Labour leader Corbyn comes out fighting | News | DW | 20.04.2017
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Labour leader Corbyn comes out fighting

In his first campaign speech, the UK's opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said Labour can win the June election. Eschewing calls to make this a plebiscite on Brexit, he drew on old battles that may have already been lost.

Corbyn, whose Labour Party trails Prime Minister Theresa May's ruling Conservatives by over 20 points in the polls, set out his stall as an anti-establishment candidate at a hall in central London packed with supporters on Thursday.

"The idea that Labour is somehow or other a tainted brand - well, there are people in the audience that are wearing badges of Keir Hardie [Labour's founder in 1900]," Corbyn said.

"He was vilified, vilified beyond belief, when he was elected as the first ever Labour MP. Anyone who stands up to create a better, fairer, more decent society gets vilified. Our party gets vilified."

May called a June 8 election on Tuesday, three years ahead of schedule. She is seeking to capitalize on the collapse in support for Labour and gain a stronger mandate for upcoming divorce talks with the EU.

Anything is possible

Corbyn went on to deny a Conservative victory was a "foregone conclusion," pointing to his own unlikely election as Labour leader in 2015, after Labour's general election defeat.

Backed by many new members drawn by new membership rules that made it possible to purchase partial party membership at a reduced rate and vote in the leadership campaign, Corbyn overcame odds of 200-1 to move from his back-bench seat in the lower house of parliament to unexpected leadership. Many on the erstwhile Labour front-bench rapidly moved in the opposite direction, some demoted by Corbyn but most of them resigning.    

A YouGov poll for "The Times" this week put Labour 24 points behind the Conservatives as May seeks to increase her majority of 17 in the 650-seat House of Commons ahead of Brexit negotiations. As they stand, the polls point to a drastically expanded Conservative majority.

One small glimmer of hope where Labour could feasibly gain some popular traction is May's refusal to engage in TV debates in the runup to the election.

Traditional antipathies

"Labour is the party that will put the interests of the majority first, while the Tories only really care about those who already have so much," Corbyn said. "That is why we will prove the establishment experts wrong and change the direction of this election. Because the British people know that they are the true wealth creators, held back by a system rigged for the wealth extractors," he went on.

Corbyn also presented Labour's recent new policies, for example a 10-pound (11.90-euro, $12.84) minimum wage and a crackdown on corporate tax avoidance, saying this would "unlock opportunities for every single person in this country."

EU ambivalence

Corbyn ducked a question asking whether Labour planned to offer a second Brexit referendum, saying instead that he wanted continued economic ties with the EU.

"We haven't threatened to turn Britain into an offshore tax haven on the shores of Europe, undermining the European economy," Corbyn added, saying Labour wanted a "good process by which we continue to trade with Europe."

Corbyn himself voted to leave the EU's predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC), in a 1975 referendum, but nominally supported 'Remain' last year. He has been criticized for not having a clear position on Brexit and neglecting to mention the issue on his numerous opportunities to do so in parliament each week.

Around 60 percent of Labour voters supported "Remain" in the referendum, especially in metropolitan areas like London, but many key battleground constituencies, especially in northern England, sided with "Leave." 

A Labour Party spokesman later issued a statement saying that a second EU referendum would not be in the party's election manifesto.

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Corbyn: Theresa May cannot be trusted

Sturgeon: Labour victory 'pie in the sky'

North of the border in Scotland, formerly a Labour stronghold, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon ridiculed the prospect of a Labour victory on June 8. 

"You only have to look at the polls to know that Jeremy Corbyn ain't going anywhere near No. 10 Downing Street, on his own or with the help of anybody else," she told the assembly at Holyrood. "The idea, in this election, that Labour is going to replace the Tories is frankly pie in the sky. The issue and the threat at this election is that due to Labour's complete unelectability, we face an unfettered, out-of-control Tory government." 

A crucial component of Labour's collapse in the Commons since losing power in 2010 was its decimation in Scotland at the hands of Sturgeon's Scottish National Party. The SNP claimed 56 of 59 available Scottish seats in the 2015 UK elections, a gain of 50. Labour, meanwhile, went from holding 40 to just one. Polls also currently suggest the SNP can hope for more than 40 percent of the Scottish vote in June, which would signify a major blow to Labour's campaign.

jbh/msh (AFP, Reuters, AP)

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