In a British (or more strictly English) political landscape largely devoid of excitement, >Jeremy Corbyn is generating levels of enthusiasm way beyond anything seen in the general election earlier this year. The Labour party MP recently addressed a rally in central London. The main hall was fully booked well in advance. Two overflow rooms were filled to capacity. So Mr. Corbyn resorted to climbing on top of a fire engine to address the hundreds milling around on the street unable to get inside.
It’s not the fiery oratory that is attracting the crowds – Mr. Corbyn is a staid, low-key speaker. He’s not a political rock star — he’s 66, bearded, vegetarian, a teetotaller, with a dress sense that hasn’t changed for decades. There’s no new message. His hard Left political views have barely shifted since he was elected to Parliament in 1983: anti-war, anti-austerity, anti-nuclear, and a supporter of such unfashionable causes as higher taxes, re-nationalisation of key industries and greater powers for trade unions.
And if the bookmakers are to be believed, he’s on course to be the Labour party’s new leader. The comprehensive Conservative party victory in May’s election led to despair in the ranks of the Labour. Within hours, Ed Miliband resigned as party leader. A gaggle of contenders to succeed him argued that Labour needed to learn the lesson of its defeat — it had to win the trust of middle England, develop more business-friendly policies, and edge towards the centre ground. But the groundswell of support for Mr. Corbyn suggests that party members are heading in the other direction and determined to push Labour further to the Left.
When Jeremy Corbyn announced his intention to stand for the party leadership, he was seen as a 100-1 outsider. He was well short of the number of Labour MPs required to endorse his nomination, and is now a candidate only because he persuaded colleagues, who didn’t support him, to sign his papers.
If Labour MPs alone elected the party leader, Mr. Corbyn wouldn’t have the ghost of a chance. But the ballot extends to all party members and to registered party supporters — and it costs just £3 (Rs. 300) to register. Tens of thousands have been signing up. A few are supporters of other parties who want to make mischief. Most are genuinely enthused by the prospect of an old-style socialist leading the Labour party.
There are similar stirrings in the U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders — in his 70s, also an avowed socialist and even more of a maverick than Mr. Corbyn, has got more traction than expected for his campaign for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination. He, too, has won support mainly from the young, many of whom see the frontrunner, >Hillary Clinton , as too much part of the system to be able to challenge and transform it.
Across the English-speaking world, a decade of economic recession has failed to produce the sort of progressive Left-wing political tide often evident in troubled times. The Occupy movement, which promised so much, has delivered little enduring political legacy. A financial crisis for which the bankers and big business are widely seen as responsible has led not to greater emphasis on social justice, but even more glaring inequality.
In Britain and the U.S., it’s the old-time Leftists, Corbyn and Sanders, who have benefited from a soul-searching within social democratic parties . The hard-line socialists, with their unchanging message and evident sincerity, offer hope — a commodity in short supply in progressive politics.
Tony Blair, the former prime minister, mocked those Labour party members whose hearts were with Corbyn; his message to them: “Get a transplant!” Mr. Blair is by far the most electorally successful leader Labour has ever had — but his stock is now so low within the party that any barbs he delivers boomerang to the benefit of those he’s criticising.
Some of Mr. Corbyn’s rivals — there are three other candidates, none of whom have impressed — have already said that if he wins, they won’t serve as a shadow minister. There have been mutterings that Labour might split. That’s unlikely. Mr. Corbyn’s supporters contend that the danger is not a schism, but a Labour party that fades into irrelevance because it has lost its radical vision. They argue that new forces such as environmentalism and Scottish nationalism have managed to engage with young idealists, and Labour also needs to have a clear, principled political message.
Yet, when the established market-based economic system is facing such profound difficulties, when the big corporations and the banks are so distrusted and when the digital revolution demands new ways of working and thinking, it is troubling that radicalism’s most vibrant manifestation is a reworking of a tired ideology and style of politics. New times require new thinking — and there’s not much sign of that on the Left.
Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC Delhi correspondent and also reported for the BBC on British politics