7 U.K. Labour MPs quit party over leader's approach to Brexit, anti-Semitism

Seven British lawmakers quit the main opposition Labour Party on Monday over its approach to various issues, including Brexit and anti-Semitism — the biggest shakeup in years for one of Britain's major political parties.

Jeremy Corbyn's handling of EU divorce process, accusations of anti-Semitism have soured many Labour lawmakers

Jeremy Corbyn,leader of the Labour Party, Britain's Official Opposition in Parliament, has faced criticism from within his own ranks for his approach to Brexit. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

Seven British lawmakers quit the main opposition Labour Party on Monday over its approach to various issues, including Brexit and anti-Semitism — the biggest shakeup in years for one of Britain's major political parties.

The announcement ripped open a long-simmering rift between socialists and centrists in the party, which sees itself as the representative of Britain's working class. It's also the latest fallout from Britain's decision to leave the European Union, which has split both of the country's two main Conservative and Labour parties into pro-Brexit and pro-EU camps.

Many Labour lawmakers are unhappy with the party's direction under leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran socialist who took charge in 2015 with strong grassroots backing.

They accuse him of mounting a weak opposition to the Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May's plans for leaving the European Union and failing to stamp out a vein of anti-Jewish prejudice in the party.

The quitters represent only a small fraction of Labour's 256 lawmakers, or of the 650 total MPs in Parliament.

But this is the biggest split in the party since four senior members quit in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party.

'Institutionally anti-Semitic'

Luciana Berger, one of the MPs who announced she is leaving, said Labour has become "institutionally anti-Semitic."

"I am leaving behind a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation," she said at a news conference alongside six colleagues.

Labour leaders have admitted that Berger, who is Jewish, has been bullied by some members of her local party in northwest England.

Labour has been riven by allegations that the party has become hostile to Jews under Corbyn, a longtime supporter of the Palestinians. Corbyn's supporters accuse political opponents and right-wing media outlets of misrepresenting his views.

'Complicit in facilitating Brexit'

There have long been signs that the 2016 decision by British voters to leave the EU could spark a major overhaul of British politics. May's Conservatives are in the throes of a civil war between pro-Brexit and pro-EU wings. Labour is also split.

Many Labour members oppose Brexit — which is due on March 29 — and want the party to fight to hold a new referendum that could keep Britain in the 28-nation bloc.

But Corbyn, who spent decades criticizing the EU before becoming a lukewarm convert to the "remain" cause in the 2016 referendum, is reluctant to do anything that could be seen as defying voters' decision to leave.

The seven MPs leaving the Labour Party on Monday are, from left: Ann Coffey, Angela Smith, Chris Leslie, Mike Gapes, Luciana Berger, Gavin Shuker and Chuka Umunna. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)

"I am furious that the leadership is complicit in facilitating Brexit, which will cause great economic, social and political damage to our country," said Mike Gapes, one of the departing lawmakers.

The seven lawmakers said they will continue to sit in Parliament as the newly formed Independent Group.

Corbyn said he was "disappointed that these MPs have felt unable to continue to work together for the Labour policies that inspired millions at the last election and saw us increase our vote by the largest share since 1945."

The Labour lawmakers who quit in 1981 eventually became today's Liberal Democrats, a centrist party that has failed to topple the dominance of the two bigger parties.

The new group of seven stopped short of forming a new political party, but the seeds have been sown. The new group has a name, a website and a statement of principles, which argues for a mix of pro-business and social-welfare measures, and a pro-Western foreign policy that is closer to the so-called New Labour of former prime minister Tony Blair than to Corbyn's old-school socialism.

Their statement said the Labour Party "now pursues policies that would weaken our national security; accepts the narratives of states hostile to our country; has failed to take a lead in addressing the challenge of Brexit and to provide a strong and coherent alternative to the Conservatives' approach."

U.K. voters 'feel politically homeless'

The departing lawmakers said they would not be joining the Liberal Democrats, and urged members of other parties to help them create a new centrist force in British politics.

"We do not think any of the major parties is fit for power," said Angela Smith. "People feel politically homeless, and they are asking and begging for an alternative."

Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in politics at the University of Leeds, said history suggests the breakaway group will struggle to gain traction in British politics.

"It's very cold out there as an Independent," she said. "It's all well and good leaving because you believe the party has moved away from you, but you can often achieve more from being inside the tent."