Corbyn: earthy leftwing leader who splits UK's Labour


Liverpool (AFP)

Opposed by most of his MPs and lionised by grassroots activists, socialist Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected Saturday as leader of Britain's opposition Labour, but takes his party into an increasingly uncertain future.

The 67-year-old, first elected as leader last year, increased his support, roundly defeating opponent Owen Smith thanks to support from party members and supporters, even though most lawmakers want him gone.

His anti-establishment, left-wing credentials have endeared him to voters disillusioned with mainstream politics, as has his image as a man of principle standing up for ordinary people.

But centrist MPs argue that his policies -- which include scrapping nuclear weapons and opposing austerity measures -- will never draw enough support from voters to win a general election.

Corbyn spent decades on the backbenches of parliament, where his left-wing views have long been out of fashion, before his surprise election as Labour leader last September.

Rumbling criticism of his leadership style turned into open rebellion after June's referendum vote to leave the European Union, which critics say Corbyn did not do enough to prevent, but he refused to stand aside.

The row over the direction of the 116-year-old party has only deepened since little-known MP Smith launched a leadership challenge against him in July.

Corbyn seems to have relished the contest, holding rallies around the country, and looks likely to win an even larger mandate than last year.

While he has promised to "wipe the slate clean" and move on following the fight, some commentators believe that his opponents could still split off and form a rival party.

- Trade union background -

Born into a political family -- his parents met as activists in Britain during the Spanish Civil War -- Corbyn worked for trade unions before being elected to the House of Commons in 1983.

Prior to becoming leader, he had never held major office and was a serial backbench rebel, voting against his party's line repeatedly and championing human rights and policies to help the poor.

So committed is he to socialism that his second marriage reportedly broke up over his opposition to sending his son to an academically selective school, rather than one open to all.

He is currently married to Laura Alvarez, who runs a company importing coffee from her native Mexico, and they have a cat named El Gato -- Spanish for "the cat".

Corbyn does not have a car, instead riding a bicycle around his north London constituency in Islington, where some of the poorest and richest people in Britain live side-by-side.

His image is low-key -- he rejects the sharp suits and smart haircuts of modern politics, rarely wearing a tie, and his hobbies include making jam, gardening and spotting manhole covers.

Corbyn insists he has a normal life and is "not wealthy", although he earns £138,000 (160,000 euros, $180,000) a year.

- 'Incompetent and self-righteous' -

Labour's polling numbers are weak, suggesting that if Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May called an early general election, the opposition would suffer a crushing defeat.

An Ipsos MORI poll released on September 15 gave the Conservatives 40 percent support compared with 34 percent for Labour.

Critics blame Corbyn, saying that his anti-war, anti-nuclear, high-tax, high-spending views are rooted in a different age.

Supporters say he has often been on the right side of history, citing his campaigning against apartheid in South Africa and Britain's involvement in the 2003 Iraq war.

His opposition to austerity has struck a chord among many people and Labour party membership has more than doubled to half a million since he stood for the leadership.

"People see in Corbyn a new form of politics, where people care for the poor and downtrodden," said Philip John Rosser, a 61-year-old party member.

Colleagues in parliament complain that he is uncooperative, however, and accuse some of his supporters of trying to bully and intimidate those who oppose him.

Veteran centrist Labour lawmaker Alan Johnson described Corbyn in a recent interview as "totally incompetent" and "self-righteous".