UK Labour leader starts landmark conference with vote blow

27th September 2015, Comments 0 comments

New Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn failed to force a vote on the totemic issue of Britain's nuclear deterrent programme Trident as the party opened its annual conference on Sunday.

The 66-year-old, whose rise has been likened to Spain's Podemos and Greece's Syriza, won the leadership campaign after energising the party's grassroot membership, but could be set for a stormy conference debut as he confronts a divided party in Brighton, south England.

He faces battles with many of his parliamentarians on key issues, including Trident, the European Union, Syria, and welfare reforms.

His most fierce critics are centrists loyal to the "New Labour" project of former prime minister Tony Blair, but it was his supposed allies -- the unions and general members -- who scuppered his bid for a binding vote on Trident on Monday.

Centre-left newspaper the Guardian called it a "severe embarrassment" for the new leader.

Pacifist Corbyn, who is against renewing the programme, is at odds with members of his shadow cabinet over the issue, including deputy party leader Tom Watson.

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.

However, shadow justice secretary Richard Faulkner said that the party "needed ultimately... to put a prospectus to the British people".

New member Owen Findlay, who was inspired to join by Corbyn's victory, said he was disappointed by the non-vote, telling AFP the party needed to send "a clear signal" on the issue.

Earlier in the day, party moderates spoke out against Corbyn during a fringe event for centre-right faction LabourFirst.

Former shadow minister Rachel Reeves told centrists that "we will be back" while Richard Angell, the director of reformist group Progress, was cheered as he said "we need to rally against the Trots (Trotskyite leftists)".

- 'Don't do personal' -

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.

Long critical of the EU, Corbyn recently said he would likely campaign for Britain to remain within the 28-member 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 the public, and their resounding endorsement of Corbyn is something the new leader hopes to harness as he tries to win over 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 -

Corbyn has been repeatedly challenged since becoming leader over some of his more radical positions from his three-decade parliamentary career.

The conference had barely kicked off when Corbyn was questioned over his 1984 decision 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.


© 2015 AFP

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