27 February 2019

Chris Williamson and a second referendum could push more Labour MPs towards the exit

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Ultimately, this is a column about Labour, Brexit and the Independent Group. However, first I am afraid we do need to talk about Chris Williamson.

For just as the Westminster commentariat began to scratch their metaphorical beards and ponder whether Labour’s second referendum gambit had shot the Independent Group fox, the MP for Derby North was busy brewing up his own rather powerful demonstration of that project’s moral catalyst.

First, it emerged that Williamson attempted to organise a parliamentary screening of a film by Jackie Walker — one of the very few people the Labour Party has suspended over anti-Semitism — provocatively titled ‘Witchhunt’. Then the Yorkshire Post uncovered footage of Williamson arguing — to huge applause — that Labour is “too apologetic” on anti-Semitism.

This latter gathering, a meeting of Sheffield’s Momentum branch, was but one stop on Williamson’s long-running ‘Democracy Roadshow’ tour. It is time to call this this out for what it really is: a nascent leadership bid. For rest assured, one does not spend one’s Friday evenings talking to Labour fringe groups at Bury Freedom Church unless one is on serious political manoeuvres. There can be little doubt too that Williamson knows his activities have the capacity to damage Labour and Corbyn.

Len McCluskey aside, practically all his fellow travellers on Labour’s factional left are now at pains to acknowledge the party has got to get a grip on its anti-Semitism disease. Only a day earlier, Momentum’s founder Jon Lansman admitted that “hardcore” anti-Semitism was widespread within Labour. Williamson knows this and therefore the full enormity of what he is doing and what this says about Labour must be allowed to sink in. He is running a de facto leadership campaign where his strategic point of difference — the source of his popularity even — is Jew-baiting.

For that reason above all others, the impetus driving the Independent Group is unlikely to dissipate soon. Nevertheless, the original question deserves exploration. Will Labour’s new Brexit positioning help stem the flow of defectors?

The first thing to acknowledge about this is that it is a significant move. Yes, of course Labour is accompanying its amendments with the usual amount of fudge, caveats and prevarication. But in practical political terms the dam has now broken. Political positions are just as often used to constrain campaigning excess as they are to signal to the electorate. Now, with the leadership clearly connected to a second referendum amendment, both Labour’s activists and its pro-referendum representatives – see here Emily Thornberry’s immediate reaction – are off the leash.

The second thing to note is that this is absolutely a direct response to the Independent Group’s challenge. Hitherto, one of the strategic errors most second referendum campaigners made was to tie the wagon of their hopes to the Labour Party rather than the Liberal Democrats. Their point was always that only Labour could bring meaningful parliamentary pressure to bear on Brexit, but paradoxically the need to influence Labour was exactly why they should have focused on strengthening the Lib Dems. Because as with UKIP and the Tories, so to the Lib Dems and Labour: the only way a referendum would come about is if Remain-inclined voters started crossing to a more obviously Remain-supporting party. TIG has now provided that moment and lo and behold, Labour has responded.

But how will the fall-out of this momentous decision now affect Labour’s fragile unity? Well, perhaps not as Tom Watson and the party’s other consensual figures might hope. For to ascribe Labour’s previous Brexit ambiguity entirely to Corbyn’s personal convictions is to misread both the party and its leader. Corbyn is indeed a Brexiteer at heart, but not a particularly passionate one – this is not, after all, a liberation struggle in South America or the Middle East.

In fact if anything his position thus far has prioritised holding the parliamentary party together in the teeth of growing discontent from the pro-Remain membership. Never forget that there are still at least fifty MPs in the parliamentary party who are against the Prime Minister’s deal but who have ruled out stopping Brexit or a second referendum.

And for such MPs, overwhelmingly in Leave-voting areas, the spectre of the party’s recent wipeout in Scotland casts a worryingly long shadow. Until now Labour leveraged Corbyn’s popularity to protect them. Now, with the shackles off, they will likely be thrown under the pro-referendum bus. Faced with the prospect of being held politically accountable for abetting the hated Brexit, such MPs may look for a way out. The Independent Group, with the prospect of new seats to fight, a clean start and — with a little help from Chris Williamson — a clear moral purpose, may soon seem a more enticing prospect. Don’t be surprised if some Labour MPs grasp it.

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Alan Lockey is Head of Research at Demos.