The Labour Party did very poorly in the European elections—but not as badly as the Tories. It fell to third place overall, behind the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats. In Scotland it fell to fifth place, with less than a 10 percent share of the vote.
The results have triggered a party crisis, raising the prospect of a right wing challenge to Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour’s right wing hopes the party can finally be pushed into backing a second referendum and campaigning to remain in the EU.
The party’s official policy is to campaign for a general election, with the possibility of backing a second referendum if this isn’t possible.
But deputy leader Tom Watson—who backs a second referendum—said that after the result Labour “cannot go into an election with our current Brexit position”.
Corbyn and many of his shadow ministers gave ground to this. Speaking on Monday morning, Corbyn said, “There has to be an agreement with the European Union and there then has to be a public vote.”
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said Labour “must unite our party and country by taking the issue back to people in a public vote”. And shadow home secretary Diane Abbott gave ground as well.
Other figures on the left were more forceful. In a column for the Guardian newspaper prominent Corbyn supporter Paul Mason wrote that Labour “needs to unite around the strategy of remain and reform in Europe”.
He characterised the vote as essentially a split between right wing voters in “ex-industrial towns” and “internationalist and progressive politics”. And he even suggested that Labour’s success in the 2017 general election was “above all by large?scale tactical voting among Remain voters.” He also argued Labour should support Trident nuclear weapons.
But support for Brexit is not a straightforward right wing vote—just as support for Remain-backing parties is not straightforwardly left wing.
Unfortunately the left has made itself completely absent from the argument. The debate in Labour became a choice between those who argue immigration lowers wages and those who want to rescue the EU.
Corbyn has tried to balance, but now is losing his footing.
A vision for a left wing anti?austerity, anti-racist Brexit could defy the right and cut across the false divide. This must include defending migrants and the NHS, and fighting for jobs and public services.