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UK’s Labour begins virtual bid to regain support

20 Sep 2020 / 10:30 H.

LONDON: Britain’s main opposition Labour party on Sunday goes online to try to reinvigorate grassroots support after years of bitter ideological infighting and stinging electoral failure.

The three-day “Labour Connected” event, which replaces the annual conference cancelled because of coronavirus, is the first major gathering of members under new leader Keir Starmer.

The former chief state prosecutor is trying to turn Labour around after its worst election showing since the 1930s in December.

His predecessor Jeremy Corbyn quit after his hard-left policies and lack of clarity over Brexit proved a turn-off for voters and sparked fierce internal feuding.

Starmer has vowed to reunite the party to recapture the successes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who led Labour governments from 1997 to 2010.

Since taking the helm in April, he has won plaudits for trying to win back Jewish members who left in droves because of anti-Semitism that Corbyn was accused of failing to tackle.

He has also seen a surge in popularity for his efforts to hold Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson to account for the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

On Sunday, he promised to provide “new leadership for our party and for our country”.

He admitted there was “a mountain to climb” to win the next election scheduled for 2024 but “we have demonstrated our determination to listen, to change and to rebuild people’s trust”.

‘Government incompetence’

Starmer again attacked Johnson over coronavirus, which has officially killed nearly 42,000 people in Britain — the worst toll in Europe.

He said the priority beyond protecting key workers must be keeping schools open, as cases surge once again and officials are mired in criticism for a lack of virus testing.

“This government’s incompetence is holding Britain back,“ he said.

Professor Simon Usherwood at the University of Surrey said Starmer’s forensic attacks on the government had so far helped unite his party and win over non-Labour voters.

“He’s not particularly charismatic. His authority comes from looking like a competent person,“ he told AFP.

But Professor Steven Fielding of the University of Nottingham warned many Corbyn supporters were still uneasy.

“He’s managed to unify the party only because he hasn’t tackled any of the big issues in the party,“ he told AFP.

As well as quelling dissent in its own ranks, Labour needs to tackle the scepticism of voters in its former “Red Wall” heartland in northern England, who backed the Conservatives over Brexit.

Their support helped give Johnson an 80-strong majority in the House of Commons and allowed him to break years of parliamentary deadlock to take Britain out of the European Union in January.

Starmer opposed Brexit but has not focused on the issue, except again on the issue of competence, mocking Johnson for his vows to “get Brexit done” and to have an “oven-ready” divorce deal.

Trade talks with the EU are moving painfully slowly towards a mid-October deadline, while the government has sparked outrage in Brussels by trying to unpick part of the Brexit agreement.

‘No retreat’

Labour Connected is mainly digital meetings for members, and the party said there were more than double the number of people registered than last year, when attendance was 13,000.

Starmer will speak briefly on Sunday, followed by a speech by his deputy Angela Rayner, but his main address is on Tuesday.

Finance spokeswoman Anneliese Dodds’ speech Monday will be watched for clues about Labour’s plans for Britain’s post-Covid economic recovery.

Her predecessor, longtime Corbyn ally John McDonnell, has backed Starmer but told Italy’s La Repubblica that “the majority of their party members don’t want any retreat from the radicalism of Jeremy Corbyn”.

Blair was Labour’s most successful leader with three general election victories, but even then the party was split between those who supported his push towards the centre ground and the traditional left-wingers and trade unions.

Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015 was a huge shock but led to a surge in party membership. However, he lost elections in 2017 and 2019. — AFP

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