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How Brexit went from a problem for the Conservatives to a catastrophe for Labour

Jeremy Corbyn Attends The 132nd Durham Miner's Gala
The ever-embattled Jeremy Corbyn.
Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
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.

The UK Conservative Party’s leadership battle, initially expected to be a lengthy, brutal contest between former London Mayor Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Theresa May, ended with a whimper. Johnson didn’t even run. May won in what was essentially a coronation. She is set to take over as prime minister on Wednesday.

And then there’s Labour. You might have expected the opposition party to try to turn the chaos of Brexit to its own benefit. Instead, the opposite has occurred: The party has descended into a highly contentious leadership battle. The party’s current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, barely qualified for the ballot by winning a tight secret vote of the National Executive Committee.

How did we get to this point? Why is the political establishment so enraged at Corbyn, and why is Corbyn just refusing to go?

Many Labour veterans believe hard-left politics is electoral suicide

Michael Foot and Tony Benn in Conservative Party literature
A Conservative Party poster from the 1983 election, depicting Labour leader Michael Foot (right) and prominent left-wing MP Tony Benn (left) as Punch and Judy.
The Conservative Party Archive/Getty Images

To understand the current predicament, you have to go back to what is referred to in Labour lore as "the wilderness years," the 18 years from 1979 to 1997 when the two parties were in opposition.

Many Labour members who remember that period, particularly those still in Parliament, saw the party’s exile as at least partially self-inflicted. The Labour leader from 1980 to 1983, Michael Foot, was far to the left of its past few leaders and adopted an unapologetically socialist platform, calling for unilateral nuclear disarmament, renationalizing major industries like British Telecom, and withdrawing from the European Economic Community, which the hard left viewed as a plot by European elites to undermine regulations and the welfare state.

The result was a total blowout in 1983, with the Conservatives and Margaret Thatcher winning overwhelmingly. One Labour MP famously referred to the platform the party ran on that year as "the longest suicide note in history." To make matters worse, the party’s leftward tilt led four former Labour Cabinet ministers to defect in 1981 and start their own, more moderately left-wing party, the Social Democratic Party, which would form an electoral alliance with and later merge with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats.

Labour made mild gains in the 1987 and 1992 elections, but the big turning point that let Labour win again and start to reverse Thatcherism was the election of Tony Blair as party leader in 1994. Blair moved Labour closer to the center and set the stage for the party’s landslide victory in 1997. He removed the infamous language of Clause IV in the Labour constitution, which called for public ownership of the means of production.

The lesson to Labour veterans was clear: When you go too far to the left, the result is an eternity in opposition and a Conservative government that’s totally free to crush unions, privatize important government functions, and gut the safety net. If you moderate, you may only get half a loaf, but it’s a hell of a lot better than nothing.

Corbyn represents a resurgence of the Labour hard left

The Labour Party Announce Their New Leader And Deputy Leader
Corbyn after his election on September 12, 2015.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Fast-forward to 2015. In the wake of the party’s general election defeat under Ed Miliband — a leader somewhat but not dramatically to the left of Blair — Jeremy Corbyn, an unapologetic hard leftist, was elected Labour leader. Corbyn mobilized grassroots support to beat two Labour insiders who had held senior positions under the government of Blair’s successor, Prime Minister Gordon Brown: Work and Pensions Secretary Yvette Cooper and Health Secretary Andy Burnham.

Corbyn was skeptical about the European Union, supported for nationalizing the rail and steel industries, and was committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament. To mainstream Labour operatives, this sounded familiar — and ominous. They believed that Labour had elected another Michael Foot. And they believed this meant giving up on winning and letting the Conservatives have free rein over the country.

Discontent brewed in the background. 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 Tom Watson had to instruct those involved to "calm down" and respect Corbyn’s "very large mandate" to lead.

The Brexit vote galvanized Corbyn’s Labour critics

Angela Eagle Challenges Jeremy Corbyn For The Labour Leadership
Former Shadow Foreign Minister Hilary Benn, whose firing helped spark the current crisis.
Carl Court/Getty Images

Corbyn has a long history of opposing the European Union. He voted to leave the European Communities in a 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.

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. He eventually got on board under intense pressure (almost all Labourites wanted to remain in the EU, including most Corbyn fans), but his support was clearly lukewarm. And according to critics, his poor, halfhearted campaigning doomed the "Remain" campaign.

For example, Corbyn reportedly refused to do an event with Prime Minister Cameron advocating to remain. Gordon Brown, the last Labour PM, 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.

What's more, after the defeat, 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."

In any event, Labour’s weak campaign in 2016 resulted in 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.

That led, within days of the vote, to Shadow Foreign Minister Hilary Benn — who would’ve been Britain’s equivalent of secretary of state under Corbyn should they win the next election — calling the leader and telling him he lacked confidence in his leadership. Corbyn responded by firing Benn, which set off a round of resignations in which dozens of prominent Labour politicians abandoned him and called for his resignation.

More than 75 percent of Labour MPs voted for a non-binding motion of no confidence against Corbyn on June 28. Former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, former Labour leader Ed Miliband, former acting leaders Harriet Harman and Margaret Beckett, and all 20 of Labour’s members of the European Parliament called for Corbyn to step down.

