Labour Party in Crisis as Ballots Close in Leadership Race

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(AFP) – Britain’s Labour Party faces deadlock in a power struggle between the party’s centrist lawmakers and its leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn, as ballots closed Wednesday in a leadership challenge against him.

Corbyn is expected to win by a clear margin when the result is announced on Saturday and award-winning director Ken Loach praised the veteran socialist as he released a one-hour documentary about his campaign.

But experts warn that the rift inside Labour could condemn the party to being in opposition for several years and increase the chances of a “hard Brexit”.

In an eight-hour meeting of party chiefs on Tuesday, Corbyn rejected a plan by his deputy Tom Watson to let the party’s lawmakers vote on who should be in the “shadow cabinet” — its leadership team in parliament.

Watson has also proposed giving the party’s MPs and trade unions more power over the choice of future Labour leaders, following criticism of the current process by Corbyn opponents who say that grassroots members and supporters have too much influence.

Corbyn and his backers reject these proposals as attempts to undermine his authority and want Labour members to have more of a say on the running of the party, including being able to vote on the shadow cabinet.

The conflict threatens to overshadow the party’s annual conference in Liverpool, northwest England, where the winner of the leadership contest between Corbyn and Welsh MP Owen Smith will be announced.

In the longer-term, the rift could cause even bigger problems as some political commentators predict that Prime Minister Theresa May could call an early general election next year as she launches negotiations to leave the European Union.

Some argue the conflict could make it more likely that May will adopt plans backed by some of her Conservative MPs for Britain to leave Europe’s single market entirely — a move that could have a serious impact on the economy.

“Stop obsessing about the party issues and devote your considerable talent and experience to the one thing that really matters — the fast-approaching catastrophe of Brexit,” pleaded commentator Polly Toynbee in the Guardian, a left-leaning newspaper read by many Labour supporters.

– ‘Party at a crossroads’ –

Many Labour MPs resigned from the shadow cabinet over the summer in protest at Corbyn’s leadership, arguing he had performed weakly in the failed referendum campaign to keep Britain in the EU.

A majority of the party’s MPs voted no confidence in him but Corbyn has clung on, saying he has helped boost the party’s membership to record numbers and can win a general election.

Some commentators have warned the party could split if Corbyn remains as leader.

“Together we are very, very strong,” Corbyn told supporters at his final campaign rally on Tuesday, where he also met volunteers making last-minute calls for party members to cast their postal ballots.

“Whatever the result is, we — all of us — have mounted the most incredible campaign, mobilised a lot of people, and we’ve actually changed the political discourse in this country,” Corbyn added.

The polls officially closed at 1100 GMT on Wednesday.

Smith, who has accused Corbyn of lacking leadership skills, also issued a plea to his supporters.

“Our party is at a crossroads, and the choice we face is between renewing our party to pursue unity and power, or satisfying ourselves with ongoing division and opposition,” said Smith, who was far behind Corbyn in a YouGov poll published last month.

Corbyn, 67, was a longtime critic of party policy under former centrist prime minister Tony Blair and was elected only last year with support from older leftists and younger anti-austerity campaigners.