LONDON (AFP) – The passage of a Brexit bill through parliament is reopening deep divisions among lawmakers in Britain’s opposition Labour party, as they struggle to reconcile their pro-European views with voter concerns over immigration.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn ordered his MPs to support the first stage of a bill on Wednesday empowering the government to begin negotiations on leaving the EU, but 47 MPs rebelled — and a dozen others were absent.
Further rebellions are likely when the legislation returns to the House of Commons next week, if — as is expected — Labour fails to push through amendments seeking to ease the terms of the divorce.
The disagreements raise further questions about Corbyn’s leadership, which has seen the party’s poll numbers sink to 24 percent — 16 points behind Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives.
But the divisions reflect wider problems in the Labour party, which has for years been balancing its liberal, pro-European instincts with the concerns of many working-class voters about mass migration.
In the EU referendum, the vast majority of Labour MPs campaigned to remain in the 28-nation bloc, but two-thirds of their constituencies voted to leave.
“The party derives its support from two very different constituencies,” said Simon Lee, senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull.
He added: “In the metropolitan, university constituencies, the clear majority of the electorate voted in the referendum to remain.
“But the majority of the seats that Labour needs either to hold or to win, are constituencies which voted to leave.”
By backing the Brexit process, Corbyn clearly has an eye on the latter — and an early sign of whether he is succeeding will come in a by-election later this month.
The anti-immigration, anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) has high hopes of taking the Brexit-supporting seat of Stoke-on-Trent from Labour.
– ‘Colossal mistake’ –
Corbyn survived a failed bid to oust him last summer by a majority of his more centrist MPs, who accused the left-winger of not campaigning hard enough to keep Britain in the EU.
There has been an uneasy calm in recent months, but his determination that Labour respect the referendum result has angered some of his strongest supporters.
Ten members of his shadow cabinet and three whips — MPs who are meant to enforce party discipline — rebelled to vote against the legislation, while four other members of his team resigned ahead of the vote.
Diane Abbott, a key ally whose London constituency voted firmly against Brexit, missed the vote complaining of a severe migraine.
The New Statesman meanwhile reported that 7,000 party members have resigned since Corbyn announced his backing for the Brexit bill.
Even The Canary, a strongly pro-Corbyn news website, said it was a “colossal mistake” that “could sink his leadership”.
– Driving ‘Trump politics’ –
Corbyn has so far refused to discipline those who rebelled, postponing any decisions until MPs debate amendments to the bill next week.
Labour has pledged to fight to maintain access to Europe’s single market and protections on workers’ rights, particularly after May warned she was willing to leave the EU without a new trade deal in place.
But many MPs believe they must uphold the referendum result, if only to avoid encouraging the anti-establishment feeling that helped drive the result, and which had echoes in Donald Trump’s victory in the United States.
“I won’t drive people towards Trump politics by ignoring them,” said Labour’s business spokesman Clive Lewis.
However, he threatened to rebel if Labour fails to amend the bill next week to prevent a “hard” Brexit.
“This is not an easy time to be a social democrat. We live in a time of surging nationalism and a growing instinct towards closed economies,” added Labour MP Wes Streeting.
But he added: “I say to my party that if we want to be in government again and to create the world that we want to see, we must first engage with the world as it is.”