If the left-wing vegetarian teetotaler wins, it would be a spectacular repudiation of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, the last Labour leader to win a national election.
LONDON — He wants to scrap Britain’s nuclear missiles, nationalize key industries and print money to bolster the economy. He is a critic of NATO and seems less than enthusiastic about the European Union.
On Saturday, Jeremy Corbyn, 66, a veteran left-winger, stands a good chance of being elected leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, sharpening the ideological debate within the country and highlighting the rise of anti-establishment politicians throughout Western democracies.
If he wins, it would prove a remarkable moment in British politics, and a spectacular repudiation of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, the last Labour leader to win a national election and the architect of a strategy in which Labour abandoned much of its left-wing agenda.
Corbyn, a vegetarian teetotaler based in North London who made a career from rebelling against the party line, has emerged as the leading candidate for party leader after Labour’s stinging defeat in the general election in May, when the governing Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron captured an outright Parliamentary majority.
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Corbyn, initially viewed as a token candidate who could give voice to Labour’s far left, has benefited from a fractured field of opponents and captured a wave of grass-roots enthusiasm for movements willing to challenge the status quo on issues such as income inequality and foreign policy.
Much like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has ignited liberal passions in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in the United States, Corbyn, a member of Parliament since 1983, is promising radical approaches to longstanding problems. Under his leadership, Labour could become more like the new populist, leftist parties that have grown prominent across Europe, including Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.
As leader of the Labour Party, Corbyn would be some way from power, but his views could influence policy, particularly on foreign affairs. Cameron, for example, wants to know the position of the new Labour leader before asking Parliament to authorize military strikes in Syria. Two years ago, Cameron lost a vote on the issue, and Corbyn was a staunch opponent.
There is also the looming referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union, due by the end of 2017, in which Labour’s role will be important. Though Corbyn has not said he wants Britain to leave the bloc, he has said he voted against British membership of the bloc’s forerunner in a plebiscite in 1975.
In the U.S., there may be unease at the prospect of the main British opposition party’s being led by a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy, one who, without endorsing their actions, has described Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends.”
Hardly anyone contemplated such an outcome after the party’s previous leader, Ed Miliband, led Labour to defeat in May’s general election, on a platform already seen as being to the left of Blair. After that electoral rebuff, most expected the right of the party to reclaim the leadership. Instead the Blairites have been trying frantically to derail Corbyn, who until now had little public profile outside of party activists.
Steven Fielding, professor of political history at Nottingham University, said Corbyn’s rise had “taken everyone by surprise,” yet even opponents concede his campaign has energized a cohort of enthusiastic, and often young, supporters.
Such people, Corbyn said at a rally in London this week, had been “written off as being a nonpolitical generation, when in reality they were a political generation that politics had written off.”
Perhaps most of all, Corbyn’s success reflects Labour’s internal failure to confront the toxic legacy of the war in Iraq, which Blair joined President George W. Bush in starting, and of the economic policies that many link to the financial crash.
Corbyn’s opponents — Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall — are all associated to varying degrees with a Blairite, centrist vision, yet none of them seems to have the charisma Blair possessed in 1994 when he won the party leadership.