LONDON (AP) — Britain’s Labour Party lost the election. Now it is losing its way, careening into a crisis that could rip apart a party that governed for long stretches of the 20th century.
Labour is seeking a new leader to help it regain voters’ trust, and an old-school socialist lawmaker who has never held government office has gone from longshot to apparent contender– to the horror of party chiefs and the delight of political opponents.
The strongly anti-austerity Jeremy Corbyn has risen to second-favorite among four candidates in bookmakers’ odds, behind more centrist legislator Andy Burnham, as he wins over a growing number of disillusioned Labour members.
Labour lost power in 2010, and was trounced by the Conservatives on May 7 in an election polls had predicted would be close. Voters handed Prime Minister David Cameron’s party another five-year term, convinced by its argument that spending cuts were needed to reduce a huge deficit created by Labour’s economic mismanagement.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who led Labour to three consecutive election victories, made a rare return to British politics Wednesday to warn his old party that Labour needs to “win from the center.” He said adopting an “old-fashioned leftist platform” of tax-and-spend policies would alienate voters just as it did during the 1980s, when Labour floundered as Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher moved Britain’s economy to the right.
Blair, who left office in 2007, told the party to “move on — but for heaven’s sake don’t move back.”
All parties go through soul-searching after losing an election, but Labour’s crisis is more profound. At the heart of the problem is an unresolved identity crisis. Labour was built as the party of the industrial working class, then transformed by Blair and his “New Labour” colleagues to embrace private investment, personal wealth and the financial sector.
Blair’s approach gave Labour 13 years in power between 1997 and 2010. But many members believe the party has abandoned its principles. And many have not forgiven Blair for taking Britain into the U.S.-led Iraq war.
The contenders to replace departed leader Ed Miliband are three lawmakers in their 40s from the New Labour generation — Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall — and 66-year-old “Old Labour” stalwart Corbyn.
Corbyn accuses his rivals of offering “austerity light” and providing no alternative to Conservative spending cuts. He argues for more public investment in infrastructure and higher taxes for corporations and the rich.
“I think we need a different economic agenda,” he said Wednesday.
For Labour supporters who want the party return to its traditional values, Corbyn has a “grandma and apple pie” appeal, said Victoria Honeyman, a politics lecturer at the University of Leeds.
But most Labour leaders agree with Blair that voters have become economically more conservative and must be persuaded they can trust Labour to balance the books.
Like Donald Trump in the U.S. Republican presidential race, Corbyn exposes a split between some grassroots members who love his outsider status and party chiefs who consider him electoral poison, with outmoded economic ideas and an embarrassing past attending meetings with members of the IRA and Hezbollah.
Some Labour lawmakers have said they will try to oust Corbyn immediately if he wins the leadership ballot, the result of which will be announced Sept. 12. If that fails, Bale said, “then the party would split.”
That looks unlikely, but Labour is in a fractious mood and party discipline is cracking. Almost a quarter of Labour lawmakers rebelled this week and voted against the government’s planned welfare cuts, despite an order from interim leader Harriet Harman to abstain.
Labour’s opponents are relishing Corbyn’s surge. The conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper is urging readers to join Labour — it only costs 3 pounds ($4.70) — and vote for “bearded voter-repellent” Corbyn in order to destroy the party.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, predicted most Labour members “will let their heads rule their hearts” and choose another candidate.
Burnham, Cooper and Kendall are all experienced and competent, but may lack the dynamism Labour needs.
Still, five years is a long time in politics. Many Conservatives had low expectations of Margaret Thatcher when she was unexpectedly elected to head the party in 1975. She spent 13 years in power.
Follow Jill Lawless on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless
This story has been corrected to show Labour was in power for 13 years, not 18.
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