The British Labour Party is currently facing internal fracturing and an identity crisis which impede its ability to effectively oppose Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government. The Labour frontbench, headed by Jeremy Corbyn, represents a fringe wing of the party, and largely does not resonate with the majority of Labour Party Members of Parliament, or with voters. Divisions between Corbyn, his representative frontbench, and the mainstream Labour Party are most apparent in the Labour Party’s fractious and largely unarticulated Brexit strategy.
In the early hours of June 8, when news outlets confirmed that the General Election yielded a hung parliament, globalist and pro-Europe neoliberals joined young, die-hard Corbynites in celebrating a result that significantly diluted May and the Tories’ power and unity. Yet the election result, which left the fringe Corbyn firmly in control of his party, gave the majority of Labour members reason to fear the radical—and in many ways conservative—direction that their party is taking. The liberal, globalist platforms characteristic of the Labour Party under Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown—which Pro-Europe members across party lines still embrace—lack a mouthpiece as the United Kingdom sits at the negotiating table with Brussels leadership, threatening the country’s post-Brexit international standing.
A Firebrand Party Leader
Onlookers in the United States, perceiving Brexit and British populism through the lens of the 2016 presidential election, may not suspect that a political figure who actively modeled his campaign off Donald Trump’s rise leads the Labour Party, traditionally Britain’s mainstream center-left party. Corbyn, who has tacitly supported Brexit, all but joins May in calling for a hard exit from the European Union.
Corbyn’s Euroskepticism is deep-seated and tied to his broader ideological values. He supports nationalizing the railways, water, and postal services; raising the minimum wage, to a point at which 60% of wages are set by the state; and abolishing university tuitions. He has called for complete nuclear disarmament, non-intervention, and drastic reductions in aid to Israel. He has even advocated working alongside Hamas and Hezbollah—recognized terrorist organizations—to build Middle East peace. His favored nationalization of industry and tax increases indicate a step back from policies enacted in the late 1990s and 2000s by Labour governments aimed at opening both markets and borders, embracing globalization, and reasserting the United Kingdom’s role on the international stage. Corbyn’s definitive turn inwards and toward radical, often fringe ideologies leaves the internationalist core of the Labour party increasingly withdrawn.
Corbyn’s rise from outlying party member to leader is itself unconventional. The Labour Party shifted to the left under former leader Ed Miliband, opening the doors for Corbyn, a lesser-known MP, who proclaimed minutes after his unexpected victory that the people were “fed up with the injustice and the inequality” of Britain. Corbyn entered the leadership contest late, part of an effort to give voice to “alternative” perspectives within the Labour party. Since his leadership victory, he has led an active effort to distance the party from the “New Labour” era of Blair and Brown.
He has apologized for the Iraq War and called for Blair to be tried for war crimes for spearheading the United Kingdom’s involvement, hence alienating remaining Blairites and center-ground Progress MPs. He has opposed all cuts to spending and welfare, and, in a manner strikingly similar to the current U.S. White House, has attacked the media, proclaiming in his 2015 victory speech that its behavior had been “intrusive, abusive, and simply wrong.” Perhaps echoing Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Democratic nomination, he also framed his leadership victory as “the movement,” inviting people to join.
Since 2015, as the country voted to leave the European Union, witnessed a prime minister resign, and confronted an unanticipated general election, Corbyn has energized swaths of young people under his “revolutionary” banner. The effect of this has been twofold. Corbyn’s young support base has adopted his fringe, starkly unconventional approach to foreign policy. He is pacifist to an extent that damages the United Kingdom’s role as a global leader and enables overt anti-Semitism within the left. His firebrand approach to the party and opposing the government has also placed a higher value on loud, frequently empty rhetoric over real policy concerns. In the aftermath of his election victory, previous leading figures of the Labour party—including leadership contestant Yvette Cooper and former Shadow Cabinet-members Rachel Reeves, Emma Reynolds, and Liz Kendall—refused to serve under Corbyn. His current Shadow Cabinet—the opposition-party cabinet of ministers “shadowing” their government counterparts— broadly reflects its leader, failing to assert itself policy-wise, and preferring lofty, combative rhetoric to effective legislative action.
