For quite a while now, people have been expecting that the strains of Brexit would eventually prove too much for the British party system, and that something would crack. I said last month that the outcome “might come down to which party splits first.”
Now something has happened. Overnight, seven MPs resigned from the Labour Party to sit as an independent group – among them Chuka Umunna, once widely touted as a future party leader.
With seven MPs out of 255, this is not yet a major split, but it may become one. The obvious comparison is with the split of 1981 that created the Social Democratic Party, in which 28 MPs left. At the following election, in alliance with the Liberals, it won 25.4% of the vote, only 2.2% behind the Labour Party.
Labour was ultimately able to see off the SDP threat because it recognised its problems and made the effort to change. The majority of its moderate MPs stayed in and fought rather than join the splitters. Particularly important was the leader of the party’s right wing, deputy leader Denis Healey, who resisted suggestions of defecting to the SDP.
And again it is the deputy leader, now moderate Tom Watson, trying to hose down the party’s internal conflicts, saying that the loss of the seven MPs was “a moment for regret and reflection not for a mood of anger or a tone of triumph.”
The seven say they are driven primarily by two issues: leader Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to Brexit, and his alleged failure to properly address charges of antisemitism within the party.
My view is that the allegations about antisemitism are greatly overblown, but they have become symbolic of the multitude of ways in which Corbyn is out of step with most of his colleagues, and with modernity in general. At some point, Labour needs to decide what it wants to be; a democratic socialist party or a social democratic party.
In most countries, this would not be a huge problem. Each tendency could have its own party, they could both win seats reflecting their level of support, and co-operate in parliament when necessary. But in Britain’s cut-throat world of single-member districts with first-past-the-post voting, that is not a realistic option.
Instead, Labour is going to somehow have to sort itself out, as it did in the 1980s.
Logically, the party’s ideological direction and its stance on Brexit are separate issues. But because Corbyn is both its leading anti-European as well as its leading Marxist, they have become inextricably linked.
And whereas Corbyn himself is at least popular among the party’s grassroots – as was shown by his decisive victory when challenged in 2016 – his Brexit position is not. Most Labour voters and members are strong “remain” supporters, and want the party to push more strongly for a fresh referendum.
Which brings us back to the party system as a whole. Labour is not going to be left to work through its problems on its own; its future will be intimately tied up with what happens to the Conservatives, whose divisions over Brexit are even deeper.
The Guardian has a somewhat mesmerising animation that shows how MPs have sorted themselves in a series of Brexit votes. Its methodology is opaque, but the division into four groups is nonetheless clear: Conservative whip and Europhobes (representing the two halves of the Conservative Party), Labour whip (covering most of the Labour Party) and Europhiles (most of the crossbench, plus a slice of Labour and a handful of Tories).
This four-way division, however, is itself misleading. Europhobes and Europhiles are genuine policy-based groupings, possibly the cores of new or reformed parties in the event of a major realignment. But the other two are not: they are simply the members of the two major parties who for the moment are sticking with their leadership.
That need not be because they agree with the leadership’s position on Brexit. Indeed, in both cases they would have some trouble working out exactly what that position is: Corbyn and Theresa May are both trying to put off a decisive commitment for as long as possible, to keep as many of their respective followers as possible within the tent.
But that symmetry is not quite right either, because Labour’s divisions over Brexit, while real enough, are not as great as the Tories’. May is in deep trouble whichever way she moves, whereas Corbyn could probably keep most of his party united behind a moderate pro-European position – say, a commitment to extend the article 50 deadline to negotiate a Norway-style agreement.
The problem is that Corbyn is reluctant to do that because of his own dislike of the single market. And both for that and for other, deeper, reasons, a large swathe of his colleagues are unlikely to trust him.
So with the Brexit deadline only five and a half weeks off, British politics steams ahead into uncharted waters.