Mon | May 29, 2017

Revolution in the British Labour Party

Published:Sunday | September 20, 2015 | 9:00 AM
Jeremy Corbyn, new leader of the UK Labour Party.

Last weekend, Britain's Labour Party decided to turn left down a road it has never before travelled. So it's anybody's guess where it will lead, but right now most of the passengers in the back seat are kicking and screaming in panic.

Earlier in the summer, when the competition to select a new leader for Labour looked a humdrum battle among candidates hard to separate on policy, someone got the clever idea of nominating a stalking horse to liven it up. The idea was that Jeremy Corbyn, a hard-Left backbencher who opposes NATO and the European Union, would inject some lively policy discourse that would then trigger a genuine debate.

Those who signed his nomination papers are the ones you now see standing in the corner slapping their heads and saying, "What was I thinking?" Because Corbyn did more than liven up the campaign, he won this past weekend's vote, and by a landslide. What the party elders hadn't reckoned on was that a grass-roots insurgency among young people, similar to what brought Syriza to power in Greece and is behind the surge of the radical-Left Podemos in Spain, would rush in to back a man who is more in accord with their liking.

Corbyn's victory was greeted with euphoria in two rather different camps. His own Left-wing supporters, stunned by the size of his mandate - he won handily in the first round of voting, trouncing his rivals - believe this shows their moment has come. But so, too, did Conservative strategists cheer. As one of them put it, all their Christmases have just come at once.

Scarcely anyone in Britain's punditocracy, be they on the Left or the Right, believes a Corbyn-led Labour Party can win an election. Many of his views are well outside the mainstream of British politics and appeal only to a small, committed base. Meanwhile, studies conducted by Labour-friendly think tanks since the party's disastrous defeat in May's election concluded that under leader Ed Miliband, Britons didn't trust the party with the economy. If they didn't trust Ed Miliband with the economy, they're even less likely to do so with Mr Corbyn.

 

UNPLEASANT MEMORIES

 

Nor will it help that Mr Corbyn benefited from strong union backing. Enough Britons retain memories of the old days when the unions could, and would, shut down the country to force their demands on governments. To them, a strong endorsement by the union leadership is all they need to know in making up their mind not to vote Labour.

One of the very difficult realities facts with which Corbyn must now contend is that almost none of the party's MPs supported him. Many, including some of the most established and respected names in the party's current front benches, declared him unelectable. Several have already said they will not serve in his shadow Cabinet.

If Mr Corbyn sticks to his positions, he will lose much of the caucus and a good chunk of the party, to say nothing of the country. If he waters down some of his positions and sticks with those that are popular, like his critique of Conservative austerity policies, he could hit upon a better formula.

But then he would risk alienating his hard-core supporters, who trust him to be authentic and true to his principles. Indeed, one recent study found that Corbyn's supporters tend disproportionately to favour purity over pragmatism, and are prepared to forgo power in order to articulate a more socialist message than Labour has been doing since the Tony Blair years.

The odds are that Jeremy Corbyn will fail, and he may even fail spectacularly. On the other hand, democratic politics has become so unpredictable these days - new radical parties are surging in Europe and Donald Trump is slaying them in Iowa - that anything is possible. And if Mr Corbyn has one thing going for him, it is that expectations of him are so low, he can only go up from here.

- John Rapley is a writer and academic based in London, and author of The Money Cult (Simon and Schuster, 2016). A long-time Gleaner correspondent, you can follow him on twitter @jarapley and at https://brixtonsubversity.

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