Dual Disarray on Brexit
The 2016 Brexit referendum revealed wide-sweeping divisions between younger, internationally-minded, future-facing “Remain” voters and typically older “Leave” voters. It, at first, appeared Brexit would likewise be the central issue within the June 8 General Election, which would divide along comparable fault lines. Yet Corbyn’s 2017 campaign emphasized a domestic platform aimed at increasing social services, appealing to Leave and Remain voters alike, while only discussing Brexit in (intentionally) vague terms. The Labour Manifesto accepted the results of the referendum and the necessity of Brexit, but questioned May’s specific exit strategy, calling for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Single Market and Customs Union. This broad opposition to the government’s tenuous “hard Brexit” enabled globalist, pro-Europe voters to project their perspectives onto the Labour party, and Corbyn by extension.
In actual terms, Corbyn’s exit strategy bears significant resemblance to May’s. His rhetorical ambiguity—contrasting a Labour “soft Brexit” with a Tory “hard Brexit”—allows him to appease Labour’s globalist base while in practice enabling a Brexit that would involve Britain leaving the Single Market and Customs Union in addition to ending the free movement of people. Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on July 23, Corbyn called leaving the single market and leaving the European Union “inexplicably linked,” seeking instead a trade deal that mirrored its free trade benefits. This echoes Theresa May’s repeated claims that not leaving the single market would be equivalent to “not leaving the EU at all.” Corbyn’s Shadow Secretary for International Trade, Barry Gardiner, in an article for The Guardian, also seemed to support the Tories’ “hard Brexit.” Asserting sovereignty, immigration, and dislike for the European Court of Justice as principal motivating factors for Leave voters, he wrote that “we will become a vassal state if we stay in the European Economic Area… a rule-taker not a rule maker.” He also claimed that leaving the EEA would be the only way for the United Kingdom to “deal with immigration.”
Corbyn’s and Gardiner’s comments drew immediate criticism from fellow Labour MPs and political analysts alike, and illuminate a key point of contention between the Labour frontbench and the party’s former New Labour core. Although xenophobic concerns surrounding immigration and free movement largely drove Leave voters in the referendum, the Brexit negotiations have centered on the future of trade post-Brexit. The Labour frontbench, which supports turning inwards and has espoused the benefits of protectionism, will not provide an effective policy alternative to May’s hard-Brexit because it tacitly supports it.
Speaking to the dichotomy between immigration and free trade, Blair, defending his globalist New Labour legacy and providing a concrete policy alternative, defied his party’s current leadership, and proposed that Britain stay within “a reformed European Union” that compromised free movement of people to keep Britain within the single market. Analyzing the E.U. referendum over a year later, he observed that immigration was the rhetorical flashpoint surrounding Brexit, “for which the benefits of maintaining single market membership need not be compromised.” However, he added that Labour backed its leader, Corbyn, “for now.”
Under Labour’s current leadership, globalist dissenters are unable to mobilize an effective opposition to the government and its negotiating agenda, and push for a “softer” Brexit that maintains membership in the Single Market and Customs Union. Lack of a significant opposition bloc within Parliament effectively silences the 48 percent of Britons who voted to Remain in 2016. This fracture on Brexit extends to reflect broader disarray within the party, where the majority of MPs play a delicate balancing act between their personal beliefs and those of the frontbench, who are responsible for whipping votes.
Nearly two months into Brexit negotiations in Brussels, nativism, protectionism, and isolationism, framed within the Labour Party leadership’s campaign promises as a desire to fight the dangers of capitalism and neoliberalism, have re-asserted themselves in real political terms. As much as Corbyn will shout and jeer at the government’s policies during Prime Minister’s Questions, his opposition has yet to rise above an ambiguous rhetorical register. Scapegoating globalization and neoliberalism, rather than orienting the United Kingdom towards a truly softer and more effective Brexit, ultimately does nothing but play into the populist, nativist fervor that motivated a “Leave” victory in the 2016 referendum.
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