(Bloomberg Opinion) — As Britain’s Conservative Party tears itself apart over Brexit, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn might be expected to be enjoying a big lead in the opinion polls.
Instead, the opposition is embroiled in a crisis every bit as deep as that facing the embattled government. At the European election, the Labour party put in its worst national performance in almost a century. A recent poll by YouGov put the party in fourth place, trailing not only the Conservatives but the Brexit Party and Liberal Democrats, too.
Corbyn, a lifelong euroskeptic socialist, has been reluctant to oppose Brexit, leaving the party unable to capitalize on the unpopularity of leaving the European Union. At the same time, his party has been dogged by allegations of anti-Semitism – a scandal that has prompted lawmakers and supporters to resign in disgust.
Given the continued impasse in parliament over Brexit, an early general election is no longer a remote possibility. Many Labour supporters are wondering if Corbyn is best-placed to lead his party into a vote – especially if his opponent is Boris Johnson instead of the more wooden Theresa May. He may, though, be almost impossible to dislodge.
Labour has struggled to find a policy on Brexit that doesn’t alienate at least part of its base: Most of the party’s MPs represent leave-voting constituencies, yet the majority of Labour voters wanted to remain in the EU.
The policy of “constructive ambiguity,” in which Labour both promised to deliver on the Brexit referendum and leave all options open, had been an attempt to bridge this divide. But the grim opinion polls have finally forced Corbyn to take a position. Many disaffected Labor voters are lending their support, at least temporarily, to the remain-supporting Liberal Democrats.
Pushed by the five largest Labour-affiliated unions last week, Corbyn has pledged to hold a second referendum on any Brexit put forward by a Tory government. In that scenario, Corbyn’s party would campaign to remain in the EU. But if Labour were to get elected, the leader won’t say what the party would do. This about-face feels too little, too late.
Corbyn’s problems run deeper than just Brexit; they go to questions of trust and competence. Back in May, Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission began an investigation into anti-Semitism in the Labour party. Last week, the BBC’s Panorama program broadcast an hour-long investigation into the issue. The party claimed it was a hatchet job, but viewers will draw their own conclusions from the chilling testimonies of party insiders who claimed that anti-Semitism isn’t only rife, but institutionalized. Following the program, a group of leading Jewish intellectuals published a letter saying the party faces “a taint of international, historic shame.” It’s hard for Labour to be credible on any other issue if it can’t move beyond this one.
It’s not hard to see why this issue has dogged Corbyn since he became leader. He has, at times in his political career, seemed more interested in Palestinian causes than British voters; his presence at a wreath-laying ceremony in Tunisia in 2014 (in which individuals believed to have been behind the 1972 Munich Olympic killings were also honored) offended and infuriated many.
The persistence of the anti-Semitism charges suggest either he has very limited real control over his party or he has cared too little. Removing him, however, would be difficult.
Corbyn faced down a leadership challenge after the Brexit referendum, where at least part of the blame for the result was laid at the feet of a leader who had barely bothered to campaign for his party’s Remain position. He brushed aside resignations from his shadow cabinet and a non-binding no-confidence vote that saw 172 Labour MPs vote against him to only 40 in favor.
While Corbyn has come under increasing criticism from within the parliamentary party (including from Deputy Leader Tom Watson), anyone seeking to challenge him needs the support of 20% of Labour MPs to be nominated. Even if a challenger cleared that hurdle, beating Corbyn in a vote of party members would be an even bigger ask.
Corbyn has remade the party in his image after becoming leader, building up the membership with loyalists from the Momentum group, a powerful left-wing grassroots movement that is increasingly independent and aggressive. On Friday, the group announced a nationwide campaign to oust Labour MPs that don’t meet with its approval and replace them with local activists.
That is the heart of the Labour crisis: Its moderate parliamentary party is at odds with its hard-left base of members and socialist affiliates. These latter groups hold the leader’s fate in their hand, but aren’t representative of the wider voting public. The party has always been a broad church, but that unity presupposes a leader who can appeal across the various divides in a way Corbyn hasn’t.
Corbyn’s politics of grievance may have worked well against May – at the 2017 election, Labour saw its largest increase in vote share since 1945. They might have worked well against May again; but against Johnson’s message of exuberant optimism, they risk looking dour and defeatist.
For all Corbyn’s shortcomings, the party looks to be stuck with him. Just as the Brexit party has benefited from the turmoil in the Conservative party, so the Liberal Democrats are likely to benefit from Labour’s crisis of leadership.
To contact the author of this story: Therese Raphael at [email protected]
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Edward Evans at [email protected]
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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