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Britain’s future at stake in opposition turmoil over Brexit

The leader of Britain's opposition Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, leaves his home in London, Britain June 29, 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hall

LONDON: In the global maelstrom created by Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, turbulence within the opposition Labour Party looks like a ripple. But it could define the country for years to come. Jeremy Corbyn, the 67-year-old activist behind a grass-roots left-wing rebranding of Britain’s main opposition, is clinging on as party leader in the face of an attempt to oust him by his more centrist fellow Labour lawmakers.

Three-quarters of them backed a motion of no confidence Tuesday, arguing that Corbyn’s lukewarm endorsement of the EU contributed to a vote to leave that has plunged the country into its worst crisis since World War II.

With Britain now poised to negotiate an exit far more painful than many voters anticipated, Corbyn’s critics say Labour needs to present a strong, united alternative to the ruling Conservative party’s ascendant Euroskeptic right wing. Without that, they argue, Britain could lose the protections for workers, consumers and the environment within a free market afforded by the EU in a rush toward untrammelled corporate power, a reduced social safety net and international isolationism.

Pro-Brexit Conservatives say that completely misrepresents their aims, emphasizing a “one-nation” approach they say will balance all the population’s needs, help Britain’s economy to grow and retain the country’s influence on the world stage.

Whatever the outcome, it will have lasting significance.

“The EU negotiations are going to define the direction of this country for the next century,” Labour lawmaker Wes Streeting who supports ousting Corbyn, told Reuters.

“We need a leadership that has its eye on the ball and makes sure Labour has a strong voice.”

During the referendum campaign, Corbyn said he wanted an EU that was “based on social justice and good, rather than solely on free-market economics,” and he has called for Britain’s heavy industries to be protected from global market forces.

“I was elected leader to redistribute power and wealth in this country,” he said the day after the Brexit result was announced. He voted ‘Remain,’ but voted ‘No’ to Europe in a previous referendum in 1975 and has been a long-term critic of the bloc, which he considers in thrall to corporate interests.

He also dismisses criticism that his support for immigration on universal human rights grounds alienates the many Britons who voted to leave the EU because they felt migrants from its poorer regions had driven down wages and strained public services.

“We cannot duck the issue of immigration [but] we cannot talk about immigration as something separate from its social and economic context,” he said.

Corbyn’s opponents say his principles are high-minded but unrealistic. “I’m extremely worried,” Streeting said. “He’s completely out of his depth, he doesn’t have the knowledge and judgment to take the big calls.”

Labour parliamentarians say the Conservative right wing and the growing Euroskeptic UKIP party will take Britain in a direction most of its people do not want to go in unless their party plays a strong role in Brexit negotiations.

“Libertarians who see this as a way to roll back all state involvement, free-marketeers who see it as a way to cut employment protection, reactionary conservatives who want to cut themselves off from the rest of the world – none of those right-wing visions will work for Britain,” Yvette Cooper, a centrist who ran against Corbyn in 2015, said in a speech.

Some Labour lawmakers have called for a second referendum to approve the country’s exit plan – an idea popular with many of the 48 percent of voters who chose “Remain.”

“Whatever happens to Labour, I will continue to campaign for remain,” Labour’s David Lammy told Reuters. “We’re already seeing the uncertainty having a real impact on business investment decisions, on financial markets. It’s not too late to stop this.”

More than 40 of Corbyn’s colleagues have resigned one by one from his policy team in the past few days – a drip feed of bad news designed to ramp up pressure on him to quit.

“It’s a battle for the soul of the Labour Party,” Labour lawmaker Chris Bryant said after emerging from a hostile meeting between Corbyn and his party in Parliament Monday.

Corbyn’s allies describe the turmoil as a “corridor coup,” a reference to the labyrinthine hallways of the Palace of Westminster, home of the Houses of Parliament, where informal business takes place and plots are hatched.

“Stop the whispering, stop the corridor coups, stop trying to pressure an elected leader of the Labour Party to stand down without any vote or democracy,” his spokesman said.

A furious confrontation followed between Labour lawmaker John Woodcock and Corbyn’s chief spokesman in which each accused the other of destabilizing the party as reporters looked on.

In the long history of political plots in Westminster, where Parliament has been based for 750 years, historians say it is rare for a leader to survive such attacks for long, but Corbyn has an incentive to swim against the political tide.

“Corbyn is willing to look ridiculous, because for him this is the one shot that someone from his side of the party is going to get,” said Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “If he goes, his kind of ‘left’ will not get another chance for a generation or two, if that.”

Corbyn also has a trump card: the support of Labour activists outside the Parliament.

He was elected to lead Labour in September in the aftermath of its May 2015 national election defeat at the hands of the Conservatives, now split by the referendum and seeking a successor after Prime Minister David Cameron offered to resign.

Labour’s 2015 defeat prompted a surprise surge in support for a more radical agenda and carried Corbyn, a veteran left-wing campaigner classed as a rank outsider, to a runaway victory after hundreds of thousands of new members signed up to vote.

“They shouldn’t be attacking him in this way,” said Josh Chown, a 20-year-old Corbyn activist among thousands of supporters who flooded to a square outside parliament for a hastily convened protest against efforts to oust him.

“The Labour membership overwhelmingly supports Jeremy Corbyn ... he puts forward a different, better idea.”

If Corbyn hangs on, some expect Labour to divide in what could be part of a wider reshaping of the political landscape.

“In that scenario there is no alternative but for the party to split,” said Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary University London. “It’s just not possible to lead a party like that into an election and ask the public to vote for them.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 30, 2016, on page 6.

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