UK's Labour gears up for watershed conference

25th September 2015, Comments 0 comments

Britain's opposition Labour Party will on Sunday begin its most fractious annual conference in a generation following the recent landslide election of leftwing radical Jeremy Corbyn as its leader.

Elected by Labour supporters on an anti-austerity platform, the long-time opponent of former Labour prime minister Tony Blair will take centre stage at the four-day conference in Brighton, southern England.

But the gathering will be no victory parade for a new leader who is caught between sceptical MPs associated with Blair and the centrist "New Labour" and the grassroot members who voted for him on a pure-left platform.

"Corbyn has got to tread a tricky path between surrendering to the MPs... and totally alienating them," said Alex Callinicos, a political expert at King's College London.

"If he doesn't give red meat to the people who voted for him, they won't support him against the MPs."

Kim Howells, a former junior minister under Blair, warned that MPs were gearing up for a "civil war".

"A bunch of old Trotskyites are not going to win political power," he said.

Such criticism from within his own ranks has added to the pressure on Labour's new leader, who has already been lambasted by the rightwing press for failing to sing the national anthem "God Save the Queen" at a ceremony.

The centre-left New Statesman magazine set the tone for a clash with a front cover showing Corbyn pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein with Blair's face on it -- a doubly bitter satire because of Corbyn's staunch opposition to the Iraq War.

- 'Emblematic issue' -

Divisions from that time have rankled over the years and many issues now pit leftwingers against centrists although the main battleground at the conference is likely to be Britain's Trident nuclear-armed submarine system.

Pacifist Corbyn wants the programme scrapped but other Labour members argue that Britain's nuclear-armed status underpins its standing as a diplomatic power.

The conference is to vote on the issue on Monday, which will give Corbyn a chance to flex his muscles, said John McTernan, a former senior aide to Blair.

"It is an emblematic issue for him and he knows it's massively emblematic for the moderates in the Labour Party, so he intends to fight and win to show who is in charge," said McTernan.

One issue that has already caused divisions is Britain's membership of the European Union, which will be decided in a referendum promised by Prime Minister David Cameron by the end of 2017.

The Labour Party has been stridently pro-EU for a generation, but Corbyn is a veteran eurosceptic who voted to leave the project in 1975, believing it to be a free-market economic project.

Corbyn has toned down his refusal to back Britain's EU membership in recent days by saying he could not see a scenario in which his party would campaign to leave.

- 'Going nowhere' -

Other splits have arisen over his shadow cabinet, in particular his choice of ally John McDonnell as finance minister.

A firebrand socialist, McDonnell recently apologised for calling for Irish Republican Army (IRA) members to be honoured and he once joked about "assassinating" former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

One of the conference venues is the Brighton Grand hotel, which IRA bombers blew up in 1984 in an unsuccessful bid to kill Thatcher.

The new leader has also refused to say whether he would attend a high-profile reception for business figures, in a further potential break from Blair's "New Labour" era.

Centrist MP Simon Danczuk has accused Corbyn's allies of trying to "drum" dissenters out of the party, but potential mutineers within Labour's parliamentary ranks must also walk a tightrope.

Sam Fairbairn, national secretary of anti-austerity group The People's Assembly, called it "a very optimistic time" for the left, and said that Corbyn's public mandate meant rebels "will find it harder than they'd like to oppose what he wants to do".

Labour is set to receive around £4 million ($6.1 million, 5.5 million euros) a year from a surge in membership since the leadership campaign kicked off.

But bookmakers heavily favour the Conservatives to win the 2020 election.

"He's got control of one of the world's great historic reforming social democratic political parties and he's got a project to turn it into an ultra-left and unelectable party," McTernan said.

"He's going nowhere."


© 2015 AFP

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