Socialist Jeremy Corbyn elected UK opposition Labour leader

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 12, 2015 6:49 AM

By William James and Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) - Karl Marx admirer Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of Britain's opposition Labour party on Saturday, a victory that may make a British EU exit more likely and which one former Labour prime minister has warned could leave their party unelectable.

"Things can and they will change," Corbyn, 66, said in a victory speech which began with criticism of the British media for intrusive reporting and ended with a vow to achieve justice for the poor and downtrodden.

"I say thank you in advance to us all working together to achieve great victories, not just electorally for Labour, but emotionally for the whole of our society to show we don't have to be unequal, it doesn't have to be unfair, poverty isn't inevitable," he said.

Corbyn won 59.5 percent of the ballots cast, or 251,417 votes, in the leadership, winning in the first round. When the results were announced he was cheered and hugged, even by some of his rivals.

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.

"The Tories have used the economic crisis of 2008 to impose terrible burden on the poorest people in this country," Corbyn, dressed in a dark jacked and unbuttoned blue shirt, told supporters.

"I am fed up with the social cleansing of London by this Tory government," he said of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives.

Corbyn defeated two former Labour ministers, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, and Liz Kendall, regarded as the heir to Blair.

A left winger and parliamentary veteran with a long history of voting against his own party, Corbyn triumphed on a message of promising to increase government investment though money-printing and renationalizing vast swathes of the economy.

"OFF THE CLIFF?"

The prospect of a return to the party's socialist roots has drawn stark warnings that they will be annihilated in 2020 national elections by a British public that in May re-elected Cameron for a second term on a promise to cut spending.

"The party is walking eyes shut, arms outstretched over the cliff’s edge to the jagged rocks below," warned former centrist Labour prime minister Blair in one of three increasingly desperate pleas to voters to stop the Corbyn surge before the result was announced.

Some party members have even said Labour could split or that Corbyn would face a revolt by some lawmakers.

But by promising to increase, rather than cut, government investment though money-printing, Corbyn has found favor among disillusioned young voters and socialists who had drifted away from the party after nearly two decades battling for the political center ground.

The likely abandonment of the political center ground, particularly on the subject of balancing Britain's books, is seen by many as a gift for the Conservative Party that could herald a prolonged spell in power for the center-right party.

May's election result showed public backing for less state spending and to return the country to surplus by the end of the decade, while Britain's post-war election results show that elections are not won without the support of center-ground voters.

"Their whole debate seems to ignore what almost every other political party in almost every other country has now grasped," Cameron said on Friday, referring to Corbyn's anti-austerity views.

"It's arguing at the extremes of the debate, simply wedded to more and more spending, more and more borrowing and more and more taxes. And in that regard they pose a clear threat to the financial security of every family in Britain."

With Cameron having already ruled out a third term as prime minister, Corbyn's rise has put the long race to succeed him into focus. Chancellor George Osborne, Cameron's closest political ally, currently leads the pack ahead of colorful London Mayor Boris Johnson and interior minister Theresa May.

(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge)