Renegade backbencher eyes UK Labour Party takeover

Vote has fast become one of the most colourful and controversial election contests in British political history.

Labour Party leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn election campaigning in west London [Reuters]
Labour Party leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn election campaigning in west London [Reuters]

Glasgow, United Kingdom After the UK general election secured an unlikely majority for the Conservative Party four months ago, it appeared excitement over voting would die down for another five years.

But the opposition Labour Party is seeking to fill its vacant leader’s role, and the vote has fast become one of the most colourful and controversial election contests in British political history with rank outsider Jeremy Corbyn looking the odds on favourite to assume the mantle on Saturday.

“The person who’s looking very likely to win is someone who is so far from the mainstream of his own party – he’s on the extreme left-wing of the Labour Party,” Mark Thompson, a political blogger and commentator, told Al Jazeera.

“There are so many things that flow from that, not least, I don’t really understand how he would form a shadow cabinet as the vast majority of the party’s backbench [MPs] don’t agree with quite a lot of the platform that he’s standing on for the leadership.”

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Corbyn, 66, a member of parliament since 1983, began Labour’s contest to succeed Ed Miliband as the “token” left-wing candidate who many concluded would struggle to impose himself on his three younger and more mainstream challengers.

But the veteran anti-war politician, who has himself forged a career out of rebelling against the Labour leadership, stands on the brink of taking the reins of a 115-year-old party that has not tasted general election success at Westminster since 2005.

Radical platform

Corbyn’s opponents, Andy Burnham, once seen as the favourite for Labour’s top job, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendall entered the race as the slick, more centrist candidates, with the former two boasting past ministerial experience.

Corbyn, having never occupied a ministerial post in his long political career as a backbencher, did so on a more radical platform – promoting an anti-austerity, anti-nuclear, and anti-NATO agenda that has appeared to capture the mood of a great many Labour Party members and supporters.

Yet, for some observers, Corbyn’s apparent success in leading the field owes less to what he is saying, and more to how he is saying it.

“My guess is that the most important part of what he offers is the way in which it is delivered, rather than the politics itself,” Ian Dunt, editor of, told Al Jazeera.

“I don’t think that this is some great resurgence of the hard-left as some people are suggesting. I think there is an incredible amount of demand for people who look like they are outside the Westminster party mould.”

The quietly spoken and unassuming Labour leadership front-runner has built up such a lead in the polls that some in his own party have been moved to publicly fear for the future of Labour.

Many Labour big hitters, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who led the party to three consecutive election victories, have warned that a Corbyn victory on a hard-left agenda could set back their quest for power for a generation.

For its part, the Conservative Party is so sure that a Corbyn-led Labour opposition would make it an unelectable force in the 2020 general election that many Conservative supporters are reportedly believed to have infiltrated the party in order to vote for the veteran left-winger.

Indeed, a new party rule allowing non-members to pay a 3-pound ($5) fee to cast their ballot in the contest has sown chaos and confusion in Labour ranks, with party officials forced to root out thousands of potential voters suspected of not being genuine supporters.

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Elsewhere on opposition benches, Britain’s other political parties are looking to make their own impact in this new parliament. The stunning rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the dramatic fall of the Liberal Democrats have turned Westminster on its head.

The SNP – which mushroomed from just six MPs to a staggering 56 in May’s general election, out of 59 Scottish constituencies – has been making hay as the House of Commons’ third-largest party, replacing the Liberal Democrats who collapsed from 57 to eight.

As the governing party at the Scottish Parliament since 2007, the pro-independence SNP – which saw its membership numbers swell after defeat in its independence referendum last September – arrived at Westminster intent on shaking up the establishment.

Yet, SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, whose party swept to victory in May on the back of her left-wing, anti-austerity platform, will be looking over her shoulder should Corbyn win on Saturday, say many observers.

“Corbyn is clearly a threat to some part of the SNP’s dominance,” said Gerry Hassan, a Scottish political commentator and author.

Hassan told Al Jazeera many Scots who voted Yes to independence in September 2014 were of the “old-fashioned left” who could warm to a Corbyn-led Labour Party.

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“If Corbyn became a success, then clearly we’d be in a different terrain,” added Hassan.

‘Easy prey’

A Palestinian rights campaigner, Corbyn has come under fire for his past meetings with members of Hamas and Hezbollah, prompting some – especially on the right – to label him an anti-Semite.

Others have speculated on the chances of him being ousted in a leadership coup even before the votes have been counted. Yet should he prevail, how would Corbyn fare?

“I think he’d probably enjoy quite a strong poll bounce – all new leaders enjoy a strong political start right out of the stalls,” said Dunt, adding widespread opinion in Westminster has it that Labour would tear itself apart under a Corbyn leadership.

Thompson contended that Corbyn at Labour’s helm would make easy prey for his Conservative rivals come the next general election.

“In the end, Conservative [Party HQ] would absolutely annihilate him,” said Thompson.

“There would be day after day, week after week, month after month of pictures of him in the paper with [Irish republican] Gerry Adams, Muslim extremists, and other people he’s shared platforms with that haven’t come out of the woodwork yet… It would just be relentless.”

Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi

Source: Al Jazeera


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