Jeremy Corbyn, the head of the U.K.’s Labour Party, has never been very popular with the members of his own party in Parliament. But his languorous conduct of Labour’s official “Remain” campaign prior to the Brexit vote has brought on a full-fledged revolt. It began with mass resignations from his shadow cabinet — that is, the alternative set of ministers of Britain’s opposition party — and now has intensified with a formal “no confidence” vote from Labour MPs. According to initial sources, the “no confidence” motion passed by the overwhelming margin of 172–40.
While the rebellious MPs very much wish that Corbyn would do them the favor of resigning, it appears he will instead invite a formal leadership challenge that will place the contest on the more-favorable-to-Corbyn ground of the Labour Party’s decentralized internal election process. That means Corbyn’s original base for becoming leader, mostly rank-and-file Labour activists and some unions, will come into play. And that also means the party is divided as it faces the possibility of a snap election later this year after David Cameron’s successor as Tory leader and prime minister is determined. It’s quite a fine mess overall, complicated by Scottish Nationalist threats of a new independence referendum based on that quasi-country’s strong support for staying in the EU.
Labour’s particular part in this passion play is derived from two factors: (1) the gap between Labour elites who almost unanimously opposed Brexit and rank-and-file Labour voters who probably gave Brexit its critical margin, and (2) continuing hostility toward the outspoken socialist Corbyn from the parliamentary wing of Labour, which tends to view him as an accidental leader likely to produce an electoral catastrophe at a time when the left could be taking advantage of Tory divisions.
But the Parliamentary Labour Party (composed of 230 Labour MPs and 20 members of the European Parliament) can only force a leadership challenge by nominating potential successors to Corbyn; the full certified party membership — 61o,000 strong during the 2015 leadership election that elevated Corbyn — will make the final decision. This will go on while the Tories conduct their own leadership contest under their own rules, which are similar to Labour’s except for Tory MPs’ power to limit the party membership’s choices to two candidates.
So Labour will have to work through a continuing ideological conflict immensely complicated by Brexit, the potential Scottish secession (traditionally strong Labour ground without which it is unclear the party will ever win a majority in the House of Commons), and the vagaries of an election contested against a wounded Conservative Party.
It remains possible, though unlikely, that Corbyn will spare his party all of this trauma by resigning or refusing to stand for another election as leader, enabling Labour to unite around some new, less divisive, and more photogenic figure. But the initial signs are that he views the leadership challenge as just a rearguard action by the same New Labour sell-outs who opposed him to begin with, and who want to keep Labour in the dead center of the political spectrum. So there will be hell to pay in Labour circles in the weeks just ahead.