- Once party’s most rebellious member, leader calls for unity
- Labour feud combines with Tory leadership fight amid Brexit
U.K. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made his name by defying party discipline. Now he’s asking his lawmakers to toe his party line. With little success.
Corbyn has clung to the leadership during the week following the U.K. vote to leave the European Union, in which dozens of his front-bench team quit, he lost a no-confidence vote by a 172-40 margin and a slew of party grandees called for him to go. He has vowed to run again if a formal leadership challenge emerges -- most likely from his former business spokeswoman, Angela Eagle, who has spent the week gathering support.
Long at the left fringes of the party, Corbyn was the single most disloyal lawmaker when Labour was in power from 1997 to 2010, voting against the government 216 times during the administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, according to Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. Corbyn began last year’s leadership election as a 200-to-1 outsider before surging to a surprise win with 60 percent of the vote in the wider party.
The leader’s refusal to go is “extraordinary given the extent to which there’s outright civil war in the party,” said Andrew Russell, professor of politics at the University of Manchester. “There’s been a complete breakdown in the functioning of the parliamentary party.”
Labour has dissolved into open conflict at a time when the ruling Conservatives are also in disarray, mired in a leadership contest to replace Prime Minister David Cameron. Boris Johnson, the initial favorite, ruled himself out Thursday after former ally Michael Gove declared for the job. Britain is thus without either an effective government or a functioning opposition even as the EU presses for a quick start to formal Brexit negotiations.
“The public will find it incredible that at the very time that this government needed to be held to account the most, we turned on ourselves,” said Barry Gardiner, one of the minority of lawmakers to stand by Corbyn. He said he welcomed Eagle’s plan as the “right way” to challenge the leader, rather than the no-confidence motion on Tuesday.
To those who know him, Corbyn is following his conscience. He himself said on June 26: “I am not going to betray the trust of those who voted for me -- or the millions of supporters across the country who need Labour to represent them.”
“His raison d’etre is to advance the cause of the left within Parliament,” said Rosa Prince, author of his biography, “Comrade Corbyn.” “His duty, he would see it, is to remain in power so that the left keeps control of the Labour Party.”
Corbyn’s opposition to renewing the country’s nuclear deterrent, Trident, and history of sharing speaking platforms with supporters of Hamas and Hezbollah, groups the U.S. and the EU consider to be terrorist organizations, have put him at odds with many Labour lawmakers. On Thursday, at the publication of a report investigating antisemitism within the party, he further alienated the country’s Jewish community with a remark that the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jonathan Arkush, said appeared to “establish some sort of equivalence between Israel and terrorist groups such as Isis,” a term for Islamic State.
“Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organizations,” Corbyn said. His office later said he was referring to Islamic countries rather than the terrorist organization.
Corbyn, a long-standing Euroskeptic who followed the pro-EU party line during the campaign, waited two months before making his first big speech against leaving, and took a vacation in the campaign’s closing weeks. Instead of hearing a pro-EU message from their party leader, Labour voters were confronted with a daily diet of Cameron’s squabbling Conservatives, who were split down the middle over the vote, and a strong anti-immigration message from the U.K. Independence Party.
Corbyn clung on even after a bruising meeting Monday in which lawmaker after lawmaker stood up to call for him to quit. Former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett was audibly emotional on a BBC radio interview Wednesday when she described voting against Corbyn, the ninth leader she’s served under.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be casting a vote of no confidence in the leader of the Labour Party,” Beckett said, her voice faltering. “I have been loyal to every single one of them with their different views and approaches.”
The current situation for Labour has sparked memories of 1981, when four moderate party members, including two parliamentarians, broke away to form the Social Democratic Party because they felt Labour had been seized by the militant left. The party had just committed to a withdrawal from the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community.
“There are so many parallels, and the SDP experience was so bruising for them all, that they don’t want to go down that path again,” said Prince, Corbyn’s biographer.
Even Cameron called on Corbyn earlier this week to “for heaven’s sake man, go,” because it wasn’t in the national interest to have him as opposition leader.
If he doesn’t quit, lawmakers can only unseat him in a leadership election, facing the mostly same party faithful who resoundingly delivered him the top job 10 months ago. A YouGov/Times poll of those members published Friday found 50 percent would vote for him again. Corbyn also was buttressed this week by a joint statement of support from 10
trade unions, while hundreds of grassroots campaigners took to Parliament Square to attend a rally in his favor.
If Corbyn wins again, a rupture is likely, said Gardiner, the lawmaker: “If we’re still as split as that after a contest has taken place, then I do think we may well see parliamentary colleagues feel that they have no alternative but to set up a separate party.”