In Depth

Will Labour survive Brexit?

Divisions over Article 50 lead to questions over party's future

Corbyn

Labour's lack of unity over Brexit has cast doubt over whether the party can survive the UK leaving the European Union.

The party's "Brexit chaos" is now "so exposed it threatens to tear the party apart, not because it is more divided now than in the past but because it is more obviously split", writes Steve Richards in The Guardian.

The Economist goes further. In an article entitled "How the slow death of Labour might happen", it predicts that the decision by party leader Jeremy Corbyn to back the triggering of Article 50 will be the catalyst for the party's eventual collapse by the 2030 election.

"Labour has effectively given up its right to call itself pro-European," Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, told City AM. "It is no longer the same party that many of its members – both at Westminster and beyond – thought they'd joined."

Change at the top?

The Sunday Times claims Labour is conducting secret "succession planning" for Corbyn's departure by polling voters in the north on their opinions of two rising stars in the party ranks, shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey and shadow education secretary Angela Rayner.

The paper says the move was prompted by a recent YouGov poll suggesting the "Labour leader's favourability ratings were plummeting".

But speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson denied that the party was vetting potential leadership successors, saying: "This is not the time for a leadership election. He [Corbyn] got a second mandate from our members last year; he is now the established leader of the Labour party."

The threat to Corbyn is "more imagined than real", says the New Statesman's Stephen Bush, as "Corbynsceptic MPs believe that any move on their part will revitalise the Corbyn project, rather than destroy it".

Labour's rules mean that any candidate would have to secure the support of 15 per cent of the parliamentary party. "At present there is no plausible path to 38 signatures for any Corbynite successor that I can see," says Bush.

Bills bills bills

Corbyn has also come under sustained criticism for his handling of the votes on the triggering of Article 50. 

A fifth of Labour MPs rebelled against his three-line whip earlier this month, with Clive Lewis, Rachael Maskell and Jo Stevens among the frontbenchers who resigned.

Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock accused Corbyn of a "strategic error" by not giving the parliamentary party a free vote on the issue. 

When asked about Corbyn’s handling of Brexit, Kinnock told the BBC: "I don’t think it's being handled actually.

"What potentially could have been a serious problem for the Conservative Party because of the deep divisions in that party over Europe… has actually turned, because of the rather ineffectual handling of the issue by the leadership of the Labour Party, into a series of difficulties for the Labour Party."

But Corbyn's team felt they had no choice but to back the government's Brexit bill, rather than "risk being portrayed as ignoring the voters' choice", said The Independent

Rather more worrying for the party, believes The Guardian's John Harris, is the reaction by supporters to a tweet by the Labour leader following the passing of the Brexit bill which said that the "real fight starts now".

"Among what might now be Labour's true 'core' support – liberal-inclined people who voted Remain, and feel anxious beyond belief about where Britain has ended up – something has definitely shifted these last few weeks," says Harris.

"Their angst arises from the knowledge that Labour may now be in an almost impossible political position."

Polls apart

Recent polling also makes tough reading for Labour, with one survey revealing that Labour is now the third most popular party among working-class voters.

The poll, carried out for The Times, puts the Tories on 39 per cent, 19 points ahead of Labour on 20 per cent, and Ukip on 23 per cent among working class voters.

The results come ahead of by-elections in the traditionally Labour held seats of Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central.

"Two by-elections are taking place on 23 February, which will be essentially votes of confidence in the opposition: Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party," says the Financial Times's Matthew Engel.

But though in both constituencies "a late swing" may yet save the seat, it's clear that Labour is "in many ways clueless, disunited and perhaps in terminal decline", he says.

Rebels with many causes

As many as 7,000 members are thought to have left the party over its Article 50 stance, while opinion is also divided on the issue across the parliamentary party.

Last week, a fifth of Labour MPs defied Corbyn's three-line whip to vote against the government's bill to trigger Article 50. This included three frontbenchers who resigned over the vote.

In Holyrood, the majority of Labour's MSPs also contradicted the Westminster party line to back a symbolic Scottish government motion against triggering Article 50.

Any more rebellions from shadow cabinet members would leave Corbyn with a "logistical nightmare filling the positions", says The Spectator's Katy Balls. "While the shadow cabinet ought to be an attractive proposition to ambitious backbenchers, this is not the case under Corbyn's lacklustre leadership."

Polls apart

Recent polling also makes tough reading for Labour. This week a new survey revealed that only a third of voters expect to see a Labour government elected by 2025.

"Labour's defeat under Corbyn in 2020 is probable, but the bigger existential threat will arise if they lose in 2025," says Andrew Hawkins, chairman of ComRes.

"Article 50 will not kill the party but losing four elections in a row might."

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