(CN) – Brexit contagion is infecting a new victim: the Labour Party. Great Britain’s main opposition party is reeling from in-fighting and desertions over its Brexit policy after seven moderate and centrist members quit the party on Monday.
They accused Labour far-left leader Jeremy Corbyn of backhandedly helping the Conservative government achieve its goal of taking Britain out of the European Union.
The split within Labour prompted speculation that other disgruntled members from both the Labour and Tory parties might jump ship and help form a new party of moderates. But it was far from clear if that might happen.
The row within Labour, momentarily at least, took attention away from the Tory party’s own in-fighting over the politics of Brexit. The Conservatives have been openly feuding for months over how closely Britain should be tied to the EU once it leaves the bloc.
Britain is due to formally leave the EU on March 29, but that deadline could be pushed back. The British Parliament cannot agree on the terms of withdrawing from the bloc, an impasse that’s badly fractured British politics, society and business.
The Labour defectors were very harsh in condemning Corbyn, accusing him of imposing a far-left ideological stamp on the party while also aiding Prime Minister Theresa May’s efforts to abandon the EU.
Corbyn’s views on the EU are anything but clear. Publicly, he supports staying within the EU, but in past statements he’s been critical of the supranational bloc.
Many on the far left view the EU as a political project that’s favored business over the interests of workers, leading to more privatization and an erosion of social benefits. In the past, many in Labour opposed joining the EU, fearing workers’ rights would be weakened.
Corbyn’s apparent contradictions about the EU were exposed by those members who peeled off from his party.
“[Labour] has been hi-jacked by the machine politics of the hard left,” said Chris Leslie, one of the ex-Labour parliament members.
He blasted Corbyn for “enabling” the Tory government’s Brexit plans.
Corbyn has come under criticism by many in his party for not pushing for a second referendum on Brexit in which voters would be allowed to again choose between staying within the EU and dropping out of it.
About 52 percent of Brits voted in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU. Before the referendum, Corbyn was viewed as not outspoken enough about staying within the EU, which led many within Labour to wonder if he preferred leaving.
“The evidence of Labour’s betrayal of Europe is visible for all to see,” Leslie said. He said the party suffers from an “obsession with a narrow, outdated ideology.”
He charged that Labour’s leaders are “hostile to business, large and small.” He added: “To them the world divides between oppressor and oppressed, class enemies, when in truth, the modern world is more complicated than this.”
The splinter group, known as the Independent Group, did not just point the finger at Corbyn’s handling of Brexit. They also accused Corbyn of not doing enough to investigate charges of rampant antisemitic views within Labour’s membership and stamp out racism in the party.
Corbyn said he was disappointed by the departures, but he said Labour’s policies had “inspired millions at the last election and saw us increase our vote by the largest share since 1945.”
He said he was pushing for more social justice and he dismissed charges that he was not listening to the full range of views within the party, according to British news reports on Tuesday.
John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow chancellor, told the BBC that Labour’s leadership needed “a mammoth, massive listening exercise.”
In the meantime, the negotiations over Brexit were set to continue on Wednesday in Brussels.
Britain is seeking concessions from the EU over the thorny issue of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Under a deal that Britain’s parliament rejected, Northern Ireland would remain closely aligned to EU rules and economy until a future trading agreement can be reached. This arrangement was considered necessary in order to keep the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland open and free of border checks.
But this aspect of May’s deal with the EU has left many within the Tory party worried that Britain would end up too closely aligned to the EU.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)