Suddenly, the Labour leadership election is wide open. What had been expected to be a bland and uneventful contest has become a serious spectacle, prompting furious comment, hysterical front pages, and – perhaps surprisingly – genuine political introspection. The man who has caused this unexpected course of events is Jeremy Corbyn, a longstanding and formerly little-known Labour MP who has represented Islington North since 1983. His newfound success is remarkable; some polls suggest that he will win the election on first preference votes alone. The reaction to this – from both the Left and the Right of the Labour Party – has been tremendous. Some Labour MPs, for example John Mann, have even called for the hustings to be suspended due to an apparent threat that communists would join the party and vote for Corbyn en masse, thereby tipping the balance in his favour.
Many within Labour, especially those on the Right, believe that Corbyn will catapult the party further to the Left and into the wilderness; his supporters, on the other hand, see Corbyn’s relative radicalism as the key to winning the next general election and, more broadly than that, engendering the sort of social and political change many more centrist Labour figures would not countenance.
Corbyn is certainly capable of a polished performance on his day, and his denunciations of the excesses of modern capitalism exhibit attractive features for many both within and without the Labour party; the scars of the late recession – popularly perceived to have been caused primarily by the excesses of capital and those who held and hold it in overabundance – are present still in our politics and our lives.
The man himself can be a skilful advocate on behalf of this perspective; Corbyn’s recitations of socialist doctrine are fluent and occasionally impressive. His ability to use emotive examples, particularly tales of poverty and deprivation, means that he is capable of acquitting himself really rather well on television. And it can certainly be said that he embodies the much-vaunted ‘alternative’ to the other Labour leadership candidates (all of whom are depressingly alike in their uninspiring uniformity) which many party members crave.
There have been moments in this campaign where the lacquer has chipped, however. Corbyn showed a distinct lack of polish during an interview on Channel 4, in which he was asked to explain in more detail his decision to term Hamas and Hezbollah – those violent, extremist organisations, both of which are designated as terrorist groups by the international community – as ‘friends’ of his. Corbyn proceeded to lose his cool. It was an unedifying display.
Perhaps some of the explanation for this outburst can come from Corbyn’s history of far-Left activism. Exiled for years during the long Blair ascendency and pining for a Labour Party closer to the incarnation favoured by Michael Foot, many of a hard-Left persuasion have felt politically isolated for a great deal of time. They have not disappeared, of course, but debate on their issues and around their thinking has remained detached from mainstream discourse; theirs is a worldview which has received little national attention. Those who share the same political instincts as Corbyn have had a somewhat limited experience of public debate in recent years and have confined their own discussions to a select few.
It is therefore little surprise that Corbyn has some difficulty in persuading a more mainstream audience of much of the substance of his beliefs, many of which are derived from, and buttressed by, an ideology few in politics or the public share. Among ideological allies it is certain that few would disagree with Corbyn’s tacit support for the terror groups mentioned above; they are a counterpoint to Israel, after all – and they have the same relationship with Israel’s ally, the United States, a nation many hard-Left types perceive to have an entirely evil effect on international affairs.
Persuading the people that the railways ought to be renationalised, for example – something for which polls have shown there to be fairly consistent support – is not equal to the far trickier task of justifying the seemingly suicidal withdrawal of Britain from international institutions such as NATO, which does at least offer some sense of safety in an increasingly turbulent international order.
The European Union is another matter entirely. The recent Greek débâcle has not helped the European cause; not only is the Union now seen by many to be a tool of German financial interests, it has also attracted widespread condemnation for its supposedly cruel and undemocratic handling of that benighted southern European nation. Now could be the time, then, that the Eurosceptics return to the majority; and Corbyn is foremost among the Left-wing anti-European voices. If he attains the Labour leadership, the entire character of the upcoming referendum could be completely reversed. David Cameron, whose pro-European impulses may dictate that he support remaining within the EU as it is, would not wish to be outflanked by the Leader of the Opposition. He needs the Eurosceptic votes too much to allow such an eventuality to occur. It must also be remembered that Tony Benn shared a platform with Enoch Powell in campaigning against the Common Market in the 1970s. If Corbyn wins the leadership election, Britain’s place within Europe could alter radically and permanently.
Could Corbyn therefore be the Thatcher of the Left? His platform is certainly radical enough to transform the Labour Party; and, if implemented, it could well alter the fabric of Britain’s current political consensus.
His vision does suffer from some existential faults, however. Unlike Thatcher, who was at heart a moderniser, keen to strip back the inefficiencies of government and to reduce the dominance of the state, Corbyn embodies a political and economic philosophy built upon the past; his is a strangely retrograde position for a man of the Left. While Thatcher, for example, modernised the City, leading to the ‘big bang’ of the 1980s and a sea-change in prosperity for great swathes of Britain, much of what Corbyn believes seems to originate as opposition to that which others simply see as progress.
He is against lower corporate tax rates, lower rates of income tax and other measures which allow citizens to keep more of their own money; he is in favour of retaining the government stake in state-owned companies; he is consistently opposed to methods of energy extraction such as fracking, which many scientists see as a necessity when faced with highly volatile fuel prices.
Much has been written about Corbyn’s leadership challenge. His surprise nomination, unlikely popularity, and indeed what might happen if he actually wins – a prospect which has increased in apparent likelihood of late – have all generated much commentary and speculation. Despite this veritable media carnival, it seems altogether unlikely that he will secure the leadership of the Labour Party. Not only will the other candidates and factions, wary of another wilderness period, band together to derail his chances, he himself has the potential to do his own campaign much damage.
From what can be deduced from his platform it is fairly certain that a Corbyn Labour Party would advocate for isolationism and not internationalism, backwardness and not progress, and the politics of grievance – both international and local – which would paralyse much of what we in Britain need to accomplish. Ultimately it can be seen that Corbyn, despite his being a refreshing change when compared to the other candidates, and despite the sense from many that he could revitalise the dormant socialism of Labour’s past, is on the precipice of doing damage both to his party and to his country – and that would be entirely undesirable for all concerned.