LONDON — The opposition Labour Party kicked off its campaign for Britain’s December general election with one overriding message Thursday: It’s not just about Brexit.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn put the emphasis firmly on economic and social issues, calling the Dec. 12 vote a once-in-a-generation chance to transform the country. All seats in the 650-seat House of Commons are up for grabs in the early election, chosen by Britain’s 46 million eligible voters.
In his first stump speech of the six-week campaign, Corbyn outlined the left-of-
Returning to his party’s core issues, Corbyn called out prominent business leaders — including media mogul Rupert Murdoch and aristocratic landowner the Duke of Westminster — as he painted Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives as champions of the wealthy few.
“We’re going after the tax dodgers. We’re going after the dodgy landlords. We’re going after the bad bosses. We’re going after the big polluters. Because we know whose side we’re on,” Corbyn told supporters at a rally in London. “Whose side are you on?”
Britain was supposed to leave the EU on Thursday, and Johnson spend months vowing that Brexit would happen on schedule, “come what may.” But after Johnson failed to get British lawmakers to pass his Brexit divorce deal with the bloc, the EU granted Britain a three-month delay, setting a new Brexit deadline of Jan. 31.
Johnson pushed to have this election two years early in order to break the parliamentary deadlock over Brexit.
While Johnson’s Conservatives have a wide lead in most opinion polls, analysts say the election is unpredictable because Brexit cuts across traditional party loyalties. For many voters, their identities as “leavers” or “remainers” are more important than party affiliation.
The prime minister plans to campaign as a Brexit champion and blame his opponents for the delay.
“Today should have been the day that Brexit was delivered and we finally left the EU,” Johnson planned to say Thursday in later campaign stops, according to his office. “But despite the great new deal I agreed with the EU, Jeremy Corbyn refused to allow that to happen — insisting upon more dither, more delay and more uncertainty for families and business.”
Labour is hoping that voters want to talk about issues such as health care, the environment and social welfare — all of which saw years of funding cuts by Conservative governments — instead of more Brexit debates.
The party is divided between those such as Corbyn, who are determined to go through with Brexit, and others who want to remain in the EU. After much internal wrangling, Labour now says if it wins the election, it will negotiate a better withdrawal agreement with the EU, then call a referendum where voters will be able to choose between that Brexit deal and remaining in the bloc. It has not said which side it would support.
“The prime minister wants you to believe that we’re having this election because Brexit is being blocked by an establishment elite,” Corbyn said. “People aren’t fooled so easily. They know the Conservatives are the establishment elite.”
“Labour will get Brexit sorted within six months. We’ll let the people decide whether to leave with a sensible deal or remain,” he said. “That really isn’t complicated.”
Corbyn shrugged off suggestions that he is dragging down the party’s popularity. Critics say the 70-year-old socialist is wedded to archaic policies of nationalization and high taxes, and accuse him of failing to stamp out anti-Semitism within the party.
“It’s not about me,” Corbyn said Thursday. “It’s not a presidential election. It is about each and every one of us (candidates).”
Many British voters are fed up as they face the third major electoral event in as many years, after the country’s 2016 EU membership referendum and a 2017 election called by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May to try to strengthen her hand in negotiations with the EU.
May’s move was a spectacular miscalculation that cost the Conservative Party its majority in Parliament. It left her unable to get her Brexit divorce plan approved by lawmakers, leading to her resignation and the rise of a new prime minister, Johnson, who took power in July.
More than three years after the Brexit referendum, Brexit positions have become entrenched and the debate has soured, with lawmakers on all dies receiving regular abuse online and in the streets.
The toxic political atmosphere has prompted some long-time lawmakers to drop out of the race altogether. Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan of the Conservative Party is among those opting out, citing the abuse she had received over Brexit.
Conservative Party chairman James Cleverly tweeted: “MPs need to be resilient, we understand that a political life is unpredictable and very often stressful. But hearing so many good colleagues, particularly women, leaving Parliament because of online and physical abuse is heartbreaking.”
An earlier version corrects the spelling of Corbyn in first sentence.
Follow AP’s full coverage of Brexit and British politics at https://www.apnews.com/Brexit
Danica Kirka And Jill Lawless, The Associated Press