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Brexit has caused the Labour Party to descend into total omnishambles

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Britain’s main opposition party, Labour, should stand to benefit from the fact that its rivals, the Conservatives, are in total turmoil following last Thursday’s vote to leave the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron lost the Brexit referendum and announced his resignation. There’s a contentious leadership contest pitting populist Boris Johnson against establishmentarian Theresa May coming soon. And the party’s members of Parliament are divided nearly in half on the question of whether the country is making a huge mistake by leaving the European Union.

But if anything, Labour is in even greater disarray after the Brexit vote. While the party as a whole supported the "Remain" side, leader Jeremy Corbyn was widely believed to have been ambivalent about staying in the EU and to have pulled his punches in campaigning against an exit.

After the vote, more enthusiastically pro-EU Labour members started to vent their frustration, culminating Tuesday in a landslide vote in which over 75 percent of Labour members of Parliament voted no confidence in Corbyn:

Now Corbyn likely faces a leadership election, less than a year after he won his first one.

The drama began when shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn (who stood to become Britain’s equivalent of secretary of state should Labour retake Parliament) called Corbyn early Sunday to say he and others were losing confidence in Corbyn’s leadership. Corbyn responded by firing Benn, who media reports had suggested was plotting an anti-Corbyn coup.

What followed was total mayhem, as more than 23 of the 31 members of Corbyn’s shadow Cabinet have quit. The shadow ministers for education, justice, health, business, work and pensions, energy, environment, transport, and many more all resigned in the wake of Benn’s sacking. Deputy Leader Tom Watson has told Corbyn he has "no authority" left among Labour members of Parliament.

Corbyn, for one, isn’t going down without a fight. He announced a new shadow Cabinet following the resignations, his supporters marched on Parliament to protest the effort to depose him as Labour leader.

And Corbyn is saying that he will not resign despite the fact that more than three-fourths of the parliamentary party wants him gone. "I was democratically elected leader of our party for a new kind of politics by 60% of Labour members and supporters, and I will not betray them by resigning," he said in a statement. "Today’s vote by MPs has no constitutional legitimacy."

What happened? Why is a massive defeat for the government turning into an utter catastrophe for its opponents as well, just as an early election where it could regain control of Parliament appears possible?

Corbyn’s critics see his lukewarm support for the EU as the latest sign that the far-left Labour leader is out of touch with the modern world. But Corbyn has a substantial base of support among rank-and-file Labour voters. And there’s no guarantee that the members of Parliament plotting an anti-Corbyn coup will wind up with his scalp.

Jeremy Corbyn has always been skeptical of the EU

Jeremy Corbyn in 1998
Corbyn in 1998 with Sophia Prats (left) and Isabel Allende.
Gerry Penny/AFP/Getty Images

Since his election last year, Corbyn has been in a bit of an untenable position within the Labour Party. He won with massive support from rank-and-file Labour members but extremely little support from other members of Parliament and veterans of the party. They see him as an old-school '70s leftist touting discredited ideas like nationalizing industries. More than just wrong, he was seen as politically toxic. Before Corbyn won, Tony Blair warned that his victory would mean "the party won’t just face defeat but annihilation" at the next election.

Labour members of Parliament put on a brave face after Corbyn was elected, mostly keeping mum. But the Brexit referendum again brought these tensions to the fore. Corbyn represents an older, left-wing anti-European arm of the party, while most other MPs, whatever their differences with Blair, share his and New Labour’s pro-European internationalist approach.

When Britain first joined the European common market in 1973, it was at the instigation of Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath. Many Labour members were unhappy with the terms of British entry, and in 1974 the party campaigned first on renegotiating those terms, and then on holding a referendum on whether Britain should stay. While most in Labour voted to remain in the EU — the position that won in a landslide — a vocal minority of mostly left-wing members were strongly opposed.

They complained that European integration was, especially then, largely a process of economic liberalization. Barriers to trade between members were eliminated. Much freer migration was allowed. And, crucially, regulatory policies were harmonized between members. In the European communities, many British leftists saw the EU as an international capitalist scheme to defang the welfare state, erode pro-labor regulations, and more. And they saw it as an anti-democratic attempt to seize control over Britain’s economic policy from the people and place it in the hands of neoliberal bureaucrats in Brussels.

