LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s opposition Labour Party faces “annihilation” if it makes left-wing lawmaker Jeremy Corbyn its next leader, former prime minister Tony Blair said on Thursday, warning party members they are “walking eyes shut, arms outstretched, over the cliff’s edge.”
Voting begins on Friday in a month-long four-way leadership contest triggered by Labour’s defeat in a national election in May. Opinion polls show Corbyn, who wants to steer the party back towards its socialist roots, has a large lead over his rivals.
The prospect of a Corbyn-led party has put Labour in “danger more mortal today than at any point in the over 100 years of its existence”, Blair wrote in the Guardian newspaper. Labour’s most successful leader, Blair won three national elections from 1997 to 2005 on a centrist platform.
“If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader it won’t be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election,” Blair wrote. “It will mean rout, possibly annihilation.”
Corbyn, a 66-year-old parliamentary veteran, has won the support of party activists and gained endorsements from Labour’s trade union financial backers with calls to re-nationalise swaths of the economy, including rail networks and the energy sector.
Rarely seen in more formal dress than a rumpled jacket and open-necked beige shirt - complete with white vest showing underneath - Corbyn has energised voters disillusioned by what they see as bland, polished centrist politicians.
The centrepiece of his anti-austerity stance, designed to tap into voter discontent over a second five-year cost-cutting Conservative government, is a proposal to fund massive infrastructure investment by asking the Bank of England to print money - a so-called “quantitative easing for the people”.
Blair’s intervention is his second in the leadership race. He previously told supporters that elections could not be won from a left-wing platform.
“Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t offer anything new,” Blair wrote on Thursday. “These are policies from the past that were rejected not because they were too principled, but because a majority of the British people thought they didn’t work.”
Corbyn ally, the former mayor of London Ken Livingstone, dismissed Blair’s criticism as “appalling”.
“Tony Blair clearly hasn’t read Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto, because it’s not going back to the 1980s, it’s dealing with the problems we’ve got now,” he told BBC radio.
But another Labour figure, former foreign secretary and interior minister Jack Straw, said the money-printing plan was “economic illiteracy ... of the worst order” and warned it could send Britain’s economy into an inflationary spiral.
“We know from the history of the Weimar Republic, we know from Venezuela and you can see the beginnings of this in Greece, that it’s bound to end in tears,” he told the BBC.
Labour will announce its new leader on Sept. 12 after a ballot of party members, affiliated trade union members and other registered supporters.
Corbyn’s main rivals for the position - former ministers Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper - are campaigning on a promise to broaden the party’s appeal without a radical shift in policy. The fourth candidate, Liz Kendall, has embraced Blair’s centrist approach but is lagging in opinion polls.
Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan, editing by Michael Holden and Larry King