Corbyn tightens grip on UK Labour, but bigger battles loom

Newly elected leader of Britain's opposition Labour party Jeremy Corbyn leaves the Party's headquarters in London on September 14, 2015.
PHOTO: AFP

BRIGHTON, United Kingdom - Labour's new leader Jeremy Corbyn emerged from his first party conference seemingly reinforced as its leader after a bid to convince the British public he is not too radical to be prime minister.

Having won the leadership thanks to rank-and-file members, the left-wing campaigner was expected to clash with sceptical MPs on a range of key issues, but largely dodged direct confrontation.

"He tried to use this conference as a way of reassuring the world outside that he's not dangerous... that his policies are not completely crazy as the right-wing media and the prime minister have been describing him," said Eunice Goes, Associate Professor of Politics at Richmond University.

Ahead of the conference, the Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron had described Corbyn as a "threat to our national security".

Corbyn avoided a potentially damaging vote on the future of Britain's nuclear defence deterrent Trident - to which he is opposed - although deep divisions on the hot-button issue flared up on Wednesday.

The newly elected leader reiterated his position that he would not use nuclear weapons if he became prime minister, adding that they "didn't do the USA much good on 9/11".

His own shadow foreign minister Hilary Benn said that "any prime minister has to have the option" of using nuclear weapons, while the party's top official for defence, Maria Eagle, said the comment was not helpful.

Corbyn said he would try to resolve such divisions by persuasion, promising to introduce a "new type of politics" that would involve consensual policy making.

"You can see that this is someone with no experience in power and he is realising that he needs to take firm positions," said Iain Begg, a professor at the London School of Economics.

"He is going through a kind of very quick initiation... It didn't go too badly with people in the hall and party members. It's with MPs that he has difficulties because most of them are sceptical of him."

'Not the Messiah'

Corbyn's speech and its call for a firmer anti-austerity stance was mostly well-received at the conference, although it lacked firm policy announcements and was panned by many political commentators.

But Peter Mandelson, architect of the "New Labour" project hated by the "Corbynites", admitted there was little chance of him being deposed soon.

"Nobody will replace him... until he demonstrates to the party his unelectability at the polls," he said.

Corbyn's strength could be defined by emerging battles over the control of the party's internal machine, which will decide who fills key roles.

"The right part of the party... will give him until maybe a year to prove himself," said Goes, predicting that attacks from within his party would "undermine his authority, slowly but surely." Potential conflicts over the European Union and Syria failed to materialise at the conference, and most swiping came from allies of centrist former leader Tony Blair on the sidelines.

Corbyn is an little-known quantity with the British public, and his ability to convince swing voters is in focus after the electorate awarded the centre-right Conservative party a majority in May.

His conference speech, a rare opportunity for opposition leaders to reach wide audiences, was ridiculed in the British press.

Britain's biggest-selling daily The Sun, which endorsed the Conservatives in the election, called Corbyn's speech "incoherent, dishonest, irrelevant, pitiful drivel... the disjointed ramblings of a dreary career protester".

"He won a hearing, not the argument," wrote the left-leaning Guardian in an editorial. "This was not a speech aimed beyond the Labour tent." Headlines also mocked Corbyn for using material crafted by a speechwriter in the 1980s, and his choice of a red tie and brown jacket drew unflattering comparisons to comedy character Mr Bean.

Labour MP Keir Starmer later told a fringe event that Corbyn represented a "yearning" for a radical shift of politics, and joked he was "not the Messiah".

For his supporters, Corbyn has already performed miracles by giving Labour a left-wing impetus that receded during the centrist Blair years.

But he may need more to keep his party in check and convert a doubting public.

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