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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Can Jeremy Corbyn Change British Politics?

Is the rumpled, bearded left-winger doomed to failure and irrelevance, or can he build something befitting his ambitions?

Since the United Kingdom’s Labour party unexpectedly elected far-left socialist Jeremy Corbyn as its leader in September, British politics have been in utter disarray. Nobody quite knows what to make of the bearded vegetarian MP, who spent a forty-year political career in quiet obscurity before being suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into the mainstream. After multiple decades during which the Labour party was led by business-friendly centrists, there has been widespread bafflement and surprise at the election of a hard-left anticapitalist who sports a Leninesque flat cap. Even Corbyn himself was shocked to find himself suddenly in charge of the party; he had originally only even put his name in the race because he thought there ought to be at least one far-left candidate.

But the election result itself makes a reasonable amount of sense. There has been widespread disillusionment among Labour party members for many years, with many having the sense that the party has ceased to provide meaningful opposition to Conservative party rule. The 90’s New Labour strategy, developed by Tony Blair, had been for the party to move its politics to the right, on the theory that English people would not tolerate left-wing radicalism as indicated through their repeated reelection of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Blair therefore totally remade the Labour party, chucking out most of its socialist commitments. Before, the party constitution had promised to: “secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”

Roughly, this amounted to a full endorsement of the principles of Karl Marx. Blair made sure the the language was changed to say instead that the party “believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential.”

One would struggle to come up with an airier, more equivocal mission statement. But under Blair, incorporation of the principles of the public relations industry became central to the party’s identity. Its actual policy suggestions were fewer and fewer, its politicians’ words were hollower and hollower. And as happened with Barack Obama, once the electorate discovered that uplifting rhetoric could not pay their rent, they began to sour on the deal. In 2010, they put the Conservatives in power, the Labor party has been shriveling ever since.

So the party was in a fairly inauspicious state when Jeremy Corbyn arrived on the scene. But that’s precisely what enabled his victory. Corbyn ran against three other candidates, all of whom were the very definition of the Oxbridge political establishment, stuffed shirts whom the public had a great deal of difficulty telling apart.

Against them, Corbyn stood out as something previously unseen among the political class: a human. His fashion sense tended toward rumpled beige sport coats and sweaters knitted for him by his mum. He was soft-spoken but warm and conversational, described as a wholly decent chap even by his ex-wives. And he seemed to offer something genuinely different from conventional Labour policy: full-blooded, uncompromising socialism.

In ordinary times, this would be a completely disqualifying characteristic. The whole point of Blair’s revisions had been premised on the public’s allergy to the word socialism, which they associate with all the world’s evils from welfare to gulags. But we don’t exactly live in ordinary times. Just as in the U.S., the financial crisis fueled the British public’s anger toward wealth and privilege, and David Cameron’s merciless austerity program had been cutting many of people’s most relied-upon government services. The existing Labour party had done very little to oppose this. Thus there were two choices for traditional Labour voters: total, permanent disillusionment or intra-party revolution.

Fortunately, a generation of young Labour supporters chose the latter, crossing the country to campaign for their unshaven leftist hero. The Corbyn campaign steadily picked up steam over the summer, and what had once been a 200-1 long shot suddenly seemed like a guaranteed victory. When election day came, Corbyn won in a massive landslide, earning nearly 60% of the vote. His closest competitor received only 19%.

Corbyn’s election threw Britain into turmoil, since it was so completely without precedent. Corbyn is a serious left-winger; he makes Bernie Sanders look like Ted Cruz. He proposed nationalizing the railways, printing new money to finance public investment, and massively increasing corporate taxes. He spoke in an entirely different rhetoric from previous Labour leaders, insisting on a “kinder” form of politics that prioritized the needs of the poor and the oppressed. The oppressed! Not a word typically used in conventional liberal politics.

Of course, every single politician since the humankind’s earliest days has promised a “new kind of politics.” If the quality of an officeholder were to be judged by the amount they insist they are fresh and different, every last Congressman would be a consummate statesman. The serious question is not what they say, for hot air is the currency of governance. It is what they actually end up doing.