"Britain’s continuing membership of the Community would mean the end of Britain as a completely self-governing nation, and the end of our democratically elected parliament as the supreme law-making body in the United Kingdom," Tony Benn, the leading hard-left Labour Party figure of the '70s and '80s (and Hilary Benn’s father), wrote at the time.

This was very much Jeremy Corbyn’s wing of the party, and his comments on the EU before becoming leader reveal as much. He voted to leave in the 1975 referendum, and as an MP in 1993 opposed adoption of the Maastricht Treaty, which formally transformed the European Economic Community and other predecessor organizations into the European Union. The treaty’s "imposition of a bankers' Europe on the people of this continent," he declared before Parliament, "will endanger the cause of socialism in the United Kingdom and in any other country."

Even as he campaigned for the leadership in 2015, he was the only candidate who wouldn’t unequivocally commit to supporting Britain’s continued membership in the EU.

Asked if he would rule out voting or campaigning for "Leave" after David Cameron completed renegotiating UK membership terms and held a referendum, he answered, "No I wouldn’t rule it out. … I think we should be making demands: universal workers’ rights, universal environmental protection, end the race to the bottom on corporate taxation, end the race to the bottom in working wage protection. And I think we should be making those demands and negotiating on those demands rather than saying blanketly we’re going to support whatever Cameron comes out with in one, two years’ time, whenever he finally decides to hold this referendum."

This did not go unnoticed by right-wing Leave supporters. Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party declared, "I welcome a Corbyn victory … I’d love to share a platform with him in the runup to this referendum."

Many blame Corbyn for sabotaging the Remain campaign

Jeremy Corbyn Speaks In Favour Of Remaining In The EU
Look at how happy about this he seems!
Carl Court/Getty Images

However, the rest of Labour’s enthusiasm for staying in the EU overwhelmed Corbyn once he became leader, and he officially announced that he and the party would campaign to Remain in September.

But in the wake of Remain’s defeat, leaks have trickled out from the campaign suggesting that Corbyn was lukewarm about remaining, and might have actively sabotaged Labour’s campaign. Labour sources leaked emails from Corbyn’s camp suggesting that they, particularly Corbyn's communications chief Seumas Milne, deliberately tried to harm the Remain campaign. One email stated that Milne was editing a Corbyn speech to make it less anti-Brexit, writing, "If he can't kill it, he will water it down so much to hope nobody notices it."

Corbyn also reportedly refused to do an event with Prime Minister Cameron advocating to remain. Former Labour PM Gordon Brown begged Corbyn to do it, because of the message of bipartisan unity it would project. Corbyn refused. Remain campaign strategists, including former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, sought to get the president himself to call Corbyn to try to get him to campaign, but Corbyn's camp informed them they shouldn't even bother.

He even publicly dismissed government estimates that Brexit would devastate Britain’s economy as "historionic" "myth-making." It was a weird, very public display of friendly fire from someone who supposedly opposed Brexit.

"I suspect Jeremy may have voted to leave," Chris Bryant, one of the shadow Cabinet members who's resigned, told BBC News. Bryant said he asked Corbyn how he’d voted, and he didn’t answer, despite having publicly stated he voted Remain.

And the result was not just a defeat for Remain, but a defeat driven by pro-Brexit sentiment in traditional Labour strongholds in the North and Midlands. If Corbyn had run a stronger campaign in those areas, it’s possible partisanship would’ve swayed enough Labour voters to defeat the referendum.

"Corbyn’s office, for which he must take full responsibility, consistently attempted to weaken and sabotage the Labour remain campaign, in contravention of the party’s official position," Labour MP Phil Wilson wrote in an op-ed after the referendum in which he called for Corbyn's resignation. "For example, they resisted all polling and focus group evidence on message and tone, raised no campaign finance, failed to engage with the campaign delivery and deliberately weakened and damaged the argument Labour sought to make."

This sense of betrayal and disappointment gave momentum to Benn and his allies’ attempts to depose Corbyn, and prompted Corbyn to fire Benn, which in turn set off the spree of resignations and denunciations of Corbyn from the shadow Cabinet.

