Today Britain’s Labour party elected their most unapologetic and uncompromising left-wing leader in (at least) decades. Winning by a massive majority over his centrist opponents, Jeremy Corbyn is now the official opposition leader to David Cameron’s government. He may not actually be in power, but he will make a massive difference to British politics. So what does Corbyn stand for? What does his election say about British voters? And why does any of this matter?
Corbyn is one of the most left-wing MP in Labour, and has been a thorn in the side of Labour leadership since the 1980s, regularly voting against his own party. On economics he is (of course) anti-austerity, but is also a big supporter of the trade unions and supports nationalising services like railways and energy. He firmly opposes current efforts against IS in the Middle East, was a fierce opponent of the Iraq war, and even said that his former party leader Tony Blair could be tried for war crimes. Only in this leadership contest did he stop calling for a withdrawal from NATO, who he blames for provoking Russia over Ukraine. He wants to scrap Britain’s nukes, and isn’t a big fan of war full stop, having helped to found the Stop the War coalition. Finally, he has been a strong voice for refugees in the recent crisis, and his first act as leader will be to take part in a pro-asylum demonstration.
Many of these stances, such as on the economy and NATO, are far to the left of the British political consensus, and the fact that Corbyn is so active and passionate in promoting them makes him even more of an outsider. He’s pretty much your ‘stereotypical’ leftist, so it isn’t surprising then that his victory is a bit of a shock for Labour. He only got on the ballot in the first place thanks to MPs who only wanted to have a wider range of candidates – and who are now publically regretting that move.
However, once Corbyn actually started campaigning, he rocketed ahead of the other candidates. I think a lot of this is thanks to the fact that he so clearly stands for something. There is nothing devious or fake about the man, as he has spent the last 30 years in parliament making clear exactly what his beliefs are. As many have pointed out, he taps into the same populism as Donald Trump, just on the other end of the political spectrum (as well as being a lot pleasanter). When people are sick of politicians, someone who talks straight and isn’t ‘tainted’ by the politics of compromise is an attractive proposition. What also helps is a genuinely frugal, humble and hardworking image.
The problem for Labour though is that Corbyn doesn’t really look like someone who can win an election. In Scotland he’ll go up against the triumphant Scottish National Party, and in England he’ll have a very tough time winning the necessary number of Conservative seats. Last time Labour was this left-wing their manifesto ended up being called ‘the longest suicide note in history‘. He seems likely to throw the party into even more of a identity crisis.
What he can do though is provide real opposition to the Tories. David Cameron may be actually looking forward to sparring with someone as ‘extreme’ as Corbyn. However, he should watch out. He now has a man sitting across from him who can articulate a strong and principled opposition to the UK’s economic austerity and Middle Eastern policy against IS. He will have to defend issues like NATO and nuclear weapons that weren’t even up for debate before Corbyn came along. Assuming Corbyn’s party members behave themselves under his leadership, British politics will be more divided than ever. Interesting times lie ahead for the United Kingdom.
Thanks to Neil Singleton – who knows a lot more about British politics than I do – for the above point about Corbyn in opposition.