A 66-year-old pescatarian has electrified the British electorate, and if polls hold, he might just be the next leader of the center-left Labour Party come Sept. 17. Timid and ascetic, he is Jeremy Corbyn, or Jez to his supporters, and he has provided a much-needed shot in the arm for the anti-austerity movement in the U.K., winning him comparisons to the leaders of Podemos and Syriza.
Jez arrived at the right moment. After a resounding defeat in the hands of the Conservative Party in May, Labour suffered something of an identity crisis. Its former leader Ed Miliband resigned before the party could even begin thinking about who came next. Initially, Corbyn was regarded as a token candidate of the marginal left, but he has since inspired a wave of people to join Labour, and polls show he is the front-runner by a huge margin.
To give an example of how unlikely an occurrence this is, picture Bernie Sanders beating Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination by 25 points. But, as Sanders does in the U.S., Jez faces an uphill battle with public opinion. The mainstream press still regards Corbyn as an outsider; left-wing activists see him as a danger to Labour and British political life in general. His socialist politics are seen as outdated; the term “unelectable” always seems to come up in his news coverage.
Activists on the far left who joined Labour just to vote for him are labeled entryists who don’t share the party’s values. (Though what those values are post–Tony Blair is unclear.) Right-wing commentators worry that he will drag the political center to the left and that the spotlight he would enjoy as the leader of the opposition would lend his ideas more credibility.
They have reason to worry. Corbyn’s straightforward way of putting forth his arguments makes other politicians sound like soulless robots, with their PR-crafted platitudes. Syriza (in its admittedly watered-down state, after Alexis Tsipras signed up for more austerity, split the party and was forced to resign and call for elections) has endorsed him as its candidate of choice to lead Labour.
Jez has burst the stultifying boring bubble of Westminster politics with a man-of-the-people air that, for a change, does not come cloaked in xenophobia and red-baiting. He is reviving a party that lost two elections by leaning to the right, and his version of the Labour Party gives the capitalist class an actual ideological opponent by simply agreeing with British voters (of all persuasions) on the renationalization of the railroads, scrapping nuclear weapons and tuition fees and taxing the rich.
But while Corbyn is a sound socialist with his heart in the right place, his charisma is limited. His ex-wife complained that, as a young man, he opted to photocopy political pamphlets and eat cold beans from a can over taking her out on dates. He is regrettably not the man to lead a mass movement of the left against austerity and neoliberalism.
But that doesn’t mean Corbyn can’t be the beginning of something. His main asset is to show those on the left that they need to up their game. That said, his party needs to be more realistic about his long-term prospects. Jez will not save Britain — but whoever comes after him could.
In trying to take Corbyn down, his critics have emphasized his foreign policy record. His association with Iranian state broadcaster Press TV — on which he hosted a show — and the fact that he called Hamas and Hezbollah his “friends” in the Palestinian territories fuel many accusations that he is too comfortable associating with anti-Semites. And yet somehow, Jez has displayed a remarkable Teflon quality: the barbs, true as they might be, fail to stick.
Others, including Allister Heath, the editor of the financial daily City AM, have attacked his economic policies, characterizing his Keynesian bent as a throwback to the socialism that bankrupted Britain in the 1970s. This is a vast overstatement. I can hardly imagine a Stalinist making a dedicated website called Corbyn for Business as a campaigning tool. In fact, many of Corbyn’s suggestions have been put forth repeatedly by mainstream economists like Paul Krugman.
Where his critics are correct is that his politics were shaped in a bygone era. Tony Benn, Corbyn’s political godfather, was a giant of socialist thought, and his influence is clear on Corbyn’s line, but as a result, many of the ideas Corbyn is putting forth are political zombies, hanging around because nothing better has emerged to take their place.
It’s been said time and time again that the British working class — the demographic to whom Corbyn and the radical left are appealing — has all but disappeared. The traditional Labour hinterlands in the north of England, conservative in their values, are falling for the lure of the U.K. Independence Party and its xenophobic populism; the urban, progressive but business-savvy Labour inner-city vote can’t exactly be reasoned with in the same way as miners in Wales. In short, Corbyn had been called upon to do too much, too late, with too little, and what’s worse, his tools are blunt, as the Labour Party brand is tainted, considered out of touch and too keen to please Big Business.
Make no mistake: Syriza and Podemos got where they were because they appealed to a young electorate by creating solidarity networks that operate locally, even if they feed into the main party and on many levels outside the political sphere. But can Corbyn find a point of convergence between state-controlled socialism and this new class of precariously employed, overeducated, skeptical young voters?
Corbyn doesn’t seem to support the nonhierarchical, independent-networks-working-together approach these other movements share, and he is in fact a product of the exact opposite mechanism: that of top-down, winner-takes-all parliamentarian politics. So he can inspire, but his clout is limited.
That’s why Corbyn should do his best but aim to groom the next Labour leader for the 2020 elections.
If Corbyn wins, the political classes will throw everything at him, and he should take it and put that Teflon coating to good use. In the meantime, his party should put its energy not into preserving his rule but into training the person who can succeed him — and succeed, period. With the political center shifting leftward, the ground will be ripe for a reinvented Labour Party. The big bet is not to succumb to I-told-you-so critics, as Syriza seems to be doing in Greece, but to frame any failures as mere groundwork for the British left’s eventual rebirth.
A victory for the British left in 2020 isn’t inconceivable, but a 70-year-old Corbyn becoming prime minister in 2020 is hard to imagine. If Jez realizes that he is a key player in a much bigger and longer game, though, he can go down in history as a great politician — and a man who saved his party from irrelevance.