Speculation began to brew that someone — maybe former Shadow Business Secretary Angela Eagle, maybe former Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Owen Smith, maybe widely popular Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and MP Dan Jarvis — would formally challenge Corbyn.

The fight within Labour had been in a holding pattern for weeks

Shadow Cabinet Make A Joint Call To Labour Supporters To Vote Remain in EU Referendum
Poor, long-suffering Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson.
Rob Stothard/Getty Images

That all happened at the end of June. Ever since, Corbyn has simply refused to resign, and everyone else has quietly panicked.

Parliamentary norms say that a leader should resign if he loses a vote regarded as crucial. This is particularly true for leaders who are in government. Cameron, after all, resigned after losing the Brexit vote, just as Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond resigned in 2014 after losing the Scottish independence referendum.

But there was nothing formal requiring Corbyn to quit. While the Conservative Party’s rules require leaders who lose a no confidence vote to step aside — as happened to Iain Duncan Smith in 2003 — there is no such requirement in the Labour Party’s rules. So Corbyn just did … nothing. He refused to go anywhere, and was supported in that by his allies in the trade union movement (particularly Unite and its leader, Len McCluskey), and by the grassroots organization Momentum, which was founded last year to back Corbyn.

This faction of the party viewed the misgivings about Corbyn as less a rational response to his failure during the Brexit vote and more a longstanding plot by the centrist Blairite and "soft left" Brownite factions in the Labour Party to depose Corbyn, the most left-wing leader Labour has had in decades.

It’s fair; again, Labour moderates have been skeptical of Corbyn since the beginning. And Benn was sacked not just for expressing a lack of confidence in Corbyn but because it was reported that Benn was planning a coup against him — a coup whose planning started before the Brexit vote.

And the Labour left also had sensible reasons to be skeptical of the people trying to oust Corbyn. While Blair did a tremendous amount of good in office — he did more for poor people in Britain and particularly poor children than just about any politician in the past half-century — he also pushed the country into war with Iraq under false pretenses, which despite the UK’s much lower troop commitment has led to deeper, more lasting political consequences for war supporters there than in the US. Just this month, a newly released government report confirmed that Blair ignored predictions that the war would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe.

The sense from Corbyn supporters is that these Blairites are behind the effort to topple Corbyn — and they don’t trust the Blair faction of the party at all, with pretty good reason.

So for the past two weeks, Labour has been stuck between a parliamentary party that hated Corbyn and was nearly unanimous in wanting him to go and a party grassroots that viewed him as the target of a nefarious plot from the kind of people who got Britain involved in the Iraq War.

And while the whole situation made Corbyn far less popular among the Labour rank and file than he’d been, polling still suggested that he’d win a new leadership election. YouGov polling in late June showed him beating Angela Eagle by 10 points, 50 percent to 40. He beat other potential candidates, like Tom Watson and Dan Jarvis, by even more.

So Labour elites didn’t really want to formally launch a bid by Eagle that would likely lose. And to make matters worse, other establishment Labour types suggested they might want to get into the race as well, most notably Owen Smith, who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow Cabinet last month. That suggested that rather than unifying behind a single candidate, the anti-Corbyn forces might split their efforts, making another Corbyn victory yet more likely.

So Labour elites just waited. In the meantime, Watson attempted to come to an accommodation with union leaders that would see Corbyn step aside in favor of someone ideologically close to him, such as Clive Lewis, an Afghanistan vet and Corbyn ally who'd be the first black leader of Labour. These "peace talks" were meant as a last-ditch effort to avert a contentious leadership battle, while still pushing Corbyn out. They failed.

Things are about to get even uglier

Angela Eagle Challenges Jeremy Corbyn For The Labour Leadership
Angela Eagle announces her bid for Labour leader on Monday.
Jack Taylor/Getty Images

So on Monday, Eagle broke the impasse by formally announcing her challenge to Corbyn. Eagle is a longtime MP, having been first elected in 1992 when Labour was in opposition to the Conservatives and John Major. She wouldn’t just be the first female leader of Labour but its first queer leader, having come out as a lesbian in 1997.

On Tuesday, Labour’s National Executive Committee met to decide if Corbyn would be automatically allowed on the ballot against Eagle in the coming leadership election, or if he’d need to amass the support of 51 MPs to do so. It’s not clear if he could find 51 MPs to support him, given that only 40 MPs voted against the no confidence motion. Corbyn has vowed to sue if he isn’t put on the ballot.

In a narrow, secret ballot vote, the NEC opted to let Corbyn run automatically, setting up a contest against Eagle, who has consolidated support from Hilary Benn and other establishment figures in recent days. It also makes it much less likely that Smith or another anti-Corbyn candidate would run and split the vote.

Eagle is a formidable candidate, but not an invincible one. Her vote to go to war in Iraq (necessary if she was to stay in Blair’s government) has weakened her leadership bid. Her candidacy has also led to a major backlash against her in her home district, near Liverpool. Her constituency office (the equivalent of a congressional district office) was vandalized shortly after she announced her bid against Corbyn, with a brick thrown through the window. Her local Labour Party strongly supports Corbyn and is planning a vote of no confidence against her later in July.

Now that Corbyn is officially on the ballot, he’s probably the favorite to win. If he does, the Labour Party will be left in an essentially broken state, with almost all of Labour’s MPs openly and publicly opposed to their leader. That will make it almost impossible for them to unite against the new Conservative prime minister.

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