With the general election now over, and normal business resuming, the big issue now for the new ‘Corbynite’ Labour party is how to position themselves on Brexit. Of the 262 seats they won on June 8th, 162 of these voted Leave in 2016, with 70 of those seats voting to do so by over 60%. But Labour voters are not all Brexiteers. According to YouGov polling, 71% of those who voted for Labour in 2017 also voted Remain in 2016. The Parliamentary Labour Party is also split on the issue. All talk of Brexit being "softened" by the General Election result is predicated on the assumption that there can be a unified parliamentary effort to oppose harder interpretations of Brexit - something we're still not convinced will happen.
As the post-election fog clears, we analyse which factions and MPs will be influential in Labour's stance on Brexit.
Jeremy Corbyn faced his first major Brexit hurdle when Chuka Umunna, the self-appointed Knight of the Soft Brexit, led a rebel force of 49 Labour MPs who defied the whip and voted in favour of his amendment to the Queen’s Speech, which backed membership of the single market. In doing so, Chuka emerged as the figurehead for Labour’s 'soft' Brexit faction. Whilst senior Labour figures, such as Tom Watson and Emily Thornberry, blasted Umunna as ‘divisive’ and ‘virtue signalling’, the BBC reports that up to 90 additional Labour MPs support the move towards a softer Brexit. This included four front benchers who either quit or were fired, who could now themselves become influential members of Chuka’s rebel alliance. If you add SNP, Lib Dem and Tory remain MPs into the mix, this has the makings of a potentially potent cross-party alliance that could wield major influence. All this puts Labour’s Brexit Spokesperson, Sir Keir Starmer, into an increasingly contorted position; caught between his leader and a hard place.
It is not just Brexit where Labour factions are manoeuvring. Jon Stone of The Independent reports that moderate and right-wing Labour MPs, including Chuka, are seeking to undermine Jeremy Corbyn by proposing new rules around the election of members to the National Executive Committee. For his part, Corbyn and the left of the Labour party are flexing their muscles after his election "victory". Along with his spate of firings, Corbyn supporters have also floated rule changes, such as increasing the number of party delegates elected by members, which would solidify their influence.
Ian Lavery, installed by Corbyn as Party Chairman, said Labour is “too broad a church” and raised the prospect of de-selections for MPs, handing further power to grassroots activists. In Liverpool Wavertree, moderate Labour MP Luciana Berger has had her local party taken over by Momentum members and been told to ‘get on board quite quickly’. As the distinct factions seek to expand their spheres of influence, Brexit will remain a divisive catalyst. In future votes on the issue, Corbyn will surely face off against Chuka, his rebels, and a reserve force of other sympathetic MPs who have so-far kept their powder dry.
What may be lost in all these political machinations, however, is substantive debate over the Brexit issue. Whilst Corbyn plays politics in a hope of holding together his new coalition of voters, and indeed building upon it, Chuka and others manoeuvre to push themselves higher in the Labour pecking order. Their priorities, however, are perhaps more self-centred than hopeful Remainers may wish.
The question is not what should Labour’s Brexit policy be, but whether the internal guerrilla warfare will distract from true debate. This will only limit their ability to hold the government to account.