The Irish Times view on British Labour’s troubles: The Jeremy Corbyn effect

The party’s problems are not entirely his fault, but Brexit has cruelly exposed Corbyn’s weaknesses

Seven UK Labour lawmakers quit on Monday (February 18) over leader Jeremy Corbyn's approach to Brexit and a row over anti-Semitism. Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker, Chuka Umunna, Mike Gapes and Ann Coffey.

 

The British Labour Party should be on the cusp of an historic triumph. The main opposition party faces one of the most incompetent administrations in any major European state in the postwar era: a lurching, hopelessly riven Conservative party led by a zombie figurehead, kept in power by an ultra-conservative single-issue outfit from Northern Ireland, and unable to come up with a workable policy on the most consequential issue of the past half a century.

In any other circumstances, a Tory rout at the next election would be a foregone conclusion. Instead, the election is a toss-up. Rather than benefiting from the Tory meltdown, Labour has put its own dysfunction on full display. It too is deeply split on Brexit. When its senior figures are not straining to explain their own contortions on the issue, they seem to spend their time defending the party from allegations of anti-Semitism or fears of an impending implosion. Their problems worsened on Monday when seven MPs announced they were leaving the party. It’s the biggest breakaway since four senior Labour figures quit in 1981 to form the Social Democratic party.

Monday’s defections will make it even more difficult to stop Brexit

Contrary to what Labour’s opponents claim, this is not entirely Jeremy Corbyn’s fault. The demonisation of the Labour leader by the right-wing British press as a threat to the United Kingdom’s security and welfare is rooted less in his own domestic policies – not all that radical by modern European standards – than in the fact that many of those policies resonate with a large part of the electorate. He was right to put social justice at the heart of the Labour agenda. And while Corbyn has certainly brought the ideological tensions between centrists and left-wingers in the party to the surface, he didn’t create them.

And yet Corbyn is a poor leader whose weaknesses have been cruelly exposed by the historical moment we are living through. His lack of intellectual curiosity, his intolerance of dissent and his doctrinaire faith in ideas he formed in the 1970s leave him ill-equipped to lead a major party, let alone a broad church like Labour. Time and again, on big issues – Venezuela, Russia, Syria, and many more – Corbyn has got it wrong. Most damning of all, however, is his mishandling of the Brexit debacle. Labour members hate Brexit and want a second referendum. Yet the leader who made a virtue of obeying the membership on all matters studiously ignores them on the biggest issue of all. That is because he, a eurosceptic, wants the UK to leave the EU. If that imperils the future of his party and makes his voters poorer, so be it.

Monday’s defections are understandable. Sadly, however, they will make it even more difficult to stop Brexit. Because by associating the “people’s vote” demand with those who have set themselves up as Corbyn’s challengers, the party leader may now see a concession on a referendum as a capitulation to his enemies.

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