LONDON • The battle for leadership of Britain's Labour Party took a nasty turn in the lead-up to a decision on whether the socialist incumbent, Mr Jeremy Corbyn, has the automatic right to defend himself from a challenge.
His rival for the job, MP Angela Eagle, triggered a leadership contest, saying Mr Corbyn has failed to connect with voters and is incapable of winning a national election.
The party's national executive committee was scheduled to meet yesterday to rule whether as incumbent, Mr Corbyn's name is automatically on the ballot paper for a leadership election, or whether he, like his challenger, needs to find 51 lawmakers to back him.
Mr Corbyn has said he will not resign, citing the overwhelming mandate he won from grassroots members when they elected him leader in September last year.
If the ruling goes against Mr Corbyn, he could struggle to find enough lawmakers to support his bid given that Labour members of Parliament have already passed a motion of no-confidence in him by 172 to 40. But he retains strong support among rank-and-file members, meaning that if he does make the ballot paper, he could hold on to power and prolong the stand-off with MPs.
That has sparked fears that the party could split, as it did in the 1980s, and dilute the centre-left influence over Brexit negotiations following the June 23 vote to leave the European Union.
"It would be alien to the concept of natural justice that Jeremy Corbyn is not automatically on the ballot paper," said Mr Len McCluskey, head of Unite, Britain's biggest union and Labour's largest financial backer.
The party's internal strife has fuelled tensions among its supporters, and police said yesterday that Ms Eagle's constituency office in northern England had been vandalised. She also had to cancel a meeting in Luton, near London, yesterday because the hotel that was to have been the venue received a series of undisclosed threats.
"So please just leave us alone," said a statement from Ms Eagle's office.
Mr Corbyn responded that it was extremely concerning that Ms Eagle has been the victim of a threatening act and that other MPs are receiving abuse and threats.
" I am calling on all Labour Party members and supporters to act with calm and treat each other with respect and dignity, even where there is disagreement," said Mr Corbyn.