(Bloomberg) -- Voting gets under way this week in the contest to be leader of the U.K.’s main opposition Labour Party, with incumbent Jeremy Corbyn the clear favorite to keep his job even though he’s lost the backing of most Labour members of Parliament.
Labour has been in turmoil since Corbyn, 67, who espouses a traditional socialist platform, surprisingly won the leadership in September 2015. The crisis deepened after June’s Brexit vote, with pro-European Union Labour lawmakers accusing Corbyn of failing to campaign effectively to keep Britain in the bloc. He saw most of his shadow cabinet resign and then lost a confidence vote among Labour MPs before being challenged by his former work and pensions spokesman, Owen Smith. A Corbyn win would raise the possibility the party might split.
Smith got a boost on Sunday with the backing of London Mayor Sadiq Khan, the most powerful Labour politician to hold elected office. Corbyn is “extremely unlikely” to lead Labour back to power, Khan wrote in the Observer newspaper. “Jeremy’s personal ratings are the worst of any opposition leader on record -– and the Labour Party is suffering badly as a result,” the mayor said. “I am afraid we simply cannot afford to go on like this.”
Hundreds of thousands of party members and registered supporters will receive e-mail or postal ballots starting Monday. The vote ends on Sept. 21, with the result expected to be announced three days later. Corbyn has an 88 percent chance of winning, according to odds published Sunday by bookmaker William Hill Plc. There have been no recent polls of those who can vote, amid legal wrangling over the eligibility criteria.
Most recent opinion polls show the Conservatives under new Prime Minister Theresa May more than 10 percentage points ahead of Labour. Corbyn failed to “show the leadership we desperately needed” during the EU referendum campaign, Khan said. “Why would things be different in a general election?”
The expansion of the party base with new predominantly left-wing members and supporters attracted by Corbyn has left it increasingly at odds with centrist Labour lawmakers. Some Members of Parliament have complained about abuse on social media. Jess Phillips, who represents a district in Birmingham in the West Midlands, has suggested she may quit Labour and sit as an independent if Corbyn is re-elected.
The crisis in Labour is the worst since the early 1980s, when it was also riven by splits between left and right. At that time, four leading centrists broke away to set up the Social Democratic Party with some initial electoral success. The Sunday Times newspaper reported that opponents of Corbyn are planning to set up a rebel group in Parliament to coordinate defiance of the leader from within the party as an alternative to a breakaway if he is re-elected.
Ahead of the start of voting, Corbyn announced proposals to switch more power from Parliament to local councils and regions, and to replace the unelected House of Lords with an elected second chamber. He also proposed increasing workers’ rights and giving unions more power to negotiate pay deals with employers.
“I am determined to democratize our country from the ground up and give people a real say in their communities and workplaces,” Corbyn said in an e-mailed statement. “That has to change –- so that the country works in the interests of the millions, and not just the millionaires.”
Smith will travel Monday to his home town in South Wales to make a personal pitch to Labour members about why he’s the best person to lead Labour and take on the Conservatives, his campaign team said.