Old Labour’s 21st century moment

The resounding victory of veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn in elections for leader of Britain’s main Opposition party will reshape politics in Britain — and perhaps beyond

September 14, 2015 01:27 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:35 pm IST

“The day the Labour Party died,” read the alarmist headline on The Daily Telegraph ’s website, just hours after Jeremy Corbyn’s victory was announced on Saturday.

“The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party is a catastrophe,” wrote a columnist for The Telegraph , a paper which has never showed much friendly interest in the British Left. “A catastrophe for the Labour Party. A catastrophe for our political system. A catastrophe for the country,” it added.

Andrew Whitehead

There are many such siren voices warning that the British Labour Party’s dramatic, and emphatic, lurch to the Left will consign it to electoral oblivion, and weaken democracy by depriving the country of a credible and effective Opposition. Political commentators have been queuing up to insist that two elections were decided over the weekend — Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in turn means, they argue, that the governing Centre-Right Conservatives are now certain of re-election the next time Britain votes.

Of all the convulsions that have shocked Britain’s political system of late — the success of an anti-Europe, anti- immigration party in elections to the European Parliament; the resurgence of a radical Scottish nationalism; the outright victory of David Cameron’s Conservatives in the May general elections — Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph is the most outlandish and unexpected one.

The Labour Party thought it would win the May election; instead, it got barely 30 per cent of the national vote and so was consigned to another five years out of power. Labour’s Centre-Left leader Ed Miliband promptly resigned, heralding the contest which reached its climax at the weekend.

A perpetual rebel Many thought that a humbled Labour Party would head for the centre ground, and move back towards the ‘New Labour’ pragmatism associated with Tony Blair. In fact, the most Blairite of the leadership candidates came last with less than 5 per cent of the vote, and the party has confounded conventional political common sense by swinging sharply away from the political Centre.

Jeremy Corbyn is, in the words of The Economist , “perhaps the most Left-wing MP in the House of Commons”. In more than 30 years in Parliament, he has been the perpetual rebel. He has never been a Minister. He has never shown a great deal of personal ambition.

A touch of the ageing hippy Yet, now this bearded, vegetarian, alcohol-abstaining socialist — with a touch of the ageing hippy about him — is the leader of Her Majesty’s official Opposition. And he is 66 — so ‘Old Labour’ in more ways than one.

Yet he won by a landslide, taking 60 per cent of the votes in a four-sided contest in which nearly half-a-million Labour Party members and registered supporters participated. It is probably the most emphatic personal mandate any party leader has secured in modern British history.

If you imagine Mr. Corbyn to be a fiery, charismatic demagogue, think again. He is a none-too-impressive orator, a personable but not a commanding personality. The qualities which have won him the election are constancy of political principle — some say his views have not changed on any important issue since the 1970s — and his personal humility and honesty.

When so many politicians are seen as unprincipled, too concerned about personal advancement, and saying what they think is popular rather than what they believe, Mr. Corbyn is seen as the anti-politician politician. The man who says what he means.

As the Corbyn campaign gathered steam, thousands of young men and women, many of them deeply disillusioned by party politics, rallied to his standard. The strength of his support carries a warning to politicians of all parties — they have lost the confidence and respect of a significant slice of the country. The British political system is in some disrepair.

And of course on key issues — opposing public spending cuts, protecting welfare benefits, keeping out of other countries’ conflicts, renouncing nuclear weapons, welcoming refugees, demanding action against social inequality — Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters took a stand which was in marked contrast to the equivocations of his rivals.

But where does Labour go from here? Jeremy Corbyn’s immediate problem is that he does not have the support of the parliamentary Labour party. While three-fifth of party members and supporters voted for him as leader, probably no more than one-tenth of the party’s MPs backed him. Several prominent figures in the party have already said they will not take a role in Mr. Corbyn’s shadow Cabinet team.

Mr. Corbyn has suggested that he wants to reach out to all wings of the party. That is a wise move — not least because the hard Left has very few political figures of real talent and stature. But there is a risk that the new leader will be cold-shouldered by many of the party’s rising stars who feel deeply uncomfortable about printing more money to ease austerity, abandoning Britain’s nuclear arsenal and other of Mr. Corbyn’s key policy proposals.

Mainstream Labour figures are desperately worried that the party is heading to the Left when the country is edging to the Right. A hard-Left leader may appeal to Labour party activists, but could well terrify the floating voters who need to be won back from the Conservatives.

Mr. Corbyn’s victory will, nevertheless, shape Britain in coming years — it is now less likely that Britain will intervene militarily in Syria, and a little more likely (though still odds are against it) that the country will pull out of the European Union (EU).

In his view of the world, Mr. Corbyn reflects the 1970s socialist distrust of American foreign policy and support for movements of an anti-imperialist mindset. He was venomously criticised during the leadership campaign for being sympathetic to Irish republicanism and to Hamas and Hizbollah in West Asia.

Labour’s new leader is clever enough to know that he now needs to be a lot more careful about who he calls his friend. But there may well be quite a few skeletons lurking in his political closet which his rivals will delight in disinterring.

More retro than Syriza, Podemos It is doubtful whether Jeremy Corbyn’s victory reflects a wider trend in the European Left. One of the first messages of congratulations came from Syriza, the hard-Left governing party in Greece. But while Syriza and its Spanish counterpart Podemos are the shock troops of a new Left — youthful in profile, iconoclastic by temperament, a break from old-style social democracy — Mr. Corbyn is much more retro. There is not a lot of evidence of new thinking on the Labour Left.

A greater international impact could well be in encouraging mavericks and outliers to believe that they can capture high political ground. Those polar opposites of American politics, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, are both likely to find encouragement in Mr. Corbyn’s success as they compete respectively for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations.

Could we see in a few years time Jeremy Corbyn becoming the most Left-wing Prime Minister in British history? Even many of his supporters think that is unlikely. It is not simply that the electorate may decide they don’t want a hard-line socialist leading the country. Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t really shown a lot of hunger for the top job.

He will be in his seventies at the time of the next general election in 2020. Britain hasn’t had a Prime Minister that old since Winston Churchill more than sixty years ago. It is entirely possible that he will see his main goal as shaking up the Labour Party, restoring its radical vigour, and making way for a younger man or woman within two or three years.

But the last few extraordinary months and years in British politics have shown how unwise it is to gaze into the soothsayer’s crystal ball. So let’s just sit back and watch the drama unfold.

( Andrew Whitehead was both India correspondent and U.K. political correspondent during a BBC career stretching over 35 years .)

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