Opinion: The wrong man at the wrong time | News | DW | 24.09.2016
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Opinion: The wrong man at the wrong time

Members of Britain's Labour party have re-elected Jeremy Corbyn as their leader. Too bad - the 67-year-old leftist is a disaster for Europe, says Birgit Maass.

"Jez we can," Jeremy Corbyn's supporters cheer when he takes the stage. For them, he represents a return to Labour's socialist roots: the fight against social injustice, for the redistribution of wealth and for the nationalization of rail services and the energy sector. A conspicuously large portion of the so-called "Corbynistas" are young. For them, Corbyn is a beacon of hope: An honest politician who refuses to bend - after all, he spent most of his political career as a backbencher in the House of Commons, where he was a staunch opponent of Tony Blair. He was one of the few MPs who voted against the Iraq war, an old-school socialist. Corbyn's fans feel certain that Blair's slick "New Labour" and its idea of the "Third Way" - a reconciliation with capitalism - has had its day.

Corbyn has promised his supporters a new, softer kind of politics. He bicycles to the House of Commons dressed like a geography teacher, sometimes even sporting socks and sandals. He has transformed "Prime Minister's Questions," in which the opposition regularly berates the head of government each Wednesday, into a seminar on grassroots democracy. He allows voters to dictate what questions he poses to Prime Minister Theresa May, such as: "Paul wants to know why the government is discontinuing tax breaks for families."    

Birgit Maass in London (DW)

Birgit Maass reports for DW from London

Inner party power struggles

But Corbyn's political style is anything but cuddly: The power struggles taking place within the Labour party could not be more brutal. The Corbyn-friendly party base and the Corbyn-sceptic parliamentary group in the lower house are at loggerheads. But pacifist Corbyn and his allies are fighting with their gloves off. Critics, such as former Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn, an advocate of British airstrikes in Syria, are unceremoniously sacked by Corbyn. Others who don't support Corbyn have reported being the victims of intimidation on social-media platforms. One opponent even had the windows of her district office broken. The party chair distances himself from such attacks, but the fact remains that under his leadership, the party is utterly divided and incapable of acting.

MPs rightly doubt that Corbyn can score points with voters. Since he won the party leadership a year ago, the Conservatives have easily padded their electoral lead. And according to current polling, only about one-fifth of British voters think he could be prime minister.

But Corbyn's lack of leadership in the Brexit campaign was the straw that broke the camel's back for many in Labour's parliamentary group. For those MPs, the majority of whom are pro-Europe, Corbyn was a singular disappointment. Not once did the Labour leader appear with then-Prime Minister David Cameron to campaign in favor of the EU. Many Labour voters were totally unaware that the official party line was actually a "yes" vote for remaining in the EU.

Asked to rate his support for the EU on a scale of one to 10, he gave the lukewarm reply: seven-and-a-half. According to rumors, activists attempted to contact Corbyn's office for months in order to get him involved in the pro-European "Remain" campaign. Later, activists even accused his office of having "sabotaged" their efforts.

Unsuccessful opposition leader

Had Corbyn made a strong stand for Europe, it could well have hindered the eventual Brexit victory, as many Labour voters were among those who voted to leave the EU.  

Phil Wilson, the head of the pro-European initiative within Labour's parliamentary group, said that Corbyn's conduct in the vote was "treasonous" and called for his resignation. Corbyn was forced to stand for election within the party again after the parliamentary group withdrew confidence in his leadership. However, in the chaos that followed the Brexit, it was impossible to find a convincing alternative - the little-known challenger Owen Smith was given scant chance of success from the start.

In the end, it doesn't matter how much Corbyn's supporters cheer him: He will never deliver a Labour election victory. And in its current state, the party offers no effective opposition either - something that will be desperately needed during upcoming Brexit negotiations. Jeremy Corbyn is a disaster for Labour - and a major figure in the Brexit tragedy for Europe.

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