LONDON — Jeremy Corbyn was reelected leader of the bitterly divided Labour Party on Saturday, just a year after his dark-horse ascension rocked Britain’s political world.
Corbyn, who has been described as Britain’s Bernie Sanders, proved again he is overwhelmingly popular with the party’s grass roots, seeing off his challenger, Owen Smith, by winning 61.8 percent of the vote.
“Let us work together for real change in Britain,” the 67-year-old socialist said after the results were announced Saturday at the start of the Labour Party’s annual conference in Liverpool.
Corbyn also pleaded for unity in his party, which is engaged in a messy internal fight.
“Elections are passionate and often partisan affairs, and things are sometimes said in the heat of the debate, on all sides, which we sometimes later come to regret,” he said. “Let’s wipe that slate clean from today.”
The result was widely expected despite a bruising contest that has cast a spotlight on the deep divisions within a party that has been shut out of power since 2010.
Corbyn may be wildly popular with the party’s grass roots, but he lacks the support of many of his party’s representatives in Parliament.
A leadership contest was triggered after Britain’s shock decision to leave the European Union, commonly referred to as Brexit. Shortly afterward, 172 of Labour’s 230 lawmakers supported a vote of no confidence in their leader.
Some cited Corbyn’s leadership style as the reason he should quit, while others were critical of his performance in the E.U. referendum. Corbyn campaigned for Britain to stay in the bloc, but some say they thought his heart wasn’t in it and that he didn’t do enough to shore up pro-E.U. support.
But the rebellion backfired, with Smith failing to generate the kind of enthusiasm that burns bright among Corbyn’s followers.
That contingent, known as Corbynistas, are energetic, enthusiastic and a force on social media. Since Corbyn became leader, large numbers of people have flocked to join the Labour Party. Corbyn told the conference that it has more than 500,000 members and is the largest political party in Western Europe.
But some Labour supporters worry that his appeal doesn’t extend beyond a niche segment of the British electorate.
A recent YouGov poll showed Labour trailing the Conservative Party by nine points.
John Curtice, a politics professor at the University of Strathclyde, said the Labour Party’s “fundamental problem” is that it has no one who has shown an ability to grab the attention of the wider public.
“There isn’t anyone in the parliamentary party who has demonstrated they are up for the job,” he said. “At least the Corbynistas have a candidate. . . . The non-
When Corbyn, a veteran politician from the party’s left wing, won the leadership contest last year, it was widely seen as a rebuke to the Labour Party establishment and to Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who blurred the traditional distinctions between left and right during his decade in power.
Supporters of Corbyn, many of whom are staunchly anti-Blair, say that he is a straight-talking, authentic politician who has galvanized a new generation of activists with his emphasis on creating a more equal society.
Others are skeptical that the mass movement inspired by Corbyn can translate into wider success in a general election, and say they worry that long, tedious years in opposition lie ahead.
David Miliband, who served as Britain’s foreign secretary under the Labour government of Gordon Brown, says the party has “not been further from power since the 1930s.”
In an article in the New Statesman, Miliband wrote: “Nationalisation cannot be the answer to everything; anti-austerity speeches cannot explain everything; corporate taxation cannot pay for everything. It doesn’t add up. It wouldn’t work. People are not stupid.”
Smith repeatedly said the party risked splintering if Corbyn was reelected, but most commentators think that’s unlikely for now, not least because of the lack of a charismatic politician lined up to lead the charge.
Labour lawmakers have defected before. In the early 1980s, some 28 members of Parliament defected to create the Social Democratic Party, which would later merge with the Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats.
“The fracturing of the left at the time, what did it do? It gave the Tories 18 years of power,” said Labour lawmaker Chuka Umunna, one of the party moderates who has urged his disillusioned colleagues not to break away. Speaking to Sky News, he said: “The Labour Party can only win when it is a broad church.”
“The Labour Party is just stuck, really,” said Tony Travers, a political expert at the London School of Economics. He added that it was a “living nightmare for the parliamentary party” and predicted it would not split but “struggle on.”
Andy Burnham, a Labour lawmaker who lost to Corbyn in the 2015 leadership race, issued a plea for unity, saying that the party needs to shift its focus to the “enormity of issues” facing Britain in the wake of the Brexit decision.
There are “massive stakes here,” he told the BBC on Saturday, adding that Labour should be “challenging what we seem to be getting, which is a hard-line Brexit, a right-wing Brexit — that’s where our focus should be.”
But it seems unlikely that Corbyn’s reelection will halt the internal squabbles in his party.
“As long as the party has got a parliamentary party at odds with its leaders and a parliamentary party at odds with its membership, it’s got a problem,” said Curtice, the professor. “We may discover we are back doing the same leadership challenge rerun in 12 months time.”