Corbyn Takes on Tories as Manchester Shows U.K. Political Divide

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn attends a rally at Manchester Cathedral on Oct. 5.

Photographer: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Manchester, birthplace of the struggles that defined the politicization of the English working class in the 19th century, channeled that legacy Monday night as it became the focus of a tussle to represent them in the 21st.

Hours after Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne told Conservative delegates in the city that their party was the true representative of Britain’s working people, opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was half a mile away telling thousands of supporters that he would build a fairer society.

Corbyn, dispensing with the British political tradition that dictates a party leader doesn’t appear in the same city as his opponent during convention season, addressed a labor-union rally in Manchester Cathedral that rekindled the flame of 1980s opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s rule.

“Do we care for all, or do we care for the few?” Corbyn asked his audience inside the cathedral and gathered in the streets outside. Denouncing Osborne’s austerity policies as a “political choice, not an economic necessity,” he said that electoral victory will only be won “by changing ideas, opening minds, opening eyes and opening hearts.”

Corbyn, 66, is at the nexus of a political phenomenon that has injected an unpredictable element to British politics. While bookmakers are taking odds on how soon the former hard-left activist will be deposed, he attracts shows of adulation unusual for a rank-and-file lawmaker who was a distant outsider when the campaign to succeed Ed Miliband as leader began.

The Smiths

His appearance at the cathedral, at a rally organized by the Communication Workers Union, was preceded by blaring music by local bands including New Order and The Smiths. His supporters included trade unionists, students fired-up by his promise of authenticity and veterans of the 1980s campaigns against nuclear weapons and Thatcherism. The contemporary concerns are austerity and the privatization of public services.

One of the warm-up speakers, Terry Pullinger, deputy general secretary of the CWU, said Corbyn’s victory in the leadership election “makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost the election” in May, a comment that made Labour lawmaker Lucy Powell visibly wince on the stage behind him.

Others applauded, reflecting a problem for the Labour Party that some of those who back their new leader prefer the purity of opposition to the compromises of government. It’s a dilemma not lost on David Cameron’s Conservatives up the road holding their convention through Wednesday.

Party of Work

“To these working people who have been completely abandoned by a party heading off to the fringes of the left, let us all here today extend our hand,” Osborne told delegates. “We’re now the party of work, the only true party of labor.”

That’s a combative message to deliver in Manchester, a center of the industrial revolution where Friedrich Engels first met Karl Marx. For the Conservatives, Corbyn presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to dominate the political middle that wins elections.

“They’re very comfortable with Jeremy Corbyn being Labour leader -- they’d like him to be there until 2020,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said in an interview. “Even if he’s not, they figure he’s going to be around long enough to trash the Labour brand so that whoever inherits the party from him will take on an unwinnable proposition.”

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