Brexit will cripple a great Party – but it needn’t be the Tories
Brexit is tearing the Conservative Party apart. The amount of media attention lavished on the Tories’ alleged disintegration is second only to that devoted to Brexit itself. Yet ideologically, the Conservatives is not the Party most starkly split over Brexit – Labour is.
The latest proof of this comes from the two Labour rebels who, by voting against an amendment put forward by Tory Remainers, prevented the Prime Minister from suffering an ignominious defeat two weeks ago. They are not alone: Jeremy Corbyn is probably the longest-serving Eurosceptic sitting in the Commons; since his election in 1983, he has consistently voted against the EU on every occasion, from Maastricht to Lisbon. Nor did his positions mellow over the years: Corbyn campaigned for a Brexit referendum as late as 2011.
This is not surprising: historically, Labour was the anti-European Party; this only changed with the rise of New Labour. Now, of course, many distinctly ‘old-Labour’ policies have returned to the Labour manifesto – and the opposition’s front-benchers represent precisely that socialist wing of the party that has always abhorred the European Union, seeing it as standing for reckless right-wing free-marketeering. Yet many other Labour MPs, mostly younger ones, are now and always have been fiercely pro-European. Though these tensions occasionally come to the fore – usually, it must be said, when Diane Abbott is asked about them – but have never been seized upon by either the Conservatives or the media at large.
But why is the focus almost entirely on Tory discord, and not on the rifts within Labour? One reason, of course, is that the Conservative Party is in power. Criticising from without is easier than acting from within. Attacks on the Prime Minister can come from various factions within Labour at once, without therefore becoming less effective; but negotiating with the EU becomes infinitely harder when one is constantly undermined by party colleagues.
In a similar vein, most Tories now in the public eye have recently held – or still hold – Cabinet posts. This is only natural: the Conservatives have been in government (in one fashion or another) for nearly ten years now. As a result, there are many Tories on either side of the Brexit divide who are well-known figures – or, at the very least, are likely to have their name recognised by the general public. This cannot be said for Labour: the man on the Clapham omnibus would scarce recognise more than two or three members of the Shadow Cabinet. As a result, any statement made by a high-profile Conservative will be amplified greatly – and one made by even a relatively high-ranking Labour minister very quickly forgotten.
This is not helped by the utter lack of discipline shown by some Tory Brexiteers who were until very recently in the Cabinet. Both David Davis and Boris Johnson saw it fit scathingly to attack, in resignation letters and newspaper columns, their own Party leader mere days after resigning from her Cabinet. They were not the first to do so, and they are unlikely to be the last. High-level Labourites, on the other hand, openly attack their current leader – perhaps, admittedly, out of fear of being deselected rather than due to some personal sense of loyalty and honour.
The result of all this is a marked difference in perception. The Conservative Party is perceived by the public, the press, the party members themselves as more divided than Labour. And, as so often in politics, perception quickly morphs into reality. That the ideological differences on Brexit are, in fact, far greater within Labour becomes irrelevant. Instead, the petty infighting within the Conservative Party takes the stage.
Avoiding public infighting – or media reporting on that infighting – within the Tory Party will be almost impossible. The Prime Minister’s authority over her cabinet is too low; the political ambitions of her colleagues too high; and the issue at stake too great. What is possible, however, is to foster public perception of ideological discord within Labour – and, by doing so, stoke actual conflict within the party. Much can be done in this direction in Parliament, in the media, and in election campaigns.
Regardless of what exactly is done, what will be required is a shift away from the current strategy of depicting Corbyn as a dangerous extremist, and of his party members as his unquestioning followers. This strategy simply has not worked. It has, if anything, resurrected the perception of Labour as a real alternative to the staid and indecisive Conservatives. If Labour were again perceived as permanently split between New and Old Labour policies – rather than simply as transitioning towards the latter – the party would cease for many voters to be a serious alternative.
Brexit is perhaps the topic on which the divide between the two factions remains greatest; it is probably the only one where an unambiguously ‘New Labour’ position is still dominant; and it is certainly the one currently most salient and news-worthy. This renders it ripe for questioning and attack in Parliament, in the media, and in election campaigns.
It still looks highly likely that a major political party will be crippled for years, if not decades, by Brexit and its fall-out. Yet if the Tories fight their battles well, and attack Labour where they are weakest and most split, we may yet be reminded of Delphi’s prophecy for Croesus. The oracle told the truth: the Lydian king’s war did indeed lead to the destruction of a great kingdom. The predictions of pundits and confident Labourites today may equally turn out to be truthful – but not in the way they hope them to be.