LONDON – Veteran far-left lawmaker Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party on Saturday, a runaway victory that threatens to further divide the party as it struggles to recover from a heavy defeat in elections earlier this year.
Corbyn's win is one of the biggest political shake-ups in British politics in decades, marking a sharp left turn for his party and a rejection of the more centrist policies of his predecessors.
The silver-haired and bearded Corbyn, 66, has drawn vitriol and admiration in equal measure with his old-school socialist views: He wants more taxation for the rich, strongly opposes Britain's austerity measures, and argues for nationalizing industry. Considered an eccentric outsider just three months ago, he has surged in popularity to become the favorite over his three more mainstream rivals.
Cheers and applause erupted in the London conference venue as it was announced that Corbyn swept almost 60 percent of the vote, far ahead of his closest rival, Andy Burnham, who scored 19 percent. Some 422,664 votes were cast.
In his speech, Corbyn promised to bring about a more equal and compassionate Britain and end "grotesque levels of inequality."
"The Tories have used the economic crisis of 2008 to impose a terrible burden on the poorest people of this country," he said. "It's not right, it's not necessary and it's got to change."
Earlier, as he arrived at the conference venue, he was mobbed by dozens of supporters who sang the socialist anthem, "The Red Flag."
Corbyn's unexpected success has already stirred months of vigorous, often bitter, debate within the party about its identity.
Under the last two Labour leaders in power, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Labour shed its commitment to nationalizing industry and wooed big business. But since Labour lost power in 2010 -- and suffered even worse losses to Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives in this year's election -- some activists believe it was time to return to the party's roots.
Unlike his younger rivals -- Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall -- Corbyn is seen as a stalwart from "Old Labour" who embraces the socialist values that the party advocated in the 1980s. He wants more public investment in infrastructure, higher taxes for corporations and wealth redistribution. He also opposes Britain's membership in NATO and wants to scrap Britain's nuclear weapons program.
Corbyn has been lawmaker for some 30 years but has never held a government office. He has been a fixture at left-leaning demonstrations for even longer, championing causes from nuclear disarmament to stopping the Iraq war.
Many senior leaders in the party oppose Corbyn and many had strongly urged voters to reject him, warning that his ideas will alienate moderate voters and make Labour unelectable.
Blair, who led Labour to three consecutive election victories, said his party faced "annihilation" under Corbyn.
But Corbyn attracted scores of enthusiastic new members and supporters to the party, receiving a rock-star welcome from many young people disillusioned with British politics.
Ed Miliband, who stepped down in May as Labour leader, urged his party to support Corbyn.
"Jeremy has won a very clear victory. I hope also ... that Jeremy reaches out to all parts of the party, because he has a big job to do to seek to unite the party and I believe he does intend to do that, and I hope he does."