LONDON (Reuters) - If Jeremy Corbyn, who voted ‘No’ to Europe in a 1975 referendum, wins the leadership of Britain’s main opposition party he could scupper hopes of bringing out millions of Labour voters to back European Union membership in a landmark vote.
Labour will on Saturday announce its new leader whose first major test will be to steer the 115-year-old party through an EU referendum that risks splitting Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party ahead of a national election due in 2020.
Corbyn, a hard-left admirer of Karl Marx who wants to return Labour to its socialist roots, is the surprise frontrunner in the leadership race after Ed Miliband led the party to its worst defeat since 1987.
Despite enthusiasm for Corbyn among party activists, many senior figures are aghast at the prospect of such a maverick hard-liner leading one of the great parties of Europe. Conservatives, and some in Labour, feel he will render his party completely unelectable.
A vegetarian who initially did not expect to win the contest, Corbyn has struck a chord with many Labour supporters by repudiating the pro-business consensus of former leader Tony Blair. Instead he has offered wealth taxes, nuclear disarmament and ambiguity about EU membership, something that Labour backs.
After first refusing to rule out campaigning to leave the EU, he then said he was not content with the current state of the EU but that did not mean he wants to walk away.
“What I want to see is greater social solidarity across Europe,” Corbyn told Reuters on the sidelines of a campaign event in Edinburgh last month. “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.”
The fear among pro-European campaigners is that Corbyn’s scepticism about the EU - if not outright opposition - could confuse Labour voters, who make up about a third of the electorate, when the referendum due by the end of 2017 is held.
“We are a pro-European party and should campaign to stay in,” Labour lawmaker and shadow minister Emma Reynolds told Reuters. “Whoever wins the leadership on Saturday should not attempt to duck or fudge this issue and we cannot afford to wait, we need a Labour ‘In’ campaign ... as soon as possible.”
“I worry if the party leadership doesn’t give it a clear steer ... it leaves things up in the air and I don’t think that would be good for the broader campaign to stay in or the Labour Party.”
During the 1975 referendum, while a local councillor in the London borough of Haringey, Corbyn voted ‘No’ to Britain’s membership of the European Community. Britain voted 67 to 33 to stay in.
“I did vote and I voted ‘No’,” Corbyn said.
Corbyn, 66, was first elected to parliament in 1983, the year Labour leader Michael Foot was defeated with a radically left-wing manifesto that included a pledge to withdraw Britain from the European Economic Community, which became the EU.
Though Labour’s leadership then embraced the EU, Corbyn in 1993 voted against ratifying the Maastricht Treaty that laid the groundwork for the modern European Union. He opposed the Conservative government opting out of the treaty chapter that set out employment rights.
In 2008 Corbyn opposed his party to vote against implementing the EU’s Lisbon Treaty and in 2011 he backed a Conservative lawmaker’s proposal to hold an EU referendum.
“It’s ok to be a bit sceptical about the European Union, but to be unsure fundamentally about where we as a party will be campaigning from is unfortunate,” said Labour lawmaker Neil Coyle, who nominated Corbyn for the leadership but is now backing the party’s home affairs spokeswoman Yvette Cooper.
“We need to be united in the pro-EU case.”
Corbyn has criticised EU leaders for failing to protect workers’ rights, opposed the bloc’s planned trade pact with the United States and accused the EU of allowing financiers to destroy Greece’s economy.
“There is no future for a usurious Europe that turns its smaller nations into colonies of debt peonage,” Corbyn, whose anti-austerity message has been compared to that of Greece’s Syriza, wrote in a blog for the Huffington Post.
Many in Labour believe Corbyn, an admirer of Venezuela’s stridently anti-American late president, Hugo Chavez, would risk dividing the party if he campaigned for Britain to leave.
“I don’t think that Jeremy is going to find very many people supporting him in the idea that we should leave the European Union,” said one senior Labour Party aide.
Opponents of the EU, such as Eurosceptic Nigel Farage, have described Corbyn’s rise as “very positive” for the ‘Out’ campaign and called on him to join those pushing for exit.
“In Mr Corbyn, Labour finally has a potential leader unwilling to sign up to the corporatist, bullying EU agenda in the usual unquestioning manner,” he wrote in the Telegraph this month. “There is a real space for the left in British politics today to make its case as to why we must leave the EU.”
Additional reporting by William James; editing by Guy Faulconbridge