LONDON: Anti-austerity left-winger Jeremy Corbyn began eking out a shadow cabinet Sunday, striving to unify Britain’s Labor Party after a wave of grassroots support swept him from a fringe lawmaker to the party’s leader.
The veteran socialist’s decisive victory marks a break with the legacy of former prime minister Tony Blair and his more centrist “New Labour” movement of the 1990s, and surprised many within the party.
Corbyn — a 200/1 outsider at the start of the leadership contest — named the first of those who would form the opposition party’s top team, even as several figures said they would not serve under him.
Labour announced that leadership runner-up Andy Burnham would remain in his shadow cabinet post along with Hilary Benn, while veteran left-wing MP and close Corbyn ally John McDonnell was named shadow finance minister.
But centrist Chuka Umunna announced he would leave his position as shadow business secretary due to differences with Corbyn on policy — in particular over Britain’s upcoming referendum on membership of the European Union, expected by 2017.
“It is my view that we should support the UK remaining a member of the EU… I cannot envisage any circumstances where I would be campaigning alongside those who would argue for us to leave,” Umunna said in a statement.
“Jeremy has made it clear to me that he does not wholeheartedly share this view.”
Corbyn has frequently criticized the EU over labour rights and has remained ambiguous on whether he would campaign for Britain to remain in the 28-member bloc.
Mary Creagh also stepped down from the shadow cabinet, while shadow Northern Ireland secretary Ivan Lewis revealed that he offered to remain in his post due to the province’s political crisis — but that the idea was rejected.
“I thought it was the right thing to do,” Lewis wrote on Twitter. “Jeremy has decided to offer the role to someone else.”
Labour’s new deputy leader Tom Watson played down the risk of a coup against the new chief by party moderates, saying they had to respect Corbyn’s mandate.
“He wants to build a broad-based party, he wants a front bench that represents all the talents and all the views,” said Watson, whose role involves overseeing party unity.
The diversity of posts seemed to reflect this. Charles Falconer, who held a series of government positions under Blair, was named shadow justice secretary; while Angela Eagle, identified with Blair’s rival and successor Gordon Brown, was named shadow business secretary.
‘Death of New Labor’
Concerned over how to shape Labour to win back voters, senior Labour figures have questioned whether Corbyn is too radical for the electorate after a bruising defeat to Prime Minister David Cameron’s centre-right Conservatives in May.
Blair, who won the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections after bringing Labour into the centre ground, warned ahead of the leadership vote that a Corbyn victory would be an “electoral disaster”.
But the Corbyn campaign has already set its sights on the 2020 election, changing its Twitter account name to “JeremyCorbyn4PM” on Sunday.
Corbyn, a 66-year-old bearded vegetarian and dissenter against Blair who rebelled against the party leadership more than 500 times since 1997, rode a dramatic surge of grassroots support to win 59.5 percent of the vote in a result hailed by the hard-left Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.
The Sunday Telegraph proclaimed it the “Death of New Labor” on its front page.
The Guardian’s columnist Rafael Behr said Blairism was “buried” and that a new divide had been revealed “between established Labour… and insurgent Labor”.
Commentators noted the vibrancy behind a Corbyn campaign that successfully harnessed the power of protest movements and social media.
Some 15,500 people have joined the Labour Party in the 24 hours since Corbyn’s election, general secretary Iain McNicol said, taking the membership to “325,000 and rising”.
A co-founder of the Stop the War anti-war movement, Corbyn advocates unilateral nuclear disarmament, ending austerity and increasing public spending.
In his first pronouncement on Corbyn’s election, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron said Labour was dangerous for Britain.
“The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security,” he said on his personal Twitter account.