Blair urges UK's Labour to pick centrist leader after poll drubbing

Blair urges UK's Labour to pick centrist leader after poll drubbing
Blair urges UK's Labour to pick centrist leader after poll drubbing

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - LONDON — Britain's former Prime Minister Tony Blair urged his Labour party on Wednesday to abandon "quasi-revolutionary socialism" and pick a centrist leader following its biggest election defeat since 1935.

The country's shell-shocked left entered a period of soul-searching and mourning in the wake of last Thursday's pummeling at the ballot box.

The snap general election handed Prime Minister Boris Johnson a mandate to follow through on his "get Brexit done" mantra and take Britain out of the European Union on Jan. 31.

It also saw Labour suffer shock defeats across swathes of England's working-class north, which had been Labour seats for decades.

Its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a 70-year-old veteran socialist who campaigned on a radical platform of state spending and re-nationalization, has since promised to quit.

The formal campaign to replace him is not set to begin until next month.

Yet several prominent Labour figures have already signaled their intention to enter a leadership contest that will decide if the party realigns to a more centrist course.

Blair castigated Corbyn for "the takeover of the Labour party by the far left" which he said turned it into a "glorified protest movement (...) utterly incapable of being a credible government".

And he took aim at his "almost comic indecision" about which position to take on Britain's near half-century membership in the European Union.

"The absence of leadership on what was obviously the biggest issue facing the country reinforced all the other doubts about Jeremy Corbyn," Blair said in a speech in London.

"He personified politically an idea, a brand of quasi-revolutionary socialism, mixing far-left economic policy with deep hostility to Western foreign policy, which never has appealed to traditional Labour voters," Blair said.

"The result has brought shame on us. We let our country down."

Blair came to power in a landslide Labour victory in 1997 in a wave of popular support after 18 years of Conservative government, first under Margaret Thatcher, then John Major.

He remains Labour's most successful prime minister, winning three elections in a 10-year period until he handed over power to his finance minister and deputy Gordon Brown in 2007.

But his popularity was dented because of his unwavering support for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 on what proved to be the false basis it had weapons of mass destruction.

That, his promotion of more business-friendly policies and abandonment of Labour totems, including nationalized industry, have made him an enduring hate figure for Labour hardliners.

But Labour must now choose whether to re-adopt a more centrist — and electable — approach after a marked drift to the left under Corbyn since he became leader in 2015.

Some potential successors said Corbyn had the right vision but the wrong approach.

"The case for a radical government has never been stronger," Labour's Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer told BBC radio.

He attributed the defeat to Labour's inability to counter Johnson's simple Brexit message with a clear case for why — or whether — Britain should still be a part of the EU.

"And we carried, I think, too much baggage into the election — and anti-Semitism is the example of that," Starmer said.

The party was riddled with anti-Semitism scandals that saw several prominent members quit under Corbyn's watch.

Starmer is a London lawyer who had pushed for a second Brexit referendum and now appears to be trying to win over more leftist Labour votes.

Lawmaker Rebecca Long-Bailey — a rising star who has faithfully defended Corbyn — has emerged as an early favorite in a leadership race expected to feature several prominent women.

She has largely avoided the media since Friday's official results handed the Conservatives an 80-seat majority in the 650-member House of Commons.

Labour's foreign policies spokeswoman Emily Thornberry became the first candidate on Wednesday to officially declare her interest.

The pro-European lawmaker said Labour must move past its internal divisions on Brexit and focus on Johnson's failings.

"When the Labour leadership contest begins, whoever is standing — and I hope to be one of the candidates — the first question shouldn't be about their position on Brexit, or where they live in our country," she wrote in The Guardian newspaper.

"The first question should instead be: what's your plan for taking on Johnson over the next five years?" — AFP

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