A pale shade of red
The United Kingdom is suffering a Brexit hangover. Within weeks of the vote to leave the European Union, the British economy experienced its sharpest decline since the financial crisis ended in 2009. Recession had been predicted by many economists. Normally, such a precipitous drop in economic activity and wellbeing would be a gift to the opposition. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, campaigned for Remain. His predecessor, Ed Milliband, was a strong supporter of the European Union. In any other year, Labour, which has already pledged to hold a second referendum, would have the upper hand.
Unfortunately for Labour bigwigs, Brexit came at one of the party’s increasingly frequent low points. The left-wing party never recovered from the 2015 general election, in which it lost nearly all of its Scottish parliamentary seats, a mainstay of past strength, to the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), which has governed semi-autonomous Scotland for the past several years. The Brexit vote made things much worse. Traditional Labour territory in the Midlands and Northern England provided a wellspring of support for the Leave campaign, prompting calls for Corbyn to step down as leader of the opposition. Supporters of Members of Parliament (MP) Angela Eagle and Owen Smith, younger Labour politicians vying to oust the 67-year old socialist, have accused him of putting little effort into the Remain campaign.
These charges have little merit. Eagle herself said that Corbyn “pursued an itinerary that would have made a 25-year old tired.” His warning that Brexit would produce an economic “race to the bottom” of labor protections and other standards is hardly ambiguous. But while Corbyn may have done his best in the Brexit campaign, the challenge to his leadership has already weakened the Labour leader by exposing an ugly undertone to his base of support. Angela Eagle dropped out of the leadership after her office was inundated by a torrent of misogynistic phone calls, prompting the police in her Liverpool-area constituency to advise her not to hold public events for several weeks. The incident prompted quick backlash against Corbyn, whose inner circle of Labour leaders is almost entirely male. More than forty female Labour MPs signed a letter urging Corbyn to push back against his supporters’ actions, accusing him of enabling bad behavior. The entire affair is prime material for Britain’s hyperactive tabloids, and has tarnished Labour’s public image. The bumpy transition from David Cameron to Theresa May on the Conservative side also suffered from infighting. But May is off to a good start as Britain’s second female prime minister, projecting a steely confidence in Britain that glosses over the weakness induced by Brexit. Labour appears disoriented.
The Eagle debacle is only the latest in a series of headaches for Corbyn’s leadership. He took power last year as part of an effort to oust Tony Blair’s moderate faction of the Labour Party, which many party members saw as beholden to special interests and globalist neoliberalism. Corbyn’s success reinvigorated the fringe element of Labor - and with it, longstanding allegations of widespread anti-Semitism. British Jews have long charged members of the UK’s left with hiding anti-Semitism behind legitimate criticism of Israel. Corbyn himself was skewered for possible involvement in this conflation when it was revealed that he had hosted a delegation from Hezbollah at his house six years before. The subject boiled over again in April.
Corbyn was forced to expel two prominent Labour politicians in two days when they suggested in separate interviews that Israelis should be deported to the United States en masse and that the Nazis had been a driving force in the creation of Israel. The incident was fodder for former Prime Minister David Cameron, who goaded Corbyn into a rare and angry outburst on the floor of the House of Commons when he suggested that his counterpart needed to “sort out” anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. While this incident was overshadowed by the Brexit campaign, it is a large bundle of straw on the camel’s back. Corbyn’s Labour Party is badly marred in the public eye, and politically weakened by a bad run at the polls. Whether it recovers in time to take on Theresa May’s Conservatives at the next general election is anyone’s guess.