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Rivals face off in UK Labour leadership race
[CARDIFF] Britain's embattled Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will debate head-to-head for the first time on Thursday with the man seeking to unseat him in a bitter contest that has exposed deep divisions in the main opposition party.
The veteran socialist takes on Owen Smith, a former member of his top team, in the first of several leadership hustings ahead of a postal vote by members that will see the winner crowned on September 24.
Labour has been plunged into disarray since Britain's June 23 vote to leave the European Union, with lawmakers dissatisfied at Mr Corbyn's leadership demanding he step down in the political turmoil that followed.
The 67-year-old has refused, noting that he was elected only last September on the back of strong grassroots and trade union support - prompting his critics to back the relatively unknown Smith as an alternative.
"People see in Corbyn a new form of politics, where people care for the poor and downtrodden," said Philip John Rosser, a 61-year-old former lecturer, attending the hustings in Cardiff in Wales.
Mr Rosser is one of many who have joined the party under Mr Corbyn's leadership. Membership has surged from barely 200,000 members in February last year to 515,000 now.
But Mr Smith, 46, has strong support among Labour MPs, who argue that Mr Corbyn - a veteran anti-war and anti-nuclear campaigner who has never held high office - cannot beat Prime Minister Theresa May's governing centre-right Conservatives at the next election.
The latest opinion polls make uncomfortable reading, with one by ICM putting the Conservatives 16 points ahead, while a YouGov survey found 29 per cent of Labour voters would prefer Mrs May to Mr Corbyn as prime minister.
"I'd rather see Jeremy Corbyn but there's no point having him if he's not going to win," said Chris Jones, a 28-year-old civil engineer.
The battle for control of the party has exposed long-standing fault lines in Labour over its core values, and led to fears that it could even split.
Mr Smith warned on Wednesday that the party was "teetering on the brink of a precipice", prompting one of Mr Corbyn's top aides to accuse him of trying to "blackmail" members into backing him.
Both men are promising to strengthen workers' rights, tackle inequality and low wages, invest in infrastructure and nationalise the railways, but Mr Smith insists only he can appeal beyond Mr Corbyn's left-wing support base.
The contest has become a bitter fight, and local party meetings have been suspended until September due to allegations of intimidation levelled against Mr Corbyn's supporters.
Mr Corbyn is backed by Momentum, a mass movement of Labour members who have turned out in their droves at rallies around the country in recent days.
"They say he's unelectable, and no one has faith in him any more but his rallies feel very different," said Ciera Holmes, a 24-year-old who works in private healthcare.
She is less concerned about his electability.
"Even if he loses he's brought socialist and leftist politics into the forefront, and got so many people engaged, the movement will carry on," she told AFP.
Labour, which emerged in the early 20th century from the trade union movement, moved to the centre under former prime minister Tony Blair, who won three successive elections.
But since losing to the Conservatives in 2010, and again last year, the party has struggled with its identity.
Many saw the Brexit vote as a wake-up call, after millions of disenchanted voters in Labour's traditional northern English heartlands defied their MPs to vote to leave the EU.
Jo Kelleher, a 53-year-old university lecturer, said Mr Corbyn's lack of leadership in the EU referendum campaign had left her dismayed.
"When he came along the socialist, anti-austerity agenda was very welcome. But there's been no flesh on the bones," she said.
She admitted to having little enthusiasm for Mr Smith, a former lobbyist and radio producer who is barely known outside Westminster and his constituency in Wales.
He is the "anyone but Corbyn candidate", she said, but added: "I think he's probably a bit more in touch with the electorate."