Seven lawmakers quit the U.K.’s main opposition Labour Party on Monday, the biggest defection from a major British political party in nearly 40 years and the latest evidence that Brexit is accelerating a realignment of the country’s politics.
In a packed room near the Houses of Parliament, the seven center-left lawmakers cited a variety of complaints about the Labour Party’s left-wing leadership ranging from its toleration of anti-Semitism to what they see as its tacit support of Brexit.
“British politics is now well and truly broken,” said Chris Leslie, one of the group. The lawmakers, who are against Brexit, want a second referendum on the U.K.’s membership of the European Union.
But Mr. Leslie added that the group’s differences with the Labour leadership “go far deeper than Brexit.” The seven described said they would sit in Parliament as a group of independent lawmakers.
Up to now, the most-recent major defection from a big British political party was in 1981 when a center-left group split from Labour, but the resultant Social Democratic Party failed to maintain momentum and merged with the Liberal Party seven years later. Much like in the U.S., Britain’s voting system tilts politics toward a two-party system and makes it hard for new political movements to thrive.
Still, Brexit is acting as a catalyst for a reshuffle of Britain’s political order.
A Visual Guide to Brexit
With just over a month before the U.K. is set to leave the EU, once-stable political voting blocs have dissolved. British Prime Minister Theresa May is struggling to get her parliamentarians to approve a deal to smooth the U.K.’s exit from the EU. Monday’s move is unlikely to alter the deal’s prospects.
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Lawmakers from across all parties are splintering to form new informal factions who are advocating their preferred flavor of Brexit, with some seeking to prevent it from happening.
Members of Mrs. May’s cabinet are openly ignoring Britain’s long-held principle of collective responsibility and publicly advocating their favored ways out of the Brexit quagmire.
“The country is no longer behaving in that traditionally British way,” Vince Cable, the leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats party said in an interview last week. “Logically you would expect both major parties to split.”
The issue of Britain’s departure from the EU has cut across traditional U.K. party and regional lines. A recent poll by the think tank U.K. in a Changing Europe found that the British public now identifies more with being pro- or anti-Brexit than with a particular political party.
Mr. Cable said he was having conversations with lawmakers across both political parties who were thinking of quitting to join a centrist grouping. Some of those could come from Mrs. May’s Conservative Party.
While a cluster of euroskeptics want out of the EU at all costs, some Conservatives seek a more gradual exit or none at all.
A key problem is that the paid up Conservative Party members are often more enthusiastic about Brexit than the Conservative lawmakers who represent them, says Alan Wager, a Research Associate at King’s College London.
Several lawmakers are facing the threat of deselection as their local Conservative associations protest against their anti-Brexit stance. “A schism of some sort is looking increasingly likely,” says Mr. Wager, with a group of either hardened euroskeptics or europhiles breaking away.
How U.K. Parliament Voted on BrexitDeal
318 votes were needed for majority.
Source: U.K. Parliament
The decision by the seven lawmakers to quit the Labour Party comes as disenchantment with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn reaches a crescendo. Mr. Corbyn was elected to lead the party in 2015, taking Labour from a center-left grouping to the hard left, advocating nationalization of key infrastructure and a reform of the tax system.
Some of the seven faced likely moves to push them out from left-wing Labour Party members in their districts—a continuing possibility for other Labour moderates. Mr. Leslie said the party had been “hijacked by the machine politics of the hard left.”
Although a majority of Labour lawmakers voted against leaving the EU, Mr. Corbyn hasn’t pushed to cancel Brexit. Also during his tenure he has struggled to fend off allegations that the party tolerates anti-Semitic behavior.
Luciana Berger, a Jewish lawmaker from Liverpool, described the party as “institutionally anti-Semitic” as she announced her resignation Monday. Colleagues said Mr. Corbyn was a threat to national security, and criticized his hostility to business.
Mr. Corbyn said in a statement he was disappointed that these Members of Parliament “have felt unable to continue to work together for the Labour policies that inspired millions.” But he didn’t address their specific criticisms.
The seven lawmakers ruled out merging with the Liberal Democrats, though Mr. Cable said on Monday he would seek to work with them during an election.
The infighting is likely to continue for years. Whether Mrs. May’s deal to smooth the U.K.’s exit from the EU is passed or not, Parliament will spend years debating the future relationship with Europe as Britain looks to negotiate a trade deal with the bloc. Monday’s defections are unlikely to be the last.
“It will take a long time to play out,” says Mr. Cable.