Pat McFadden: Labour MPs Fear Corbyn Will Give Conservatives a Free Pass

Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, follows Prime Minister David Cameron as they leave after a service of remembrance for murdered Labour MP Jo Cox. Toby Melville/Reuters

The huge ramifications of last week’s U.K. referendum vote to leave the EU continue to unfold in economic, constitutional and political terms.

Economically, the government and the Bank of England are trying to give confidence to jittery financial markets caught off guard by the country’s decision to break with 43 years of membership of the world’s biggest trading bloc.

The U.K.’s own constitutional arrangements have been thrown into turmoil with the prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence and great uncertainty over what the border arrangements will be between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland.

And politically, it looks like the referendum will trigger leadership contests in both main U.K. parties.

For the Conservatives, the starting gun was fired formally by Prime Minister David Cameron when he announced early on Friday morning that he was stepping down. His decision was not a surprise. The enormous gamble he took with the country’s future by holding the referendum had backfired spectacularly and he had no choice but to go.

And for Labour, the referendum exposed its lack of traction with voters on this crucial issue. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, elected on a wave of social media-fuelled enthusiasm just last year, is felt by many to have run a lackluster and half-hearted campaign to remain in the EU.

Although the primary responsibility for the result lies with David Cameron for holding the referendum and opening up the road to EU withdrawal, many feel that Mr Corbyn, a lifelong Euroskeptic who nominally campaigned to remain, should have done far more to try to convince Labour voters.

Corbyn seemed unwilling or incapable of running a high profile, professional campaign to convince Labour voters that the country’s best future lay within the EU. His campaign speeches were at least as full of criticisms of the EU as praise. When he did make his case it was on the relatively narrow ground of employment rights directives with no argument for the wider economic interests at stake or the UK’s place in the world.  And he took a holiday in the middle of the campaign.

Following the referendum result and faced with the prospect of a new Conservative prime minister seeking a fresh mandate in a general election later this year, the majority of the shadow cabinet have resigned in the most dramatic and public loss of confidence in a U.K. political leader for many years.

Many MPs only ever served on Corbyn’s frontbench through a sense of duty to try to keep the party in parliament functioning properly rather than through deep personal support for him. Those colleagues have now seen enough.

The resignations include politicians right across the Labour party spectrum, showing that a broad sweep of Corbyn’s colleagues believe he is simply not equipped with the leadership qualities necessary to take the party forward. Faced with the choice of giving the Tories what many see as a free pass at the next election or trying to remove the current leader, the MPs have opted for the latter.

So far, Mr Corbyn is digging in, relying on support among the party’s grassroots membership.  But MPs are now looking beyond the party membership to the communities they represent and they fear many more years of Conservative rule if they don’t act. Labour’s MPs have decided there is nothing progressive about allowing Britain to become a one-party, Tory-run state and now want a leader who can put Labour in a more competitive position come the election.

Pat McFadden is the Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East. He was shadow Europe minister until January.