Jeremy Corbyn and the British Left’s Rebellion

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Jeremy Corbyn speaks after being announced as the new leader of Britain's opposition Labour party.Photo: BEN STANSALL

Over in the U.K., the opposition Labour Party has undergone a shocking upheaval following the landslide election of Jeremy Corbyn, a far-left outsider, as its new leader on Saturday. Facing three other candidates, the once-long-shot Corbyn took nearly 60 percent of the vote, and will now replace former leader Ed Miliband, who resigned following Labour’s spectacular defeat in the country’s general election earlier this year. By choosing Corbyn, Labour supporters have signaled a dramatic move away from the centrist policies that had previously propelled former prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to power. Corbyn, a Marx-admiring socialist, wants to nationalize many industries and utilities, end austerity cuts and increase spending, heavily tax corporations and the rich, withdraw from NATO, and drastically reduce military spending. He has also made many controversial statements in opposition to U.K., U.S., and Israeli foreign policies, and has had some controversial associations as well. As a result of all this, many in Britain are calling his election a death knell for the Labour Party, as his positions are unlikely to resonate in a country that overwhelmingly supported Conservative candidates in the last general election.

Last month, former Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote an op-ed in which he tried to warn his fellow Labour Party members to steer clear of Corbyn. “The party is walking eyes shut, arms outstretched, over the cliff’s edge to the jagged rocks below,” he claimed, adding that, “If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader it won’t be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation.” Considering statements like that from within Labour’s highest ranks, many in the U.K. believe Corbyn won’t even be able to unite his party, though many Labour leaders now seem to have fallen in line, likely because Corbyn didn’t just win among a wave of new Labour supporters, but among the older ones as well.

Those supporters see Corbyn as a sincere and authentic representative who has the integrity to fight inequality and stand up for liberal ideals regardless of the political cost. Indeed, that kind of political purity is on the rise across Europe as parties on the left and right have emerged to respond to the recent economic crisis and other anxieties. The Guardian’s Gary Younge elaborates on the left edge of that trend, as well as the difference between Corbyn and the other Labour candidates:

[L]ittle of this is really about Corbyn. He is less the product of a movement than the conduit for a moment that has parallels across the western world. After almost a decade and a half of war, crisis and austerity, leftwing social democrats in all their various national guises are enjoying a revival as they seek to challenge the neo-liberal consensus. In the U.S., the self-described “democratic-socialist” Bernie Sanders is outpolling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in key states. Podemos in Spain, Syrzia in Greece and Die Linke in Germany are all posing significant challenges to mainstream centre-left parties.

Beyond the left, Corbyn’s ability to answer questions in a clear and straightforward manner amounts to a rebuke to the political class in general. In this and many other respects, his strengths were accentuated by the weakness of his leadership opponents. With their varying degrees of milquetoast managerialism, they were not only barely distinguishable from each other but had platforms that were forgettable even when they were decipherable. Short of perhaps a speeding ticket, they didn’t appear to have a single conviction between them. There is nothing to suggest any of them were more electable than Corbyn.

And the desire for political authenticity is also an emerging phenomenon. On that note, The Spectator’s Alex Massie agrees that Corbyn’s style is “the perfect vessel for the anti-politics mood of our time,” but such sentiment is hardly responsible, and in this case, maybe a little deranged:

Corbyn’s rise should be understood as a kind of wail of despair. The Labour party is not prepared to compromise with the electorate. Its reaction to a devastating election defeat in May — the party’s worst performance in 30 years — has been to vacate the centre ground of British politics and move sharply to the left. It is a bold strategy, the effectiveness of which will certainly be tested by Corbyn’s leadership.

Meanwhile, Conservatives cannot believe their luck. They have kept ominously quiet throughout this Summer of Corbyn, hoping a more left-leaning Labour will leave more space in the moderate middle of British politics for [Tory leader and current Prime Minister] David Cameron to fill.

