A resignation and a defection are forcing Jeremy Corbyn to confront two scourges hounding his Labour Party as it tries to unseat UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson: anti-Semitism and Brexit.
Labour is hoping to regain power for the first time in nearly a decade when voters go to the polls on December 12 to help settle the crisis caused by Britain’s delayed divorce from the EU.
It was looking like an uphill slog from the start: Corbyn has some of the worst approval ratings of any leader of the opposition on record and his century-old party is badly behind in the polls.
Yet he almost performed a come-from-behind miracle in the last general election in 2017. The veteran socialist is a renowned campaigner who seems to stir to life during election season.
He will need now need to recover from another tough start.
The first blow came when Tom Watson — a champion of party centrists who oppose Brexit and criticise Corbyn’s handling of repeated anti-Semitism scandals — stepped down as deputy leader Wednesday.
Watson said in a letter to Corbyn that his decision was “personal, not political”.
But the New Statesman magazine’s political editor Stephen Bush said Watson’s resignation only underscored Labour’s steady creep toward the hard left under Corbyn’s rule.
“The news is a shock, but it confirms what we already know: that Jeremy Corbyn has won Labour’s civil war,” Bush wrote.
The party has been split between those who like the European Union and those who oppose its rules and want to restrict an influx of foreign workers.
A pro-Corbyn group called Momentum tried to organise a mini-coup and eliminate Watson’s post during last month’s party conference.
Corbyn intervened at the last moment and Watson stayed on.
‘Not fit to lead’
Things took an uglier turn Thursday when former Labour minister Ian Austin told his local newspaper that Corbyn was “not fit to lead”.
“The Labour Party has been poisoned by racism, extremism and intolerance under Corbyn’s leadership,” Austin told the Express and Star.
Labour finance spokesman John McDonnell pointed to Austin’s appointment in July as a trade envoy to Israel as evidence that he was working for the Conservatives.
“What else do you expect him to do in an election campaign where you’re employed by the Tories,” McDonnell said.
Austin left Labour in February and is now an independent.
“I’m not a Tory but I wouldn’t say Boris Johnson is unfit to be our prime minister in the way that I say that about Jeremy Corbyn,” he told BBC radion.
Austin’s anti-Semitism claim was further backed up in an urgent front-page appeal in the Jewish Chronicle to all British citizens.
“The vast majority of British Jews consider Jeremy Corbyn to be an anti-Semite. In the most recent poll, last month, the figure was 87 percent,” the Jewish Chronicle wrote.
“We believe that the overwhelming majority of British people abhor racism. We ask only that, when you cast your vote, you act on that,” it said.
Labour has been under particular pressure over anti-Semitism ever since Corbyn took over the party’s leadership in 2015.
Some of the accusations stem from Corbyn’s past support for pro-Palestinian causes and refusal to adopt a universally accepted definition of anti-Semitism — a position Corbyn has since revised.
Yet Labour is not the only major party dealing with internal strife.
Johnson took his Conservatives further to the right by adopting a tough Brexit stance that could still potentially see Britain leave the EU without a negotiated deal in the coming year.
“Both major parties will be significantly reshaped whatever the result of the general election, with many moderate Conservatives… leaving the House of Commons for good,” The Guardian wrote.