Labour leans to the left

agendaNi profiles the British Labour party’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn and asks what his appointment may mean for Northern Ireland.

In one of the biggest shocks in recent political history, members of the British Labour party have chosen veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn as their new leader.

Corbyn’s emphatic victory was forecast by almost nobody. At one point in early May, he was considered a rank outsider by bookmakers who offered odds of 200/1 on his victory. Yet his anti-austerity message grew on Labour supporters and he won the leadership contest by a landslide with 59.5 per cent of first preference votes, 2.5 per cent more than Tony Blair managed to secure in 1994. But just who is Jeremy Corbyn and what could his tenure as Labour leader mean for Northern Ireland?

Jeremy Bernard Corbyn, 66, has been Islington North’s MP since 1983. He has been re-elected seven times. Born in Wiltshire in the west of England, his father was an engineer and his mother was a maths teacher. Corbyn spent two years working in a voluntary service programme in Jamaica before leaving the North London Polytechnic without a degree.

He has held two jobs outside politics, both in trade unions. First, Corbyn worked for the National Union of Public Employees then for the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers. He has been actively involved in Labour politics for most of his life, first in Shropshire then London where he worked as a councillor for a decade before becoming an MP.

A vegetarian and keen cyclist, Corbyn doesn’t own a car and is thoroughly anti-war. He helped fund the Stop the War coalition and is a long time campaigner for nuclear disarmament. As a democratic socialist Corbyn strongly believes in higher taxes for the wealthy, increasing public ownership, an end to private involvement in the NHS and the creation of a free national education service.

With regards to Northern Ireland, Corbyn’s leadership could be the start of a sea change in Labour’s approach. Before New Labour, the British Labour party supported the idea of a united Ireland, though was always opposed to the IRA’s violent campaign. Corbyn however, has always supported the idea of pulling British troops out of Northern Ireland. He met with members of Sinn Féin during the IRA’s armed struggle and shortly after the Brighton bomb in 1984, invited Republicans to Westminster.

Unionist politicians are known to view Corbyn with hostility and suspicion and his appointment of John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor, a man who has previously praised the ‘bravery of the IRA’ has been branded as ‘sickening’ by one DUP MLA.

Corbyn has however, opted for experience when dealing directly with Northern Ireland, choosing to appoint Vernon Coaker as shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Coaker, an MP for Gedling in Nottinghamshire since 1997, has held the post previously from October 2011 to October 2013.

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