Meanwhile The Telegraph’s Dan Hodges thinks Labour Party members “wanted to see their party go out in a final blaze of uncompromising glory,” and he’s really pissed off about it:

There is only one way an official opposition can put pressure on a government. That is by making itself a potential government. And with the election of Jeremy Corbyn Labour is no longer even capable of fulfilling that basic political and constitutional obligation. This [is] the great irony of what Labour Party has just done. In fact it’s not an irony, it’s actually a minor obscenity. Sole responsibility for protecting the country from the excesses of Conservatism has now been handed to moderate elements within the Conservative Party. They are all that’s left now.

But Guardian columnist Zoe Williams insists that in the face of banal and media-polished centrism, principles matter. “I don’t care whether or not Corbyn can win a general election,” she writes. “The important thing, ahead of winning, is to know why you want to win, and what you want to do with the victory”:

[T]he new question for the opposition is not “how can we win?” but “who can we help?” The Blairite line is, nobody; not until you have the keys to No 10 [Downing Street]. If Corbyn can crack open the certainties of politics, so that the alienating verities of centrism, fake moderation and evasiveness have to cede to something more like a contest between genuinely different ideas, opposition may become a meaningful pursuit even while power is unknowably distant.

On the other end of the political spectrum, The Daily Mail’s Peter Hitchens sort of concurs, as he admires the way Corbyn has upended the machine politics of the Labour Party, and hopes that success will inspire someone on the right to do the same thing to the Tories:

If (like me) you have attended any of Mr Corbyn’s overflowing campaign meetings, you will have seen the hunger — among the under-30s and the over-50s especially — for principled, grown-up politics instead of public relations pap. Mr Corbyn reminds mature people of the days when the big parties really differed. He impresses the young because he doesn’t patronise them, and obviously believes what he says. This desire for real politics isn’t just confined to the Left […]

Millions are weary of being smarmed and lied to by people who actually are not that competent or impressive, and who have been picked because they look good on TV rather than because they have ideas or character. Indeed, ideas or character are a disadvantage. Anything resembling a clear opinion is seized upon by the media’s inquisitors, and turned in to a ‘gaffe’ or an outrage.

And how might the rise of Corbyn reflect political realities here in the U.S.? The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher recognizes a similarity:

I think [Donald] Trump is a highly unprincipled demagogue (vs. Corbyn, who has strong principles, but the wrong ones, and is the opposite of a demagogue), and a disaster for the Republicans, and I will be very happy when his campaign flames out. But I can’t help taking a bit of Schadenfreudian pleasure in the way he’s vexing the campaigns of all the professional Republicans, and I have a grudging admiration for the way he makes “gaffes” all the time, but nothing sticks to him. Even though I’m usually appalled by this or that gaffe of his, it is at times weirdly pleasant to see a politician say something that freaks out the tut-tutters (like me!), and get away with it.

And by the way, Bernie Sanders is the U.S. left’s version of Jeremy Corbyn, and I’m very pleased to see him sticking it to the Clinton machine.

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz makes the same comparison, pointing out that Sanders’s base is motivated by many of the same concerns (though Corbyn is pretty far to Sanders’s left), as well as highlighting the traditionally centrist Hillary Clinton and her struggles with left-liberal discontent:

Clinton has tried to adapt. She is not clinging to New Democrat rhetoric, nor articulating, as Blair did, a defense of center-ground politics. Her rhetoric has tried to echo the times. Her policies have shifted less, certainly less than those Sanders advocates. The public mood also has put a greater premium on authenticity, rather than skilled and practiced policies. Sanders is old school, rumpled and unpolished, out of the same mold as Corbyn, characteristics that are appealing to many people sick of packaged politicians. Clinton has yet to find this voice.

He goes on to note that Team Clinton hasn’t pushed the electability argument yet, as so far Clinton has “tried to maneuver carefully between a Blairite past and an accommodation with a more progressive future”:

Clinton still has many advantages. The process of winning a presidential nomination here is far different than becoming leader of the Labour Party. Money and machinery count heavily, and victory must come repeatedly through the course of primaries and caucuses in all the states. But the Democrats are inching toward a more rigorous debate, and the British example could serve as a catalyst for engagement.

Lastly, Vox’s Matt Yglesias makes a good point in wondering whether liberal Democrats might face a Labour-like identity crisis if the Republican Party ever moves to the center on cultural issues — like most British Conservatives have — and is able to permanently peel off a large number of centrist Democrats.