labour MP, Joan Ryan, the (non-Jewish) Chair of Labour Friends of Israel – and today by three Remainer Conservative MPs: Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston; so the Group now has eleven members. It is thought that the formation of the group is only the first step towards the creation of a new “centrist” political party, the main aim of which (indeed so far the only definite policy) is to secure a second referendum and a reversal of Brexit. It could be argued that there already is a “centrist” party that supports Remain – ie the Liberal Democrats – but the Lib Dems, who are seen as compromised by their years in coalition with David Cameron’s Conservative government, are deeply unpopular with the voting public. The Lib Dem leader, Vince Cable, has, however, already offered the Independent Group an electoral pact.
A precedent for the Independent Group is the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a “centrist” pro-European breakaway party from Labour that was created in 1981 by what became known as the “Gang of Four” – David Owen, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers — who resigned from the Labour Party after the 1981 Wembley Conference, which committed the Party to unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the EEC (European Economic Community). It is being pointed out, however, that the Gang of Four were senior, high-profile figures of far more significance that the new Gang of Eleven. The SDP did very well in by-elections, but was unable to break through Britain’s first-past-the-post General Election system and eventually merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats.
If the Independent Group becomes a political party and pulls in more Conservative MPs, it could become a victim of its own success, destroying the government’s majority, triggering an early General Election and failing, as a new, untried party, to gain any seats. However, the government’s highly precarious current position, as the threatened showdown on February 27 and the March 29 leaving date approach, means that a General Election could happen soon anyway.