Corbyn’s first week as leader did not go especially smoothly. Almost immediately, the press deluged him with accusations of sexism after he gave all four “top” posts in his shadow cabinet to men, though his cabinet overall was the first ever to be more than 50% female. Suzannah Moore of The Guardian said that Corbyn heralded a “new brocialism,” calling Corbyn “tone deaf” and “daft” on women’s issues.

Then there was the anthem. At a commemoration ceremony for the Battle of Britain, Corbyn stood in solemn silence as the national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” was played, while others around him sang it. A monsoon of press coverage accused Corbyn of unpatriotic behavior, insisting that true Brits do not merely stand for the anthem, but bellow it out with fulsome exuberance.

A series of comparable mini-scandals followed. When Corbyn indicated he would consider kneeling before the Queen at a required ceremony, he was ribbed for compromising his anti-monarchist principles. When he stated that he would never consider using nuclear weapons, he was denounced for being too uncompromising of his anti-nuclear principles. With the press, Corbyn simply couldn’t win. The Telegraph went furthest across the absurdity threshold when it accused Corbyn of riding a “Chairman Mao-style bicycle.” Buzzfeed UK parodied Corbyn’s futile situation with a “choose-your-own-adventure” guide to being the new Labour leader, in which every decision one makes brings on denunciation from the media, no matter which side one chooses.

Yet after a few days, once the press had run out of fresh ways to call Corbyn a traitor and a communist, the dust began moderately to settle. Corbyn made his first appearance on the floor of Parliament, engaging in the traditional “Questions” session in which the leader of the opposition confronts the Prime Minister and asks him to answer for his various misdeeds. Usually it is a noisy ritual, with Members of Parliament booing and shouting at their opponents, and the Speaker of the House exasperatedly trying to maintain a semblance of decorum and exhorting his colleagues to please calm down and let each other speak.

But Corbyn’s first appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions was atypical. He announced at the outset that he wished to do it “somewhat differently,” as he felt the public had become weary of the spectacle of garrulous MPs making animal noises at one another instead of engaging in sober-minded discussion of the issues of the day. This unexpected announcement somewhat hushed the Conservative side of the room, which had come fully prepared to pelt Corbyn with more than the usual hisses and cackles.

His glasses halfway down his nose, Corbyn calmly told the House of Commons that Prime Minister’s Question Time was henceforth going to be genuine and reasonable, and that he took his duty as the people’s representative seriously. In that spirit, instead of asking the Prime Minister questions of his own devising, Corbyn took out a list of crowdsourced inquiries from members of the public. Instead of Cameron having to argue against the shaggy socialist Jeremy Corbyn, he would have to argue against “Marie,” “Stephen,” “Paul,” “Gail,” and “Angela.” Marie, Corbyn said, would like to know “what the Government intends to do about the chronic lack of affordable housing and the extortionate rents charged by some private sector landlords in this country?”

The tactic worked. Corbyn caught the Prime Minister off-guard, and the Conservatives were unable to give Corbyn the public humiliation they had hoped for. By speaking in the people’s voice, rather than his own, Corbyn staked out the moral high ground and put the Tories on the defensive.

The negative press did not ebb much after the first Prime Minister’s Questions, but Corbyn had bought himself at least a modicum of legitimacy. He still had record disapproval ratings for a new Labour leader, and a large portion of the populace barely knew who he was or thought him a threat to the country’s wellbeing (or barely knew who he was except for knowing that he was a threat to the country’s wellbeing..) Yet the coverage became increasingly difficult to take seriously. It was almost universally acknowledged that Corbyn had done well at the PMQ session, thus pundits had to engage in impossible rhetorical contortions in order to spin the event negatively. “Jeremy Corbyn’s first PMQs wasn’t a disaster, which is why it will destroy him,” ran the Telegraph’s headline. Their argument was that “by setting low expectations then meeting them, [Corbyn] will blind his party to his terrible flaws.”

