Five Labour members who had challenged a decision to bar them from the leadership vote said on Sunday they were dropping their case but the rival camps in the contest escalated their war of words, accusing each other of trying to split the party.
With the leadership campaign nearly at halfway point and the first ballot papers set to be sent out next week, Jeremy Corbyn is on track to win his second mandate from party members in the space of a year, polls and bookmakers’ odds suggest.
Mr Corbyn is expected to defeat his challenger, the Welsh MP Owen Smith despite a setback last week when the Court of Appeal ruled that 130,000 new party members, many of whom are thought to support Mr Corbyn, could not vote in the contest.
Mr Smith’s camp say they are optimistic, claiming that support for their candidate is growing as his campaign appearances give party members a chance to become more familiar with his policies. The odds of a Smith victory have tightened in the past week, although Mr Corbyn still has an 85 per cent chance of winning, according to data from betting website Betfair.
The challenger’s camp say he is standing as a unity candidate in a bid to prevent Labour from splitting as it did in the early 1980s but a friend of Mr Corbyn said of Mr Smith’s campaign: “The only people who are trying to split the Labour party are the people who are supporting him.
“These people cannot 'come to terms with the fact that last year there was a massive sea change in the party.”
In the event of a Corbyn win his grass roots supporters are likely to call on him to stamp his authority on the party at Westminster; some members have threatened to deselect MPs who have spoken out against him.
One member of Mr Corbyn’s camp accused rebel MPs of “wanting to carry on like it is still 1997”, when Tony Blair won a landslide victory. “If local members decide [on reselection], then they [the anti-Corbyn MPs] are gone,” he warned. “It is supply and demand, isn’t it — it is local party democracy. We need to rejuvenate our party.”
Mr Corbyn this weekend called on moderates to end their attacks against him and criticised Tom Watson, the party’s deputy leader, for remarks he made about new Labour members. Mr Watson fears that some of the 300,000 people who have joined Labour in the past year are far-left radicals who signed up in a bid to subvert the party’s policy programme.
In an interview with the Observer newspaper, Mr Corbyn dismissed these concerns as “nonsense”, saying: “If they have changed their political views or developed their political views, then surely that is a good thing. I just wish that members of the Parliamentary Labour party, including Tom, would recognise that we have a very strong and very large party membership who joined for a reason. They want a different kind of society and a different kind of Britain.”
Mr Watson was directly elected by the membership and under the current rules he would be difficult to remove from his post if Mr Corbyn’s supporters wished to do so. Some Corbyn supporters are pressing for a change in the election rules that would force Mr Watson’s job to be put to the membership again.
The deputy leader has indicated he has no intention of stepping down. Allies of Mr Watson said that, whoever wins the leadership contest, he would continue to promote consensus and party unity.
In a statement on Sunday afternoon Mr Watson responded to Mr Corbyn’s remarks by saying: “I have never said that all our new members are Trotskyists. I have never claimed that hundreds of thousands of new joiners are revolutionary socialists and those who claim I did are attacking a straw man.
“I simply want to ensure that organisations like the Alliance for Workers Liberty, who have instructed all their members to join the Labour party and target our youth sections for recruitment, are dealt with under our rules.
A renewed mandate for Mr Corbyn would present moderate MPs with a stark choice: get behind the leader or form a new Westminster grouping and bid to become the official opposition. More than 170 of Labour’s 230 MPs backed a no-confidence motion against Mr Corbyn this summer.
If he wins, Mr Corbyn may also face a fundraising problem as some party donors have expressed concerns over his leadership. This weekend the Jewish Labour donor Michael Foster compared the Corbyn team to Nazi stormtroopers in an article for the Mail on Sunday.
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