“A parody of a debate: that’s been the story of the Labour leadership contest to date,” wrote Guardian columnist Owen Jones on 4 June, a little over a month after the disastrous defeat in the general elections. He called for genuine ideological variety in place of “quibbling over nuance and tone” and for making rivalry between the candidates meaningful and real so that the party would gain not only a platform but also confidence under the new leader. He saw 66-year-old veteran Jeremy Corbyn as the only one who could fulfil this role.
A typical representative of the party’s left wing, the most mutinous Labourite since 1997, someone who is passionately against ideological eclecticism and overseas wars, a loner who could not even independently gather votes among MPs for nomination so rivals in his party were helping, he looked like the perfect candidate to beat – the personification of those ideas which have outlived themselves, lost all force, and could now have been swept out of the renewed Labour Party.
His rivals were distinguished in their loyalty to the party. They were younger and more experienced. They belonged to the party’s top echelon, from which a new leader usually emerges. Throughout his entire parliamentary career, which he launched back in 1983, Corbyn has not once served in the government, nor in its shadow analogue. But the race favourite, 45-year-old Andy Burnham, was the shadow health minister; 44-year-old Liz Kendall was the shadow social care minister and 46-year-old Yvette Cooper the shadow home secretary.
Enemy of the state
At some point in mid-July, the light-minded, ironic attitude towards Jeremy Corbyn was giving way to savage attacks from Labourites as well as Conservatives. It was then that facts and statistics started coming out about his lack of loyalty and his “friendship” with Hamas, Iran and extremists.
His ideas for revising foreign and defence policy (unilaterally renouncing nuclear weapons and withdrawing from NATO) were described in apocalyptic terms. Conservatives, including Prime Minister David Cameron and other Conservative Party leaders, directly called him a “threat” to national and economic security. And, in general, they started accusing him of practically everything (see parody poster collection).
“Prime Minister Corbyn… and the 1,000 days that destroyed Britain,” wrote the Daily Mail in a fantastical, epic sketch of the final episode of his leadership. “The night sky over London was thick with choking black smoke, but in the hellish glow of the flames rising from a myriad burning buildings, the rioters, looters and demonstrators fighting on the city streets could just make out the United Nations helicopter taking Jeremy Corbyn away from 10 Downing Street to his retirement cottage in Ireland,” the article began, depicting the anticipated social chaos and bankruptcy of the country if he were to come to power.
Fellow party members also realised that the candidate who was supposed to be serving as the “punching bag” to help the party work out a new course of action was performing better than them. In July and August, Labourites sought various ways to undermine his popularity: editorial articles published in papers urging people to vote for other candidates; internal party intrigues (a withdrawal proposal to the rest of the candidates, threats to leave the shadow government or even the party if he won); and critical statements by former prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. However, Labour’s attempts to deal with him proved futile. There were not enough compromises among the remaining candidates “for the good of the party as a whole”, nor was there the will to set aside internal divisions for the sake of a common goal.
The art of politics consists of the ability to choose not only friends but also enemies. The right turn and changes promised by the main candidates demanded of them substantial compromises with the Conservatives’ “new centre” – which Europe Insight has already written about – in addition to the rejection of the left wing, presented as ideas of high taxes and nationalisation, and ties to trade unions.
In late May, Andy Burnham announced that he would not accept financing from trade unions. In June, all of the leading candidates adopted the Conservatives’ austerity politics and ceased to object cuts to social programmes. Jeremy Corbyn was the only one in this situation to act against the entire Labour Party.
His social and economic proposals (stimulating economic growth, raising taxes for the rich, improving taxation, re-nationalization of the railroads and energy companies) garnered significant public support. Famous scholars like Paul Krugman and Simon Wren-Lewis, among others, approved the stand he took against austerity. Protecting workers’ rights and the idea of gender equality brought him the sympathy of the labour unions. But what really sold them was his conviction – his sincere faith in that system of ideas and values that the Labour Party jettisoned twenty years ago.
“The reaction of most of the parliamentary party to the 2015 defeat seems to be that the pre-2015 strategy was right in principle but had just not focused enough in placating the marginal English voter, which they believe means more appeasement and shifting further to the right,” Oxford University Professor Simon Wren-Lewis wrote of the “Corbyn Phenomenon” on his blog. “The party membership seems to have reacted very differently to the 2015 defeat. The membership appears to believe that the pre-2015 strategy has clearly failed, and it is time to start talking with conviction about the issues you believe in.”
On 12 September, having gained 59.5% (or 251,417 votes), Jeremy Corbyn was victorious in the first round of elections for the post of leader of the opposition Labour Party. Only 20 of the currently serving MPs voted for him. 210 voted for other candidates.
British politics is based on consensus. Any competition of ideas ultimately reaches some point where bold and even radical proposals become mainstream, just part of the everyday common sense. All parties adopt them, only adapting them to their own purposes and giving them a convenient form.
Corbyn’s success in no way signifies the radicalisation of British politics. It hardly ruins Labour’s chances at returning to power. Corbyn’s success is a realistic alternative, an effectual response to the right-centrism of the Conservatives. This is a sign that the Left is groping for a foothold so it can prepare for and form its majority. Bart Cammaerts of the London School of Economics calls Corbyn the “New Left”, a man of convictions who can help the party acquire the face, confidence and “moral force of its message” (LSE blog). Five years is more than sufficient for this.