Corbyn’s supporters view all this as an elite coup

Momentum Members Rally In Support Of Jeremy Corbyn
A Blairite coup, no less!
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

If the view of most Labour members of Parliament is that Corbyn is a turncoat who at best was a failure as a campaigner and at worst actively sabotaged the Remain campaign, the view of many Labour voters is that he is the sole authentic representative of the party’s left base, and that he is besieged on all sides by the forces of capital, acting through Labour MPs.

"A small number of Labour MPs are using this as an opportunity to oust Jeremy, disrespect the Labour membership who elected him and disregard our movement for a new kind of politics," the Facebook event page for Monday’s parliamentary rally for Corbyn declared.

It may sound paranoid, and they're wrong about the "small number" part, but mainstream Labour MPs really are out to get Corbyn, and have been for his whole leadership and through last year’s leadership election. Even before Corbyn won, moderate MPs Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna started putting together a "resistance cell" within the parliamentary party to push back against Corbyn’s influence (they, naturally, denied any nefarious intent).

In March, murmurs of a coup got so loud that Deputy Leader Watson had to instruct those involved to "calm down" and respect Corbyn’s "very large mandate" to lead.

The latest coup, involving Benn, was revealed in an article in the Observer, whose release directly precipitated Benn’s firing. The Observer's Daniel Boffey reported that Benn had called around to other MPs to see if they'd support him calling on Corbyn to resign. "An overwhelming majority of the shadow Cabinet now believes Corbyn should quit," in the wake of the referendum, Boffey wrote.

But subsequent reporting by the Guardian's Rowena Mason and Anushka Asthana suggested that "a small group of Labour MPs and advisers had been telling journalists for months to 'expect movement' against Corbyn on 24 June." The initial plot, the Guardian reported, was premised on Remain winning, and "hopes were not high that an overwhelming number of MPs would back a coup or that ousting him would be successful."

Then Brexit happened, destroying what confidence remained in Corbyn from MPs and setting the stage for a full-on revolt by the parliamentary party.

What happens now?

Momentum Members Rally In Support Of Jeremy Corbyn
The "Keep Corbyn" rally on Monday.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Corbyn has said that despite the overwhelming vote against him, he will not resign. It appears he's able to do that; while the Conservative Party's rules state that a leader who loses a no confidence vote must resign, Labour has no equivalent rule.

However, if another MP wants to challenge him for the leadership, it appears they can do that without him resigning. Per the BBC, a potential candidate with the support of at least 20 percent of Labour's MPs and MEPs (members of European Parliament) can run for the leadership in the September party conference. That translates to 50 MPs or MEPs — which, if Corbyn critics unite around one challenger, should be easy to achieve. The Labour party's National Executive Committee could informally call a conference before September, and is likely to do so given the full-on parliamentary revolt.

It's not totally clear if Corbyn would even be on the ballot for a leadership election. Opponents of Corbyn argue that the rules require him to also get 50 MPs or MEPs, and given that only 40 MPs opposed Tuesday's no confidence vote, it's doubtful Corbyn could meet that bar. Neil Kinnock — Labour's leader in the late '80s and early '90s, who faced a challenge from Tony Benn in 1988 — had to gather his own supporters from MPs that time around, which bolsters the anti-Corbyn view.

Corbyn's allies by contrast argue that he's on the ballot by default. And if a new leadership contest takes place, it's not clear Corbyn can be defeated.

Traditionally, Labour Party elections were decided through an electoral college in which members of Parliament and trade unions got a significant voice. But former leader Ed Miliband changed the rules to a one-member, one-vote system, in which every rank-and-file Labour voter, including "affiliated supporters" who signed up for £3 each, has the same voice. Tony Blair’s vote counts for as much as a college student who paid three quid.

Corbyn won across the board: with affiliated members, with full members, among the labor unions, and so forth. And while he’s become very unpopular among members of Parliament, it’s not obvious that dissatisfaction has spread to rank-and-file Labour voters. Major labor unions like Unite are still backing him.

It's very possible that this could all end with another leadership election Corbyn wins, resulting in him leading a caucus of MPs who loathe and distrust him.