Britain's Labour party faces existential crisis as new Conservative PM is set to take over

As a new Conservative Prime Minister prepared to take over on Wednesday, Britain's opposition Labour Party was facing an existential crisis, riven by toxic splits over the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

AFP July 13, 2016 19:37:09 IST
Britain's Labour party faces existential crisis as new Conservative PM is set to take over

Britain: As a new Conservative Prime Minister prepared to take over on Wednesday, Britain's opposition Labour Party was facing an existential crisis, riven by toxic splits over the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

Britains Labour party faces existential crisis as new Conservative PM is set to take over

File image of Jeremy Corbyn. Reuters

At least two Labour MPs will challenge Corbyn in a contest that formally gets under way this week, after Owen Smith joined Angela Eagle in announcing a bid, with the winner expected to be named in September.

Corbyn has been battling to keep his job since Britain's shock vote on 23 June to leave the European Union, holding on despite a vote of no confidence backed by three-quarters of the party's members of parliament.

Efforts to keep him off the leadership ballot paper by forcing him to secure a minimum 51 nominations from Labour MPs and members of the European Parliament – a 20 percent support prerequisite for his challengers – failed late Tuesday.

He will now be able to campaign over the heads of MPs to trade union backers and grassroots party members who helped propel him to victory just last September – and whose numbers have swelled in recent months.

"Whoever wins the leadership contest is almost certainly going to divide the party further," said Brian Klaas, a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics.

"The party faces an existential crisis because one major force in the party – the party members – cannot reconcile with another major force – Labour MPs in parliament," he told AFP.

Some commentators believe a lasting split in the party may now be inevitable.

"Uncivil war could split Labour for ever," headlined the left-wing Daily Mirror tabloid.

"The poison in Labour's veins is so deep, so toxic, that nobody can see a way of this ending harmoniously," it said.

In a sign of the tensions, a brick was thrown through Eagle's constituency office on Tuesday, causing her to demand Corbyn "get control of the people who are supporting him".

"There is hatred now on both sides," wrote Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian newspaper.

Breaking the party apart

Corbyn has been under intense pressure since the referendum amid criticism that he did not do enough to persuade working-class voters to stay in the EU.

But many moderate MPs in the party, which shifted to the centre under former premier Tony Blair, had never reconciled to anti-war campaigner Corbyn's election as leader.

Eagle, a 55-year-old former trade union official, fired the starting gun for the leadership race on Monday when she formally announced her candidacy.

Smith, a 46-year-old member of Corbyn's shadow cabinet, announced on Wednesday that he would join her. The party is due to publish a formal timetable on Thursday.

"If Corbyn wins, he will face the prospect of being a lame duck opposition leader -- a man who is unlikely to be effective given that he has few friends or allies in Westminster," Klaas said.

"That will risk breaking the party apart. But if Corbyn loses, the powerful unions and young activists that form his political base could choose to leave the party."

Wrestling on the Titanic

In his final appearance in the House of Commons, before he hands over to incoming Prime Minister Theresa May, David Cameron drew a contrast between his Conservative Party's orderly transition and Labour's warring.

"We got on with it: we've had resignation, nomination, competition and coronation – they haven't even decided what the rules are yet," said Cameron, who stepped down after losing the EU vote.

Facing him over the despatch box for the last time, Corbyn replied with a smile: "Democracy is an exciting and splendid thing and I'm enjoying every moment of it."

But in The Guardian, Freeland warned that the in-fighting risked blinding Labour to its "greatest, gravest problem" – its failure to engage millions of working-class voters who defied the party to vote for Brexit last month.

"They could leave Labour forever," he said.

He added: "Next to no one is speaking about that existential threat at all. Instead, Corbyn and Eagle are wrestling on the bridge of the Titanic, fighting for control of the wheel."

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