A group of centrist lawmakers in Britain’s Labour Party is planning to leave the party amid rising discontent over its leftward turn under leader Jeremy Corbyn and its mishandling of concerns over anti-Semitism its ranks.
The move would be a blow to Corbyn, who has struggled to reap political dividends from the Brexit controversy roiling the unpopular Conservative government he seeks to replace.
According to The Observer, the Guardian’s Sunday edition, multiple sources informed the paper that at least six MPs are planning to make the move, forming a “breakaway movement on the political center” over issues including Brexit, immigration, foreign policy and Corbyn’s handling of anti-Semitism in the party.
The group may be just the start of a broader rebellion among centrist Labourites, the paper said, as discussions “involving senior figures” have been held concerning a “far larger group” leaving the party after Brexit if Corbyn “fails to do everything possible to oppose [PM] Theresa May’s plans for taking the UK out of the EU.”
Corbyn has been criticized on the left for what many see as his lukewarm opposition to and even tacit support for Brexit, which is widely and vociferously opposed by most Labour voters.
Three of the MPs in question were identified in the report as Angela Smith, Chris Leslie and the parliamentary chair of the group Jewish Labour Movement, Luciana Berger, who is herself Jewish. They reportedly hope that their breakaway faction would provide a centrist alternative to what they believe are the radicalizing right-wing and left-wing mainstays of the Conservatives and Labour, respectively.
Berger told the paper she was angered by the perceived inaction over anti-Semitism complaints, but did not confirm the split.
Leslie was quoted as refusing to confirm the “speculation” about the impending split, but acknowledged that “a lot of people’s patience is being tested right now. I think there are some questions we are all going to have to face, especially if Labour enables Brexit.”
Despite widespread frustration with May and her government over the confused and dragged-out implementation of Brexit, a poll published Sunday in the Observer found support for the conservatives rising at Labour’s expense.
Conservatives robbed Labour of their lead over the past two weeks, with 41 percent approval in the latest poll, a four-point jump from a previous poll on January 16. Labour, meanwhile, dropped six points to 34% in that period.
While May’s handling of the Brexit process is deeply unpopular — 55% disapprove, just 25% approve — Corbyn’s is even less popular. Fully 60% disapprove of his unclear position, while just 16% approve.
Labour has also struggled over the past year to convince many in the country’s Jewish community that it was tackling what critics say is rampant anti-Semitism in its left-wing flank.
Last week, the party readmitted a former member of parliament who was suspended last year for posting on Facebook that he no longer had “respect and empathy” for the Jewish community.
Jim Sheridan said he was happy with the decision and was sorry for his remarks, but lashed out at his detractors.
“Whilst I am delighted with this decision, I remain of the view that my accusers were misguided and overreacted to what was intended to highlight my personal frustration and criticism of those intent on undermining our leadership in Scotland and the UK,” Sheridan was quoted as saying by the BBC last Sunday.
“I would also like to reiterate my sincere apologies to the Jewish community whose historic struggle I have supported all my political life,” he added.
The former MP, who was the MP for Paisley & Renfrewshire North between 2005 and 2015 and served in parliament from 2001, was suspended last year from Labour after a post on Facebook that read: “For almost all my adult life I have had the utmost respect and empathy for the Jewish community and their historic suffering. No longer due to what they and their blairite (sic) plotters are doing to my party and the long suffering people of Britain who need a radical labour government.”
Since his election in 2015 to head Britain’s main opposition party, Corbyn has faced allegations that his critical attitude toward Israel and alleged tolerance of anti-Semitism have injected Jew hatred into the heart of the party.
In the 1980s, Corbyn had sponsored and spoken for a group called the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine whose official platform declared its “opposition to the Zionist state as racist, exclusivist, expansionist and a direct agency of imperialism.” A conference it held in 1984 demanded that the Labour Party’s key institutions “support the Palestinian people in their struggle for a democratic and secular state in the whole of Palestine”; materials published by the movement for the event proclaimed that it sought “to eradicate Zionism.”
In 2009 Corbyn called Hamas and Hezbollah his “friends” and said that Hamas was working to achieve peace and justice; he subsequently apologized for the comment. In 2012 he defended an anti-Semitic mural — for which he also subsequently apologized. In 2013, he said British “Zionists” don’t understand British irony.
In 2014 he laid flowers at a cemetery where Palestinian terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972 are buried. Appearing at a Labour Friends of Israel reception during his party’s annual conference in 2015, soon after he had been elected Labour leader, he was heckled after giving an address during which he did not mention the word “Israel.”
In 2018 when Labour belatedly adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism, Corbyn sought in vain to add a caveat that it should not be considered anti-Semitic to describe Israel and/or the circumstances of Israel’s establishment as racist.
Earlier this month a video was discovered in which Corbyn in 2011 was filmed applauding a speaker at a conference who called for the dismantlement of Israel, which he also said “kidnapped” Judaism. The footage was taken at a pro-Palestinian conference that Corbyn attended alongside several anti-Israel activists who have been accused of anti-Semitism.
Britain’s former chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has called Corbyn a “dangerous” anti-Semite.