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22 February 2019

Ian Austin has proved that Labour’s problems run deeper than Brexit

Corbyn is under pressure to back a second referendum to prevent further defections. But that alone won’t stabilise the party.

By Patrick Maguire

And then there were nine. Ian Austin, the MP for Dudley North, has become the latest MP to quit the Labour Party over its handling of anti-Semitism and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

He tells his local paper, the Express and Star, that he has become “ashamed” of what he described as the party’s departure from the political mainstream under Corbyn and could not countenance making him prime minister. “It is terrible that a culture of extremism, anti-Semitism and intolerance is driving out good MPs and decent people who have committed their life to mainstream politics,” he said.

As with most of this week’s defections, this one does not come as a surprise. Austin, a stalwart of the party’s old right who was one of only three Labour MPs to vote for Theresa May’s deal, has long been a vocal and unapologetic critic of Corbyn’s leadership and it had been widely assumed in Westminster that he would be the next to go (John McDonnell spoke of his departure as if it had already happened yesterday morning). He will sit in the Commons as an independent MP but will not join the Independent Group for the obvious reason that he does not share their desire to stop Brexit.

It throws into harsh relief the fact that Labour has any number of potential splits to worry about in addition to the rise of the new centrist bloc. Austin has always been an outlier as far as visceral hostility to the leadership and willingness to air it public are concerned. That he has given up on the essential mythos of the Labour right –  that the left’s dominance inevitably passes if the counter-insurgency is dogged enough –  suggests more of his colleagues will follow him.

Austin’s departure also underlines something that has been clear from the outset: the exodus from Labour is about much more than Brexit. Ironically, Austin is representative of the sort of MP, who ,by mere dint of existing, has wielded much greater influence on the party’s Brexit policy than the likes of Chuka Umunna. The leadership’s strategic priority has always been to hold seats like Austin’s, where the party’s majority was just 22, and win back seats like Mansfield. The existence of this bloc of MPs – whose numbers make any whip to soften, delay or re-open Brexit pointless – explains more than almost anything else why Labour has been so persisently hostile to a second referendum.

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But for how much longer? This morning’s Times reports that “dozens” of Labour MPs, including shadow ministers, could defect to the Independent Group or quit their posts should their leader fail to support an amendment by two backbenchers, Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson, that would approve Theresa May’s deal on the proviso that it was put to a referendum. The Guardian, meanwhile, claims that Corbyn is “inching closer” to supporting a public vote under pressure from Keir Starmer and others who believe it could staunch the bleed of pro-EU MPs out of the party (unlike Austin, this lot isn’t necessarily irreconcilable).

Optimists on the frontbench argue that the need to unify the party will eventually trump Corbyn’s opposition to a new referendum, and that the Kyle-Wilson plan could be finessed in Leave constituencies as a vote for the deal and in Remain seats as a vote for a referendum. Sources close to the leadership, however, play down suggestions that there has been any change in position. The news that up to 100 Tory MPs could rebel to prevent a no-deal Brexit – the threat of which is one of the strongest remaining arguments for a second referendum – also gives Corbyn less of an incentive to pursue a politically painful course of action. Yet John McDonnell’s pledge to listen to the concerns of those MPs who have quit has given some hope that a shift could be in the offing.

But Austin’s departure underlines two inconvenient truths for those holding out for that outcome. The question of why Labour MPs are quitting the party is much broader and deeper than the question of what the party should do about Europe. Any attempt to answer it with a shift to a second referendum can’t win as long as MPs like Austin exist – regardless of their party affiliation.

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