In the time since that first parliamentary session, Corbyn has managed to do a bit more to build public confidence. He has turned out to be an unusually good television interview subject, explaining his socialistic principles in warm and intelligible terms, with a good-natured sense of humor. Attempts to ruffle him on television have failed, despite one interviewer asking him questions like “You’re a religious leader, aren’t you?” and “Why don’t you just admit you hate the Tories?” The low-key style led The Guardian so far as to suggest that Corbyn has “changed the art of political interviewing.” And when Corbyn gave his first major extended interview, with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, The Independent reported that “people loved it,” and that “even Mr Corbyn’s strongest New Labour critics had to admit he gave a strong performance on the show.”

The change in interview and questioning style is notable, first, because it has somewhat dashed the hopes of Corbyn’s detractors that he would immediately crash and burn, and second because it may signal that he is, in fact, serious when he says that he is trying to do politics differently.

Naturally, it’s difficult to say from the early days of his leadership whether Corbyn is actually capable of being “transformative.” But he appears serious about an inclusive politics; he still holds regular public “advice sessions” at which people with issues concerning “housing, immigration or benefits” can come and ask him for help. His first action as leader was to visit a protest in support of refugees. He hasn’t backed down on any of his key commitments, from absolute opposition to nuclear weapons to a skepticism of military interventions abroad. Tens of thousands of new members have joined the Labour party, inspired by Corbyn’s optimism and humility, as well as his promise for the revivification of an authentic radical left-wing politics.

But Corbyn will inevitably face the problem that all idealists face when they achieve power: compromise is inevitable, and once you compromise on one thing, it’s a few small steps to complete capitulation. It’s very difficult to remain true to onself and simultaneously negotiate a morally murky set of political necessities.

One encouraging thing, though, has been that Corbyn seems policy-minded. He has decades of experience in the House of Commons (albeit in the very back of the back benches), and thus is likely to have few illusions about the task ahead of him as Labour leader. He has offered specific proposals for what he would do if Labour was in government, including giving an outline and timeline for how he would like to accomplish railway renationalization, and thus has set real goals that can be measured by their success or failure. Promisingly, he has now taken on an economic team including “rockstar” economist Thomas Piketty and Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz, who will hopefully help him formulate an effective left-wing economic agenda, which can give Labour something to offer the British people.

Specificity of the proposals is crucial if Corbyn is going to succeed. If the entire reason people were disillusioned with Labour is that they did not know what they stood for, Corbyn must have a list of concrete things for which Labour does stand, that go beyond feel-good rhetoric about kindness, community, and honest politics.

Thus far, it looks as if he’s serious. Bernie Sanders could stand to take note of this; he himself has a tendency toward grandiose anti-inequality rhetoric, with the underlying proposals remaining cloudy.

But Corbyn has to be serious, has to be genuinely different if he wants his ideas to have a chance. After all, a significant portion of his party’s elected officials hate his guts, and think his election was a suicidal disaster. (Before the election, Tony Blair issued a desperate plea: “Even if you hate me, please don’t take Labour over the cliff edge” by voting for Corbyn, he wrote.) No matter how large his grassroots support may be among young people, unifying the party and defeating the Conservatives is a gargantuan task, and it won’t be accomplished with speeches alone; Corbyn has to build a real, serious base of power.

If one were to judge by the reactions of the Tories to Corbyn’s election, he just might stand a chance. Of course, all of them insist that he is unelectable, and that the Labour party has thoroughly discredited itself or committed electoral suicide. The U.S. National Review insisted that the Labour party had “set itself on fire” and the U.K. Daily Express said he “spells disaster for Labour.”

Yet in the same breath as they insist Corbyn is a ludicrous nonentity who has consigned his party to insignificance, Conservatives warn of the terrible threat he poses. When Corbyn was elected, Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted that “Labour are now a serious risk to our nation’s security, our economy’s security and your family’s security.” Surely a bit of an overstatement of the risks posed by an ineffectual nobody.

Now that Corbyn is picking up a bit of steam, and shaking off the attacks, Conservatives’ warnings about the threat he poses increase in intensity. Each of their prophecies of doom should give the rest of us a little bit of hope.

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