Could Labour split over Brexit?

Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to back a second referendum could have drastic consequences

Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson
Jeremy Corbyn and his deputy Tom Watson at the Labour conference in 2017
(Image credit: Leon Neal/Getty)

The threat of a party split is looming larger over Labour amid growing dissatisfaction stemming from Jeremy Corbyn’s continued refusal to back a second Brexit referendum.

The Labour leader is struggling to quell calls for a so-called People’s Vote from a significant faction within the party, as the clock ticks down towards the UK’s scheduled exit from the EU on 29 March.

Some Labour MPs are warning that 27 February, the date of the next round of voting on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, could be D-day for Corbyn.

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“Several junior shadow ministers have said they are prepared to resign their posts if Corbyn doesn’t whip his MPs to vote for a pro-referendum amendment at the end of the month,” reports The Guardian.

At least six backbenchers have allegedly been holding regular conversations in recent weeks about forming a new, pro-EU centrist party.

“I’ve talked to them lots of times and they are just so angry,” an unnamed Labour MP told the Financial Times. “They aren’t listening any more. It sounds like nothing will stop them breaking away.”

According to the newspaper, one idea is for a ringleader to quit Labour and call a by-election, to prove that the new party could “win elections”. They would then seek to recruit others to the breakaway group.

The divisions “bubbling under Labour’s carefully balanced Brexit strategy may finally be coming to the fore”, says Politico’s Jack Blanchard.

“The problem for Corbyn, of course, is he would also face a slew of resignations if he does back a second referendum,” Blanchard adds.

Corbyn ally Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, risked stoking the conflict in the party this week when he argued that stopping Brexit was “not the best option for our nation”.

“My view is that, having had a 2016 referendum where the people have voted to come out of the EU, to try and deflect away from that threatens the whole democratic fabric on which we operate,” he told ITV’s Robert Peston. “I’m saying that in reality it is not the best option for our nation.”

Brexit “has always had the potential to redraw the political lines beyond a period of parliamentary turmoil”, and as tensions approach a peak, “perhaps the permanent lines will genuinely break”, says the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.

Why now?

The issue stems from Labour’s position on Brexit. The party agreed at its annual conference in September that a second referendum could be considered if there was not a general election. However, Corbyn “is publicly lukewarm about the idea and is facing intense pressure from some within the party to change course”, says The Times.

Last month, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said that backing a second referendum was the only “remaining option” if Labour’s own withdrawal plan is defeated, adding: “That is a very important commitment. And it is one we will keep.”

The Independent reports that this view was echoed by shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, who said: “If [May] refuses a general election and to change her deal, then of course our policy is that we will go for a people’s vote.”

Meanwhile, People's Vote-advocate David Lammy told Sky News: “You cannot argue that you undermine democracy with more democracy. We have now seen that the deal has not gone through, that a vote of confidence has not been successful. There is no point continuing with votes of confidence and throwing darts that keep missing the board.”

The threat for the party comes if Corbyn refuses to bow to this pressure, says ITV’s Robert Peston.

If Labour “is seen to have failed to act decisively to prevent an abrupt and chaotic rupture with the EU, the long-mooted day when centre-ground Labour MPs pack their bags and quit Corbyn’s Labour Party will be hastened”, Peston writes in a post on Facebook.

So will it happen?

Peston believes Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell who cast the deciding vote on whether the party backs a second referendum.

“With a clear majority of Labour members and supporters backing a referendum and an even greater majority opposing a hard Brexit, that leads most of those close to McDonnell to conclude he’ll ultimately side with Starmer,” Peston says.

Another factor in favour of that outcome is the unwillingness of most Labour MPs “to even consider quitting the party, given the legacy of the Social Democratic Party - set up in 1983”, says the Financial Times.

Even Lammy admits that “the danger is that, just like 1983, a new party built around a relationship with Europe keeps the Labour Party out of power for a generation”.

“I’m not philosophically opposed to a split,” another Labour MP told the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush last year. “What I am opposed to is splitting the left vote and letting the Tories in, and I can’t work out how you can know for sure that you aren’t risking that in advance.”

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