I wrote on Friday that the referendum result threatened catastrophe for the Labour Party. Two days later, that looks like an understatement.
The longer-term threats are still there – UKIP is circling to snap up working class Leave voters in Labour heartlands, while various Conservative strategists and would-be leaders are wondering if the referendum might offer Tories a route in to territory which has long been hostile to us. Millions of voters are getting used to the feeling of having voted with Johnson, Gove and Farage and won, after years of voting with Labour and suffering only defeat and rejection. The ghosts of Scottish Labour are looming ever larger in the nightmares of English MPs. In short, the tension between the Labour Party and its own voters, one of our themes to watch from the referendum result, is bubbling away furiously.
Now, though, another front has opened up: the Labour leadership versus its own MPs. Overnight, Corbyn sacked Hilary Benn – the man the Parliamentary Labour Party applauded over Syria – for plotting against him. Rather than head off the coup, that decision has sparked it – Shadow Cabinet members are resigning all over the place. The rebels know they have to drive the strike home or face destruction, so Stephen Kinnock and others are on the airwaves putting the boot into Corbyn. With Diane Abbott reportedly being touted for Shadow Foreign Secretary it’s hard to see he they will be able to fill all the Shadow ministerial seats without giving the slavishly loyal Richard Burgon fifteen different hats and encouraging him to do different voices when he talks about Business, International Development and Local Government. King Lear suddenly looks like a paragon of leadership and team-management.
Meanwhile, Tom Watson – the Deputy Leader who was meant to either keep this all in check or failing that lead an efficient regime change – is stuck on a train platform trying to get back from Glastonbury. It’s almost unbelievable that he thought this was a good weekend to take off, although the festival experience of wading knee-deep through slurry and human faeces is at least a good preparation for what awaits him when he gets back to Westminster.
As this internal war rages, Labour are in effect passing up its main opportunity to try to retain those core voters. Every day that goes by with the focus on the leadership is another day during which people who just rejected the Labour line on the EU are free to consider uninterrupted how much their traditional Party has lost touch with them. If they’re hearing anything from Labour about the referendum, it’s David Lammy’s announcement that they made the wrong decision and should be over-ruled, which will only deepen the danger.
Nor is the distraction likely to end when Corbyn is either unseated or defeats the coup. On top of Labour versus its core voters, and the Labour leadership versus its own MPs, we should now expect all-out conflict between Labour MPs and their own Party members. This site has warned repeatedly of the danger posed by Momentum to MPs who dare to defy or challenge the Dear Leader, and this coup will inevitably lead to open warfare. Already, Jon Lansman, Momentum’s chief, has tweeted rather menacingly:
Heidi Alexander has resigned. Why do some shadow cabinet members think now’s the time for Labour MPs to engage in a war with the membership
— Jon Lansman (@jonlansman) 26 June 2016
The threat of deselection had deterred most MPs from open rebellion against their leader for some months – now it seems the prospect of following him into a General Election has overcome even that fear. The Corbynites, though, are grimly true to their word, even when it means following through on a promise of Mutually Assured Destruction. “Respect the mandate”, once the mantra for silencing Labour MPs, will now become a mantra for purging them entirely.
A Party whose leader is at war with his MPs has problems. A Party at odds with its core voters has problems. A Party whose members loathe its MPs has problems. A Party with all three of those issues has an existential crisis.