Amid anti-Semitism Furor, U.K. Voters Set to Deal Labour Losses in Local Election

The elections have been framed as a test of Corbyn's first months in charge of Labour after he shifted the party's political stance sharply to the left.

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves after an election campaign poster launch in London, Britain May 3, 2016.
Reuters, Stefan Wermuth

Britain's main opposition Labour Party lost less ground than expected in local elections on Friday and was leading the race for London's mayor, giving new leader Jeremy Corbyn enough ammunition to brush off his critics.

Labour officials said the party's overall performance - though poor - was strong enough to stop any immediate challenge to Corbyn, who opponents criticize for pressing a leftist agenda that lacks broad appeal.

Why is anti-Semitism tearing apart the British Labour Party? Haaretz

His leadership has so far been dogged by vicious disagreements with a moderate core of Labour lawmakers and a string of embarrassing crises - most recently over anti-Semitic views expressed by party members.

Labour was forced into third place behind the Conservative Party in Scotland for the first time since the country was granted its own assembly, a crushing blow for a party which counted on it as a traditional stronghold for decades.

It also lost seats in England and Wales, while avoiding the catastrophic defeat some had predicted. There was little change for the ruling Conservatives in England and Wales but a stronger showing for smaller parties, such as the anti-EU UK Independence Party before a referendum on the bloc on June 23.

The kerfuffle surrounding Labour’s anti-Semitism problem was taken by some to be a negative force on the party during Thursday's vote, with British media and analysts attributing the party's loss to the Conservatives in Glasgow’s historically Labour-controlled seat of Eastwood to the scandal.

Corbyn, who was elected as party leader last year on a wave of enthusiasm for change and an end to "establishment politics" among many, mostly younger, members, welcomed at least some of the results.

Britain's Labour Party Candidate for Mayor of London Sadiq Khan gestures during an event in London, Britain March 23, 2016.
Reuters

"All across England last night we were getting predictions that Labour was going to lose councils, we didn't. We hung on and we grew support in a lot of places," he said.

"Our party is standing up," he said, speaking in the northern city of Sheffield, where Labour won a parliamentary by-election.

Some sources, critical of Corbyn, said it was not the time to move against Corbyn, who still enjoys support from thousands of party members, many of whom joined the party because of him. But one source, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation, described the result as frustrating - a poor showing for a party at a time when the ruling Conservatives were deeply divided over a referendum on British membership of the European Union on June 23.

The lone bright spot for a party struggling to unite and hold the Conservative government to account may be the London mayoral election, where Labour candidate Sadiq Khan looks set to be the first Muslim to take the post.