UK Labour kicks off landmark conference

27th September 2015, Comments 0 comments

Britain's main opposition Labour Party opened its annual conference under blue skies on Sunday, but new leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn can expect a stormy debut with MPs divided on key issues.

The 66-year-old, whose policies have been compared to those of Spain's Podemos and Greece's Syriza, has been a thorn in the side of the party establishment during 30 years on the backbenches.

But he must now try to unite the party over the future of Trident -- Britain's nuclear deterrent programme -- the European Union, Syria, and welfare reforms.

His fiercest critics are the centrists loyal to the "New Labour" project of three-term prime minister Tony Blair.

His staunchest supporters are the grassroot supporters who swept him to a stunning victory earlier this month in a rejection of Blair's reforms.

Corbyn's first test will be outlined later Sunday when a formal decision will be taken on whether to debate Trident on Monday.

Pacifist Corbyn, who is against renewing the programme, has said the party vote will dictate Labour's policy on the issue, but he could suffer a damaging defeat as many senior MPs and unions are pro-Trident.

He played down fears of a high-level rift on Sunday, and hinted that he could allow the shadow cabinet to remain split on the issue.

"We are going to come to an accommodation of some sort," he told BBC television.

"There may end up being a difference of opinion. Is it so disastrous that politics has two opinions?"

- 'Not a great orator' -

However, he admitted that he did not know how the party would proceed if it voted against the shadow cabinet's wishes on the subject.

All eyes will be on Corbyn when he makes his keynote speech on Tuesday, where he is expected to shun the usual conventions.

"I don't do a lot of personal," he told The Observer newspaper, revealing that he wouldn't appear on stage with his wife or talk about his upbringing. It is also likely to be much shorter than recent speeches.

"I doubt he's looking forward to the leadership speech, he's not a great orator," former Blair policy strategist John McTernan told AFP.

Members will be keen to hear Corbyn clarify his position on the European Union.

The long-time eurosceptic recently said he would likely campaign to stay in the bloc in a referendum planned before the end of 2017.

Sunday will also give a chance for legions of new members to get their first taste of conference.

The party has welcomed around 150,000 new members since the leadership vote was thrown open to to the public, and their resounding endorsement of Corbyn is something the new leader hopes to harness as he does battle with dissenting MPs.

The leader said he wants to alter the way Labour decides its policies, allowing more direct involvement with rank-and-file supporters and diluting the power of the party's parliamentarians.

- 'Insurrection' claims -

The conference had barely kicked off when Corbyn was forced on the defensive over his decision in 1984 to invite members of Sinn Fein -- the political wing of the Irish Republican Army -- into parliament.

The invitation came weeks after the paramilitary group bombed Brighton's Grand Hotel, one of this year's conference venues, in an attempt to kill then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

"The violence was wrong on all sides and I have said so all along," Corbyn told the BBC.

"My whole point was if we are to bring about a peace process, you weren't going to achieve it by military means."

He was also forced to defend shadow finance minister John McDonnell's calls for an "insurrection" to overthrow the government, that were made in 2012 and which resurfaced in The Sunday Telegraph newspaper.

"Is John in favour of insurrection? No he's not -- it was a colourful use of words," he said.

The appointment of McDonnell was criticised by other members of his own shadow cabinet, highlighting the challenge in keeping mutineers at bay.

"I understand the problems ahead, I see all the difficulties," he told The Observer.


© 2015 AFP

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