On the face of it, the Tories should be more divided than Labour by the vote to leave the European Union—185 Tory MPs voted Remain on 23 June last year, and 135 for Leave. But 58 percent of Tory voters backed Leave while ten Labour MPs and 37 percent of Labour voters opted for Leave.
So why has the government bill authorising Theresa May to trigger the Article 50 countdown to leaving the EU caused so much more trouble for Labour?
In part this is because May emerged as the only credible pro-Remain candidate to replace David Cameron.
Tory MPs hoping to minimise the break with the EU therefore are stuck with her for fear of ending up with Boris Johnson instead. This is despite the fact that May is a Little Englander whose priorities of abandoning free movement of labour and escaping the EU’s legal jurisdiction make a hard Brexit more likely.
So Labour was unable to exploit the government’s small majority in the House of Commons last week to amend the Article 50 bill by, for example, guaranteeing EU citizens currently resident here the right to stay in Britain.
May managed to keep pro-Remain Tories in line with a combination of vague promises and a brutal whipping operation. “Organisation, hope and hate,” a Tory official told the Financial Times newspaper. “We used them all.”
Jeremy Corbyn by contrast couldn’t manage to get even all the Labour whips to respect his instruction to vote to trigger Article 50 on the bill’s third reading. He was right to take this line, both to respect the result of the referendum and to avoid driving pro-Leave Labour voters into the arms of the Tories and Ukip.
But this sensible position has been undermined by the constant disloyalty of the right wing majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). They used the referendum result to try to remove Corbyn. Despite the humiliating failure of this coup, they have campaigned for Labour to drop its support for free movement of labour and to vote against the Article 50 bill.
Corbyn’s position has been further undermined by the antics of some figures on the Labour left, notably Clive Lewis. Despite a left-wing background, Lewis as shadow defence secretary refused to back Corbyn’s opposition to renewing the Trident nuclear missile system. After being moved to shadow business secretary, he then attacked freedom of movement.
Finally, after more well-publicised agonising, Lewis resigned from the shadow cabinet and voted against the Article 50 bill. He subsequently dismissed reports that he was canvassing support for a leadership bid. But others on the Labour left have been talking him up as a future party leader for months.
Whatever the intentions of Lewis and his backers, they are playing into the hands of the Labour right. The hapless Owen Smith failed in his challenge to Corbyn last summer because he was incapable of convincing the massive new membership of the Labour Party that he was genuinely to the left of the Blairites in the PLP. Lewis would stand a much better chance at this.
Many pro-Remain left wingers have attacked Corbyn for backing the Article 50 bill. But it is an illusion to imagine the referendum result can be reversed. Opinion polls stubbornly show that the British electorate remains divided on the issue, with a narrow majority supporting Brexit.
The split is not just among voters in general, but in the working class as a whole. Even the most committed left wing Remainer can’t ignore the fact that it was the poorest people in British society who voted Leave.
Anyone who’s serious about building a militant and principled left has to recognise and work to overcome this division.
Corbyn has failed in his efforts to present policies offering an alternative to the hard Brexit which the Tories are driving towards. This is mainly the fault of the Labour right and their soft left allies like Lewis.
But Corbyn can only save his leadership if he breaks out of Westminster to lead the emerging mass movement against the racist future offered by May and her new friend in the White House.