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World At a time when ‘Labour should be miles ahead,’ Jeremy Corbyn’s party is in crisis

British Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn is surrounded by well-wishers during a rally in London on July 25, 2019.

Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images

When Jeremy Corbyn stepped on the stage at the Glastonbury Festival in 2017, the Labour Party Leader received a rapturous welcome, and the massive crowd began chanting his name.

But a year later, Mr. Corbyn’s popularity had sunk so low that when the party tried to recreate the magic of that Glastonbury moment by organizing its own music festival in London, attendance was sparse and Mr. Corbyn got heckled about Brexit.

This should be an opportune time for Britain’s once-mighty Labour Party, which traces its roots back to 1900 and the struggle for workers’ rights. The ruling Conservative government has mishandled Brexit and failed to pull the country out of the European Union despite three years of trying. The economy is sluggish, inequality is growing and years of spending cuts have created the kind of social divisions that Labour should be poised to address. And yet, the party is trailing the Tories in several opinion polls and the new Conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is contemplating a snap election to exploit Mr. Corbyn’s weakness.

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“Labour should be miles ahead,” said Martin Smith, a politics professor at the University of York. “Jeremy Corbyn is not an effective leader because he can’t pull his party together and he can’t set Labour in a distinctive direction that makes them stand out. And he can’t attack the Conservatives when they are in a very poor position.”

Mr. Corbyn’s problems stem largely from an incoherent position on Brexit – he has flipped from accepting Brexit to advocating a second referendum – and a growing scandal involving allegations of anti-Semitism within party ranks. That issue has raged for months and recently led 64 Labour members of the House of Lords to take out a newspaper advertisement that directly challenged the leader. “The Labour Party welcomes everyone* irrespective of race, creed, age, gender identity, or sexual orientation. (*except, it seems, Jews). This is your legacy, Mr Corbyn,” the ad said. Mr. Corbyn has insisted that he is determined to stamp out intolerance, but he acknowledged recently that the party needed to “educate ourselves, and each other, to better stand in solidarity with and unite all those facing oppression and discrimination.”

Mr. Corbyn, 70, has never been an easy fit as leader. First elected in 1983, he spent decades on the fringes of the party’s left wing and frequently clashed with centrist Labour figures such as Tony Blair. During Mr. Blair’s term as prime minister, from 1997 to 2007, Mr. Corbyn routinely voted against government measures and he became a vocal critic of Mr. Blair’s decision to lead Britain into the war in Iraq in 2003. He’s a diehard socialist who favours widespread nationalization, steep corporate taxes and forcing companies to give ownership stakes to employees. And he has raised eyebrows by rubbing shoulders with Islamic militants Hamas and Hezbollah as well as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets members of the public on a walkabout with British Home Secretary Priti Patel, second from right, and members of West Midlands Police in Birmingham, England, on July 26, 2019. The new PM is said to be considering a snap election to capitalize on Labour's weakness in the polls.

GEOFF PUGH/AFP/Getty Images

When Labour lost the 2015 election under another centrist, Ed Miliband, Mr. Corbyn unexpectedly won the leadership thanks to support from thousands of new party members who shared his socialist vision. A group of Labour Members of Parliament tried to force him out a year later, but the membership stuck with Mr. Corbyn. The battle for the party’s soul isn’t over yet and it has been complicated by Brexit.

Mr. Corbyn has long been skeptical of the European Union and he only half-heartedly campaigned for the Remain side in the 2016 Brexit referendum, which saw 52 per cent of voters back leaving the bloc. The party is also deeply divided over the issue. Roughly one-quarter of Labour voters backed the Leave side in the 2016 referendum and about 60 per cent the party’s seats are in areas of the country that voted to leave. However, a majority of Labour MPs and party members support remaining in the EU and the party still has a large base of support in London and other cities that voted to remain in 2016.

Until recently, pro-EU voters had no real alternative to Labour and Mr. Corbyn could court Leave voters. But the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats, which supports a second referendum on Brexit, has posed a new threat. Mr. Corbyn has responded with a mixed message. He initially accepted the result of the 2016 referendum, but he now wants a vote on any EU withdrawal deal Mr. Johnson reaches with an option to remain in the bloc. But he won’t commit to a Brexit position if there is an election. “It is a problem of fence sitting,” said Victoria Honeyman, a politics lecturer at Leeds University. “If you sit on a fence and try and please everybody, you inevitably please absolutely nobody.”

Supporters of Mr. Corbyn say he has been underestimated before. In the lead-up to the 2017 election, the Tories under Theresa May had a 20-point lead in the polls and seemed destined to win a huge majority. Mr. Corbyn defied the odds by campaigning on issues such as inequality and austerity. Labour won 40 per cent of the vote and held the Tories to a minority government.

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The problem for Mr. Corbyn is that the next election will almost certainly be fought on Brexit. Mr. Johnson has pledged to pull the country out of the EU on Oct. 31, with or without a withdrawal agreement. He has a slim working majority in the House of Commons and he could try to trigger a vote this fall if he was frustrated by Parliament. The opposition parties could also work together with rebel Tories to bring down the government.

Under Britain’s fixed-term law, the next election is scheduled for May 5, 2022, but there are two ways an early vote can take place. Mr. Johnson could move a motion to dissolve Parliament, which requires the support of two-thirds of MPs. The government could lose a vote of non-confidence, but Mr. Johnson would have two weeks to cobble together another government and then face a second confidence vote. If he lost, an election would ensue.

Mr. Corbyn has yet to say when he might try to force an election. And while Labour MPs have grown restless with his leadership, there is little sign they will push him out. They may be simply trying to wear him down, said Richard Johnson, a politics lecturer at Lancaster University, "and make Corbyn so miserable as leader that he decides to resign.”

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