EDINBURGH (Reuters) - The man expected to win control of Britain’s opposition Labour Party has charted a potential collision course with Prime Minister David Cameron over Europe, demanding socialist reforms before pledging the party’s support at an in/out referendum.
Labour supporters are voting in a month-long contest to select a leader whose first major test will be to steer the 115-year-old party through a referendum on Britain’s EU membership by the end of 2017 ahead of a national election in 2020.
Jeremy Corbyn, a 66-year-old admirer of Karl Marx who opinion polls show is most likely to win the Labour leadership, has said he is not content with the current state of the EU but that he does not want to walk away from the 28-member union.
“What I want to see is greater social solidarity across Europe,” Corbyn told Reuters on the sidelines of a campaign event in Edinburgh. “I’m for a sort of social, environmental, solidarity agenda rather than a market agenda.”
When asked if Labour would campaign to leave the EU if Cameron - who has never specified “social solidarity” as a priority - failed to deliver those reforms, he said:
“We would have to have a discussion in the Labour party on this, maybe a special conference.”
“There are many views on Europe in the Labour Party and I wouldn’t want to suppress any of those views.”
Among Cameron’s key aims are limiting in-work benefits for EU migrants, cutting back regulation, increasing free trade and ensuring British interests are not damaged if the euro zone integrates more deeply.
Corbyn’s EU reform ideas open up the possibility that, if he becomes leader, Britain’s second most influential political party could oppose Cameron’s renegotiated settlement with the EU and campaign to leave the world’s largest economic bloc.
Though defeated in May, Labour took 30 percent of the vote and can get the vote out in swathes of northern England and Wales.
After Labour’s worst election defeat since 1987, four contenders are battling in a selection process characterised by Labour’s most successful leader, Tony Blair, as a tug of war between the party’s head and its heart.
If Corbyn wins control of the second largest party in the British parliament, he has signalled he would return the party to its socialist roots, a dramatic shift away from the centre ground which Blair sought to stake out for Labour in the 1990s.
Blair, a pro-European who won the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections, has said Labour faces annihilation if it picks Corbyn, who has struck a distinctly more sceptical tone over Britain’s EU membership.
Corbyn, first elected as a lawmaker in the 1983 election when Labour stood on a radically socialist and anti-European platform, has criticised the EU for being beholden to multinational corporations and bankers.
A supporter of the free movement of people in Europe, Corbyn said Labour should play a more active role in lobbying Cameron to shape his EU renegotiation agenda.
“The Labour party should be making those demands now rather than leaving it to David Cameron to go and talk to whoever he wants to talk to and come back with whatever suggestions he does,” he said.
The three other candidates to lead the party have all expressed a desire to campaign for Britain to stay in the EU
Though Cameron’s ruling Conservative Party is deeply divided over Europe, Labour also split over Europe during the 1975 referendum over Britain’s membership.
Rivals have accused the vegetarian Corbyn of trying to drag the party back to 1983 when Labour suffered one of its worst ever defeats by offering a manifesto dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”.
Often dressed in the style of a university lecturer complete with several pens visible in his shirt pocket, Corbyn has promised to renationalise privately owned industries, print money to fund large-scale infrastructure investment and raise taxes on businesses and the rich.
“Why do we waste so much talent through poverty? Why do we waste so many of our resources on subsidising the rich and very powerful?” he said. “We can do things differently, that’s the hope that I think our campaign offers.”
Few outside of political circles would have recognised Corbyn before he put his name forward in the leadership contest in the interest of broadening the debate about the party’s future.
“It was a high risk strategy because we had no knowledge we were going to get on the ballot paper, but we did,” Corbyn says, recalling a fraught effort to secure the necessary nominations from fellow MPs.
“We had two minutes to spare, it was easy,” he says with a wry smile.
Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Giles Elgood