London: Britain`s main opposition Labour party starts voting for a new leader Friday, with Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran socialist who would move the party significantly to the left, favourite to win.
The 66-year-old only entered the race as a wildcard but has attracted surging grassroots support, prompting backers to adopt the slogan "Jez We Can" in an echo of Barack Obama`s 2008 presidential campaign rallying call.
But Corbyn`s policies are closer to Greece`s hard-left Syriza than Obama. Many top Labour figures warn the party under him could not take power in a country where elections are typically won or lost on the centre ground.
"The party is walking eyes shut, arms outstretched, over the cliff`s edge to the jagged rocks below," Tony Blair, Labour`s prime minister between 1997 and 2007, wrote in Thursday`s Guardian. "It is a moment for a rugby tackle if that were possible."
The results of the leadership election will be announced on September 12 and over 600,000 members and supporters of Labour are eligible to vote.
Supporters of Corbyn -- whose battered jacket and trousers contrast with the smart suits more common at Westminster -- say his unspun approach and lack of connections with figures like Blair give him a fresh voice at a time of deep public cynicism about politics.
He has been an MP since 1983 but has never held a frontline political job, instead opposing austerity cuts and the 2003 Iraq war, which left Blair deeply unpopular in Britain, from the backbenches.
Corbyn also wants to scrap Britain`s nuclear weapons, renationalise some industries such as the railways and involve Hamas and Hezbollah in Middle East peace talks.
"The mood is there and we happen to be in the middle of it," Corbyn said in a Guardian interview this month. "We are not doing celebrity, personality, abusive politics -- we are doing ideas."The leadership election was triggered when previous Labour leader Ed Miliband resigned after May`s general election defeat by Prime Minister David Cameron`s Conservatives.
As well as Corbyn, there are three other, more centrist, candidates -- Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, both slick former ministers under Blair and Gordon Brown, plus backbench MP Liz Kendall.
Burnham and Cooper are "so burdened by their own complicity in the past failures that they seem unable to find a genuine personal voice" while Kendall`s campaign has "lacked substance", according to Professor Charlie Beckett of the London School of Economics.
While the three have avoided personal attacks on Corbyn, Cooper launched a fightback Thursday, saying he offered "old solutions to old problems, not new answers to the problems of today".
There have been concerns about the integrity of the contest after hundreds of non-Labour supporters registered to take part in the vote.
Labour has rejected applications from around 1,200 members or backers of other parties who sought to join it as registered supporters for just £3 ($5, four euros) and take part in the ballot.
Several Labour MPs who oppose Corbyn have said the race should be rerun due to concerns that the result could be distorted by infiltration.
Corbyn has drawn support from a range of voters from young metropolitan professionals disaffected with a Westminster elite seen as out of touch to trade unions, the bedrock of traditional Labour support.
While bookmakers` odds and several opinion polls suggest he will win, the election is being held under a system allowing voters to pick their first and second preference candidates, making the outcome harder to predict.