Corbyn rebels lose steam but battle for UK Labour rages

London (AFP) –


A damning report into the Iraq war has bolstered embattled British opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn but an intense battle for the party's soul is still raging after the Brexit vote.

Veteran socialist Corbyn has hung on in the face of overwhelming pressure, clinging on after a vote of no confidence last week in which 75 percent of the party's lawmakers voted against his leadership.

Now the anti-war campaigner and his youthful left-wing backers claim vindication in a report this week on Britain's involvement in the 2003 Iraq invasion, even as analysts warn the party could split in two.

"Our party must never again be led by someone who is unrepentant in their record supporting war," MP Jon Trickett told thousands of Corbyn supporters at a London rally on Wednesday, laying down the gauntlet for any potential usurpers.

Former civil servant John Chilcot found that then Labour prime minister Tony Blair had taken Britain into a badly planned and woefully executed war.

Corbyn voted against the war and set up the Stop the War campaign group, as well as fiercely opposing Blair's actions to make the party more centrist.

In contrast, many of those lining up against him voted to go to war and supported Blair's reforms.

"The word Blairite is a synonym for evil" among the party's far-left, said London School of Economics professor Charlie Beckett.

"It was always a crude label but now it (Chilcot) gives that term some moral force," he said.

"Corbyn can stand there and say, 'look maybe I am a peacemonger but I was right.' There's also the sense that it undermines rivals," he added.

- 'It'll all settle down' -

Labour MPs Angela Eagle and Owen Smith had both sounded out possible leadership bids after long-time eurosceptic Corbyn was accused of a lacklustre campaign to keep Britain in the European Union.

They appear to have relented in the face of Corbyn's support among party members, who propelled him to a landslide victory in last year's leadership election.

"If you go to the membership he will win again," said Beckett.

The competing claims to ownership of the party by Corbyn -- who claims authority through its members -- and the MPs -- who claim authority through its voters -- are at the heart of Labour's impasse.

Among the 2,000 fervent supporters queueing for the south London rally, the moral case was clear.

"If the party doesn't belong to the members, I don't know who they think is going to do the voting or the work," said Eileen Short, 60.

Corbyn underlined the point in an article for the Guardian newspaper on Friday, saying: "MPs need to respect the democracy of our party and the views of Labour's membership, which has increased by more than 100,000 to over half a million".

John McDonnell, Corbyn's shadow finance minister, told the BBC: "He's the leader of the party. That's the end of that... I think it'll all settle down".

- 'Attack after attack' -

But there is little prospect of that after the vote in which 172 Labour MPs out of a total of 230 in parliament voted in a secret ballot against Corbyn and only 40 supported him.

With no other mechanism to remove the leader other than a leadership challenge and a vote by party members, a war of attrition looks more likely.

"He's an ideologue and his ideology is to take over the Labour party completely, so Chilcot is grist to his mill," John McTernan, Blair's former policy strategist, told AFP.

"He wants to hold on until... Labour becomes an ultra-left party, bigger than any ultra-left party has been in British history, but smaller than any Labour Party has ever been."

A split of the party is not beyond reason, according to Financial Times political columnist Janan Ganesh.

"Labour MPs must try to remove Mr Corbyn," he wrote.

"But if the mission fails, political logic and the national interest both argue for a breakaway."

McTernan doubted that "95 percent of MPs" would leave and hand Corbyn the party's "name, history and heritage."

Instead, he predicted MPs would launch "attack after attack -- waves after waves" even as high-stakes Brexit negotiations loom in which Labour will have an important say despite being in opposition.

"The Conservative Party has certainly got divisions but it's getting its act together," Beckett said.

"They'll be able to stand by and watch Labour continue to tear itself to pieces."