LONDON (Reuters) - Reeling from their worst defeat in decades, senior figures in the Labour Party want to tack to the centre to win back voters, but party activists are rallying behind a leftist stalwart who says it is time to get radical.
Labour is so divided over the choice of a leader to replace failed prime ministerial candidate Ed Miliband that some are questioning whether the party that created Britain’s welfare state and health service can even hold together.
Party heavyweights who served as cabinet ministers under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from 1997-2010 have been issuing increasingly panicked warnings that a lurch to the left would consign Labour to electoral oblivion.
But a rising chorus of activists and trade union bosses say the centrists that ran Labour for two decades betrayed its roots in the last election, making the party pointless by parroting the policies of their Conservative opponents.
They have found their champion in Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran socialist lawmaker and peace campaigner with no government ministerial experience, who has emerged as unlikely frontrunner to become the party’s leader and prime ministerial candidate.
A rank outsider who barely managed to get his name on the ballot, Corbyn, 66, is now a favourite of pollsters and bookmakers to defeat two former cabinet ministers for the job when results of an internal vote are announced on Sept. 12.
His surge mirrors the success of radical leftists from Greece to Spain, who have tapped into anger at the way Europe’s mainstream centre-left parties embraced austerity policies since the 2008 financial crisis.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling Conservatives are overjoyed. The right-wing Daily Telegraph even urged Conservative readers to sign up as Labour supporters and vote for Corbyn, to help “doom the party forever” by saddling it with a “bearded socialist voter-repellent” as party leader.
The shrillest warnings have come directly from Blair, Labour’s longest-serving prime minister, who brought the party back from 18 years in the wilderness to win three elections. He intervened in the leadership contest with a speech last month to defend his centrist legacy.
“You win from the centre, you win when you appeal to a broad cross-section ... You don’t win from a traditional leftist position,” Blair said.
But polls suggest more Labour activists agree with Corbyn, who says the party alienated voters in May’s election with an “austerity light” platform that presented no real alternative to the cuts favoured by Cameron.
“I think we can win an awful lot of people back to Labour, we can win an awful lot of people into the political spectrum, by offering something that is clear, that is radical, that does offer better hope,” Corbyn told reporters after Blair’s speech.
While Blair and his allies argue that elections are won in the centre, leftists say that old adage no longer holds. They point out that Labour was wiped out in Scotland in May by an anti-austerity surge of nationalists, who won 56 of 59 Scottish seats while seizing Labour’s traditional ground on the left.
“Whether there’s been a change in what the party wants, or whether it’s just out in the open now: the rank and file membership of the Labour Party is quite left-wing,” said David Stockdale, a Labour city councillor in north-east England.
“What’s changed is the belief that we can do it ... left-wing principles and ideals can energise people, and we can lead a Labour Party on a left-wing agenda that can win back this country in 2020.”
BATTLE FOR PARTY‘S SOUL
Corbyn has surged in surveys of the party faithful since last month, when he was the only Labour leadership candidate to vote in parliament against a Conservative welfare bill that included deep cuts to tax credits that top up the income of low-paid workers.
Labour’s interim leader Harriet Harman had ordered the party’s MPs to abstain rather than vote against the measure, saying Labour had to show voters it was serious about managing state finances and reforming welfare benefits.
Corbyn said the opposition’s job was to oppose laws that would increase poverty. The Conservative budget ”continues the asset-stripping, managed decline of our country,“ he said. ”This is a path to economic decline and failure.”
The battle for the soul of the party dates to the 1980s when left-wingers last won a struggle with moderates, teeing up a crushing 1983 election defeat at the hands of Conservative heroine Margaret Thatcher.
Then-Labour leader Michael Foot’s left-wing manifesto was dubbed the “longest suicide note in history” by a colleague.
When Blair took over as leader more than a decade later, he steered for the centre, ditching a clause in the party charter calling for “common ownership of the means of production”.
A new attitude toward wealth was typified by Blair confidant and cabinet minister Peter Mandelson, known for partying on the superyachts of Russian oligarchs, who pronounced the new government “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”.
Despite Blair’s electoral success, his years in power often sat awkwardly with rank-and-file Labour members, especially after his decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Today, Blair is a hate figure for many on the party’s left, ridiculed for a lucrative post-prime ministerial career abroad as an after dinner speaker and consultant to foreign autocrats.
Corbyn, a teetotal vegetarian who wears a rumpled beige jacket and takes the late night city bus home from work in parliament, could hardly present a stronger contrast.
Communication Workers Union chief Dave Ward, one of the many trades union bosses who have endorsed Corbyn, said Labour had been infected with a “virus”, and Corbyn was “the antidote”.
Corbyn’s main opponents from the party’s establishment wing are Andy Burnham, a former health secretary, and Yvette Cooper, a former welfare secretary. Burnham, with a working class northern English background, is seen as likelier to lure over left-leaning activists, while Cooper benefits from the appeal of being potentially the party’s first permanent female leader.
Many pundits still expect Corbyn will lose to Burnham or Cooper. Under the party’s voting system, unless a candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, second choices are counted. If enough supporters of one establishment candidate pick the other as second best, they could keep Corbyn out.
But even if he loses, Corbyn’s rise has already made it hard for the eventual winner to ignore pressure from the left.
Burnham nodded to radicals in a speech last month, arguing that the party in which he had been a major figure for a decade had become so timid it was no longer capable of achievements like founding the National Health Service, its proudest boast.
“Somewhere along the way, we lost the ability to think big, to dare to dream. We have become frightened of our own shadow, lacking the courage or capacity to bring about major social change,” said Burnham.
Meanwhile, insiders worry that the battle is sending a message that Labour cares more about its ideological feuds than picking the best person to be Britain’s next prime minister.
“There are not many moments when busy people look up and pay attention to politics,” said Alex Belardinelli, former adviser to Ed Balls, a former Labour cabinet minister married to Cooper. “The election of a new leader is one of those moments.”
Editing by Peter Graff