Brighton, United Kingdom | AFP | UK opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is a silvered-haired vegetarian cyclist who believes in “revolution” but has frustrated with his ambiguity about the biggest issue of his generation: Brexit.
The 70-year-old socialist has energised leftist supporters and polarised public opinion in equal measure since being elected, almost by accident, as the boss of the 119-year-old party in 2015.
His rejection of capitalism drives his scepticism of the European Union, and his belief in the “people’s power” makes him the bogyman of London bankers.
Corbyn’s dogged commitment to social justice and underdog causes such as the Palestinian state have sparked an anti-Semitism row that has shadowed his inner circle.
“To share wealth, we need to share power,” Corbyn told his adoring supporters at the party’s annual conference on Tuesday.
But he refused to call an immediate vote of no-confidence in Boris Johnson’s government — or commit himself one way or another to Britain’s future membership in the European Union.
“As a Labour prime minister, I pledge to carry out whatever the people decide,” he said, giving the impression of a revolutionary who wanted to wait this particular crisis out.
This approach has drawn its share of critics and seen Labour’s support in the polls drop.
But it also reflects a calculating tenacity that has helped Corbyn survive past power struggles and repeatedly beat the odds.
– ‘Never in awe’
Corbyn could hardly cut a more contrasting figure to the blue-blooded Eton and Oxford-educated Johnson.
He did not attend university — noting in 2015 that he “never held in awe those who have” — and entered politics in the 1960s as a member of the Young Socialist youth wing of the Labour Party.
His early causes included nuclear disarmament in the geopolitically tense Cold War era and the anti-apartheid movement.
He has backed Sinn Fein and Irish republicanism during the bloody Troubles. His support for striking miners who faced off with Conservative icon Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s was less controversial.
But his commitment now to a sweeping redistribution of wealth that would hand 10 percent of big companies’ shares to workers over the coming decade has sent chills through the UK investment community.
The Financial Times called it “one of the biggest state expropriations of assets seen in a western democracy”.
– Rank outsider –
Corbyn only stood for Labour leadership as a 100/1 outsider because few others appeared willing to lead the party after its general election loss to David Cameron’s Conservatives.
He benefited from his party’s decision to change its leadership election rules so that rank-and-file members’ votes counted — on aggregate — as much as those of labour union bosses and MPs.
Corbyn’s ability to mobilise the far-left and the youth drew immediate comparisons to the effect Bernie Sanders had on US election politics.
Yet his leadership style and policies proved to be just as divisive with his own shadow cabinet — the group of party officials who would become ministers were Corbyn to become premier.
More than half of them quit after his lacklustre campaign against Brexit during the 2016 referendum.
Cameron complained this month that Labour under Corbyn never truly backed his anti-Brexit campaign efforts.
“They were AWOL,” Cameron recalled in a television interview.
Corbyn has since faced repeated questions about which way he voted in the referendum. He has always said that he ticked the “remain” box.
– Unlikely survivor –
Corbyn bounced back from the Labour revolt by stripping the Conservatives of their majority in the 2017 election.
This forced Theresa May to forge an unlikely alliance with a small and deeply conservative Northern Irish party.
She then failed to ram her Brexit agreement through parliament and was forced to tearfully announce her resignation in May.
Corbyn has now outlasted two Conservative governments and has his sights set on Johnson.
Labour officials said they want to see an election showdown between them as soon as Johnson is forced to break his promise and request a Brexit deadline delay past October 31.
Johnson would then be politically wounded — another calculation that Corbyn thinks can help him win.