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Jeremy Corbyn: The political outsider hoping to become Britain’s PM

Jeremy Corbyn, 68, is lionised by his leftist grassroots followers. But Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May has branded him as weak.

world Updated: Jun 07, 2017 21:50 IST
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, makes a speech at a campaign event in Rotherham, Britain.
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, makes a speech at a campaign event in Rotherham, Britain.(REUTERS)

Jeremy Corbyn started Britain’s election campaign as a rank outsider, but the opposition Labour leader is riding a surge in support ahead of Thursday’s vote that he hopes could make him prime minister.

The 68-year-old socialist stalwart is no stranger to upsetting the odds: his candidacy for the party leadership in 2015 was widely dismissed as having no hope but he swept to a stunning landslide victory.

Corbyn is lionised by his leftist grassroots followers but opposed by three-quarters of his MPs, who tried to oust him in 2016.

Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May has branded him as weak, shambolic, unfit for office and a risk to Britain’s security and prosperity.

He has come under criticism from right-wing commentators in particular for his apparent failure to condemn the actions of the Irish Republican Army during the Northern Ireland conflict.

Following three terror attacks in nearly three months, that record has come under scrutiny but Corbyn has defended himself saying he was attempting to negotiate a peace in the province.

He has also drawn attention to the axing of 20,000 police jobs under the Conservative government and has promised to create an extra 10,000 officers.

In the election campaign spotlight, he has come across to many as an amiable underdog making a principled stand for the poorest in society.

May’s 20-point lead in the polls has been cut down to just one, according to one survey.

His image is low-key -- bearded and teetotal, he dislikes wearing a tie, and his hobbies include making jam, allotment gardening and spotting manhole covers.

‘Monsieur Zen’

A lifelong protest politician, his anti-establishment credentials have endeared him to waves of young voters disillusioned with mainstream politics.

It would be easy to think Labour started the snap election campaign in April seeing him as a liability rather than an asset.

Many Labour candidates do not mention him at all on their leaflets -- and even the party battle bus bears neither his name nor picture.

But as the campaign developed, the self-styled “Monsieur Zen” did not crumble under pressure.

“Corbyn has fought and won two leadership campaigns in two years, seems to have benefited from that experience and is at least authentic rather than, like Mrs May, robotic,” Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, told AFP.

Corbyn survived a live television grilling by interviewer Jeremy Paxman and members of the public, and felt emboldened enough to join in a live seven-way televised leaders’ debate, carrying the Labour message himself.

Purity of backbenches

From an impeccable socialist background -- his parents met as activists in Britain during the Spanish Civil War -- Corbyn worked for trade unions before being elected to the House of Commons in 1983.

He never held major office. Instead he spent decades on the backbenches championing human rights, leftist and anti-war causes, and was a serial rebel against his party’s line.

His surprise election as Labour leader in September 2015 came on the back of left-wingers signing up to the Labour party in droves to support him.

Growing criticism of his leadership style turned into open rebellion after the June 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union. Critics said Corbyn’s heart did not really seem in the campaign to stay in.

Having lost the confidence of most Labour MPs, he faced a leadership challenge in July by little-known MP Owen Smith.

However, Corbyn saw him off with an even larger mandate.

Socialist cat

He has had to moderate his views for the Labour election manifesto.

Britain would retain its monarchy, nuclear deterrent, NATO membership and private retail banks under a Labour government.

His third wife is Laura Alvarez, who is 20 years his junior and runs a company importing coffee from her native Mexico.

They have a cat named El Gato -- Spanish for “the cat”, which he claims has “socialist tendencies”.

Porridge-fuelled Corbyn does not have a car, instead riding a bicycle around his north London constituency of Islington.

If he makes it into Downing Street, he insists he will not give up his allotment.

“You do your job better if you give yourself time to collect your thoughts and do something else,” he told ITV.