News analysis

Move to oust Corbyn reflects Labour's failure to heed voters

Britain's decision to withdraw from the European Union (EU) has already destroyed the career of Prime Minister David Cameron, but now also appears to be destroying the career of Mr Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party.

And for predictable reasons since, in purely electoral terms, the referendum has been a bigger blow to the opposition than the British government. And if Labour does not rush to shore up its electoral base by changing its leader and its message, the party that has shaped British political life for more than a century risks total irrelevance.

The far-left Mr Corbyn attracted controversy from the moment he was elected Labour leader last September, mistrusted by his own MPs. He got the job only because of his support among Labour's rank-and-file members.

Since then, Labour has won a mayor's election in London, but it crashed in the regional ballots in Scotland, where it was pushed into third place in one part of the United Kingdom where it had enjoyed decades of complete dominance.

But it is Mr Corbyn's failures during the EU referendum that have triggered the current challenge to his leadership. A large share of those who voted to leave the EU were traditional Labour supporters, working-class voters in the party's heartlands of northern England and Wales who are increasingly being won over by the UK Independence Party (UKIP), an anti-European and anti-immigrant nationalist movement.

Mr Corbyn's (left) inability to recognise the widening chasm between his party and its electorate has triggered a string of resignations from Labour MPs who no longer believe he can win back lost voters. PHOTO: REUTERS

During the campaign for the referendum, Mr Corbyn himself was seldom seen and almost never heard, and he seemed unaware of the gulf opening up between his party and its electorate, despite indications from opinion polls that traditional Labour voters blame the party for opening up Britain's borders to EU immigrants, for the decline of heavy industry in England and for its replacement with the service economy that is rooted largely in big cities.

As an influential, recently published analysis by James Bloodworth, one of Britain's best political commentators, concluded, Labour politicians have "treated the English working class as a superfluous force who had nowhere else electorally to go", only to discover now that this working class has found a new voice in nationalist, anti-European movements.

The senior Labour MPs who have now resigned from their party's shadow Cabinet simply don't believe that Mr Corbyn - who lives in an expensive house in a leafy north London suburb, and is much more passionate about the plight of Palestinians or coffee farmers in Latin America than about workers in Britain - can re-engage with Labour's lost voters.

And they see his behaviour during the referendum debate as symptomatic: At one point during the campaign, he openly admitted that EU membership "means no immigration limit", seemingly oblivious to how that came across with Labour's electorate.

Labour MPs are also attempting to overthrow him because they fear that the new Conservative prime minister who will replace Mr Cameron by October might opt for early elections in order to renew his or her mandate. With Mr Corbyn as their leader, Labour risks a total wipeout in such early elections, and perhaps even oblivion.

By orchestrating a mass resignation from Mr Corbyn's shadow Cabinet, the rebel MPs hope to force a new leadership contest.

But Mr Corbyn still enjoys the support of ordinary members who themselves remain utterly detached from Labour's traditional voters. And they seem determined to maintain the party's current path, even if this means that Labour ends up crashing into a brick wall.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2016, with the headline 'Move to oust Corbyn reflects Labour's failure to heed voters'. Print Edition | Subscribe