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UK's Labour Party puts on show of unity despite divisions over Corbyn

© Leon Neal, AFP | Jeremy Corbyn at the Labour Party Conference

Text by Hervé AMORIC

Latest update : 2015-10-07

FRANCE 24 speaks to Jeremy Corbyn, the leftist new leader of the Labour Party, who faced all of the Labour Party – including former ministers of the Blair era who have sworn to oust him – for the first time Monday at the party’s annual conference.

In public, the Labour leadership is putting on a show of unity at its annual party conference, which is taking place in the seaside resort of Brighton, in the south of England, from Sunday to Wednesday. But in private, followers of the centrist New Labour movement begun by Tony Blair in the 1990s told FRANCE 24 that they are as surprised as they are angered by Corbyn’s election as leader.

“I am attending the conference as a backbencher for the first time in 30 years,” MP Ivan Lewis, who served as junior minister in the foreign office in former premier Gordon Brown’s government, told FRANCE 24.

“Nobody could have anticipated that Jeremy Corbyn would ever become the leader of the Labour Party, a man who has rebelled against the leadership over 500 times in recent years. This is unchartered territory,” he said.

A fortnight ago, Corbyn’s controversial victory swung Labour to the hard left.

“We’ve attracted more people into the Labour Party than ever before,” Corbyn told FRANCE 24. “Young people who have never been involved in party political activity before, but are quite political... An awful lot of people are very interested in a genuine political alternative.”

 >>>>Leftist, monastic, vegetarian: how the French view Corbyn ‘le Rouge’<<<<

What precisely this alternative is remains to be defined but the new leader of the British left has made his position clear on a number of symbolic issues. He wants to re-nationalise some public services, raise taxes on higher earners, introduce a “Robin Hood” tax on banking or financial transactions while hammering down corporate tax avoidance. He is also bitterly opposed to Britain’s hugely expensive Trident nuclear defence programme.

“We have a massive movement of over half a million members who are involved, that's definitely a strength of the new leadership” Peckham (London) Councillor Johnson Situ said. “The challenge for the party, as I'm sure Jeremy Corbyn would say, is keeping all those young people involved and keeping them developed as the party develops.”

Barrister and Young Fabian officer Sara Ibrahim praised Corbyn’s openness. “One thing I have been very cheered by is that Jeremy has been very keen to have debate in the party, and that is to include everybody – and I think that is the only way we will have everybody united and get the Labour government this country actually needs.”

Off-camera, however, Labour executives have acknowledged that the feud between left and centre, which haunted the party in the 1980s during the Thatcher years, will be hard to avoid.

When they chose their leader, “93% of Labour MPs didn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn, not because they put him second or third, but because they think he is a repelling magnet for voters, the worst possible leader Labour could have”, Channel 4 Television political editor Gary Gibbon explained.

“Privately, what they are saying is that he is a disaster for Labour, and they need to get rid of him – preferably, without leaving their own fingerprints on the dagger.”

Who will set the date for Corbyn’s Ides of March? One of the most respected political experts in Britain warned against underestimating the MP from the traditionally left-wing North Islington constituency in north London.

”Jeremy Corbyn is making nice, being very gentle and emollient in all directions,”said journalist and former BBC political editor Andrew Marr. “At the same time, under the surface, this party is being changed radically, by bringing in lots of new members who've not been in the Labour Party before and have very strong views, and he's going to give them the power to change policy."

Before the next general election, the British constituency map could change, with the number of members of Parliament significantly reduced.

The plotters – even those who were once senior ministers – may well find themselves without a seat in Westminster. They may even be deselected by their own constituency association.

Labour may well experience a serious shake-up over the long winter ahead.

Date created : 2015-09-29

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