Labour turns left with Corbyn

Labour turns left with Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn makes his inaugural speech as leader of the Labour Party at the Queen Elizabeth Centre in London on Saturday. (Reuters Photo)
Jeremy Corbyn makes his inaugural speech as leader of the Labour Party at the Queen Elizabeth Centre in London on Saturday. (Reuters Photo)

LONDON — The Labour Party in Britain has chosen its most socialist leader in at least 30 years, signalling a further drift away from the free-market policies that brought the party electoral success under Tony Blair.

Corbyn hailed "our party and our movement, passionate, democratic, diverse, united and absolutely determined in our quest for a decent and better society that is possible for all" in a speech at a party conference.

The veteran backbench MP won 59.5% of the vote to succeed Ed Miliband as opposition leader with his nearest rival, Andy Burnham, gaining 19%. A total of 422,664 votes were cast.

Corbyn's win represents a strong rejection of the more centrist policies of his predecessors and, in the view of most commentators, dooms the party to opposition for years to come.

Many senior leaders in the party oppose Corbyn, and many — including former Labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — had issued public warnings strongly urging voters to reject him, arguing that his socialist ideas would alienate moderate voters and make Labour unelectable.

Blair, who led Labour to three consecutive election victories, said the party faced "annihilation" under Corbyn.

But Corbyn attracted scores of enthusiastic new members and supporters to the party, many of them young and dissatisfied with the current state of British politics.

Corbyn has gone from obscurity as a backbench MP best known for opposing the Iraq war and frequently voting against his own party's policies, to leading Britain's main opposition party within just three months.

Supporters of the vegetarian and keen cyclist say his plain-talking style and anti-austerity policies, which have drawn comparisons to Greece's hard-left Syriza, will cut through public cynicism about politics.

His policy pledges include scrapping Britain's nuclear weapons, renationalising some industries such as the railways and involving Hamas and Hezbollah in Middle East peace talks.

The 66-year-old, an ardent republican, only stood for the leadership as a wild card following Labour's weak performance at May's general election won by Prime Minister David Cameron's centre-right Conservatives and started as 100-1 outsider.

Now he will go head-to-head with Cameron every week at Prime Minister's Questions, a fiery half-hour session in the House of Commons at which opposition leaders seek to establish their credentials as premiers in waiting.

Corbyn grew up in a political family — his parents met as activists during the Spanish Civil War — and worked for trade unions before being elected to the Commons in 1983.

He has never held any major office and was a serial backbench rebel, voting against his party's line repeatedly and championing human rights and policies to help the poor.

He opposed the now deeply unpopular 2003 invasion of Iraq under Blair, is against Cameron's austerity measures which have seen deep cuts to welfare and believes "we can learn a great deal" from Karl Marx.

So committed is he to socialism that his second marriage reportedly broke up over his opposition to sending his son to a state-run school that selects children by academic ability rather than a school open to all.

While many of Corbyn's views may be at odds with mainstream political opinion in Britain, that has not dented his support in his inner city London seat of Islington North, where he has won at eight successive general elections.

"He's a dry and wry old leftie, but he's a nice enough man to have a cup of tea with — and he is completely sincere in his rather eccentric political views," said Alex Burghart, who unsuccessfully stood against him there for the Conservatives this year.


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