Stefan Wermuth / Reuters

The unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn

Victory rebukes Blair third-way politics and British austerity policies

September 15, 2015 2:00AM ET

On the morning of Sept. 12, Jeremy Corbyn took to the stage for his victory speech at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster dressed like Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Syriza. Wearing an open-neck shirt, a style favored by Europe’s new radical left, he addressed the crowd with a stark anti-austerity message.

“We don’t have to be unequal,” he said. “It does not have to be unfair. Poverty isn’t inevitable. Things can — and they will — change.”

This summer has seen an extraordinary transformation of the British Labour Party. This wave culminated in the party election of Corbyn, a veteran from its hard-left faction, as its new leader. Few outside Labour circles had even heard of the man even a few months ago.

While other European countries such as Spain and Greece have seen the rise of radical socialist alternatives to established parties of the center-left, in Britain the anti-austerity socialist surge has transformed Labour from the inside rather than displaced it. Nobody saw this coming, Corbyn included.

How did this happen? And what will be the consequences of Labour’s unexpected change of direction?

A crushing victory

Corbyn delivered a crushing victory in the party’s internal election, a victory greater than even his most ardent supporters imagined possible. In a field of four candidates, Corbyn won 59.5 percent in the first round of voting —garnering three times as many votes as the second- and third-place candidates, the experienced former ministers Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper. Liz Kendall, the candidate whose business-friendly agenda was closest to the views of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, languished in a distant fourth place, with a mere 4.5 percent of the vote.

Corbyn’s share and margin of victory dwarfed Blair’s results when he was elected leader in 1994. Just as strikingly, Labour’s membership has increased by almost half, from 200,000 to 300,000 since the May 7 electoral defeat, as new members joined in order to vote for Corbyn. A further 105,000 new registered supporters also voted in the election, with Corbyn scoring an extraordinary 84 percent share among this group. He now has a powerful mandate to change the party’s direction, away from the centrist, pro-market policies of the New Labour era and toward an anti-austerity, egalitarian politics of the radical left.

In explaining his strange victory, one has to start with what immediately preceded it. When voting closed at 10 p.m. on the day of the British general election, Labour Party staffers were expecting that Ed Miliband would become prime minister. As immediately became clear, Labour’s performance was much weaker than hoped, and Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron prevailed, with a small absolute majority of parliamentary seats. His junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, were virtually annihilated (falling from 56 seats to eight). Labour failed to make up sufficient ground against the Tories and found itself crushed in Scotland, where a dominant Scottish National Party increased its seats from six to 56 (out of 59 for Scotland).

None of the centrist candidates learned the most basic lesson of American politics: Candidate should tack to their base to win the nomination and then tack to the center for the national election.

Miliband held his party together skillfully, and Labour increased its vote share by 1.5 percentage points from its 2010 result under then–Prime Minister Gordon Brown. But the impression remained that the party was falling between two stools. Flashes of radical energy from Miliband were overshadowed by periods of extreme caution, with elements of the party’s platform mocked by David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s chief political strategist and a sometime adviser to Miliband, as amounting to offering the public no more than the chance to “Vote Labour and win a microwave.”

Labour decided early on after its 2010 defeat not to challenge Conservative Chancellor George Osborne’s basic argument for postcrash austerity, opting instead to develop a version of austerity with a human face. Miliband on occasion signaled his egalitarian and reforming commitments by attacking predatory businesses and championing the rights of those in low-paid and precarious employment, but the public was left with an insufficiently clear sense of Labour’s overall economic message.

At his most engaging, Miliband seemed to promise a decisive move away from Blair’s New Labour politics toward the pursuit of a more equitable and responsible model of capitalism. But Miliband’s election as leader was extremely narrow, and this restricted his ability to break decisively from the New Labour orthodoxy. As his chief speechwriter put it after the elections, “Miliband and his team never settled on a single way to describe the historic break we were aiming at.” Signals remained mixed, and party unity was achieved at the cost of muddying the waters between New Labour business as usual and a radically new vision.

This middle strategy meant that Labour lost votes in two directions. It lost Scotland to the avowedly anti-austerity Scottish National Party and lost over a million votes to the left-wing Green Party. It also failed to convert many Conservative voters, to stem the tide to the anti-European U.K. Independence Party or to benefit sufficiently from the implosion of the Liberal Democrats.

When the Labour leadership campaign began, the more mainstream candidates Burnham, Cooper and Kendall seemed to see only half the problem. It became the ever-present cliché of the campaign that Labour lost because it was anti-business and insufficiently interested in economic aspiration. Burnham launched his campaign at the London offices of the auditing and consulting firm Ernst & Young, presumably as an unsubtle way of communicating his pro-business credentials. For Labour members and activists who only weeks before were campaigning for a party that spoke about the need for a fairer and more equal economy, this shift was jarring, if not insulting.

Burnham, Cooper and Kendall compounded this impression when they all abstained, along with a majority of their party colleagues, on the parliamentary vote on Osborne’s welfare reform bill. This proposal introduced severe cuts in welfare payments, including a removal of all child tax credits for the third child and subsequent ones in each family, thereby creating a welfare system that will predictably cause a significant rise in child poverty. Corbyn, needless to say, voted against the bill, making simple and accessible moral arguments about the political need to protect society’s most vulnerable members.

It appears that none of the centrist candidates — not even Cooper, who worked for President Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, in 1992 — learned the most basic lesson of American politics: Candidate should tack to their base to win the nomination and then tack to the center for the national election. Other than Corbyn, the Labour candidates appeared to do the opposite, thereby alienating Labour’s membership as they tried to conform to a media-driven standard of respectable electability.

The boundaries of political debate are about to shift.

This dynamic created fertile ground for Corbyn, who embarked on an energetic campaign of public meetings, repeating his straightforward message of unbending opposition to the Tories and hope for a socialist alternative. At the same time, his campaign made skilful use of social media and produced a raft of thoughtful policy papers that ranged from big-picture issues — such as his proposals for a “people’s quantitative easing,” whereby the Bank of England would create money to be spent on infrastructure projects and lifelong national education service — to more-targeted proposals on regional development, mental health services and arts funding.

Britain’s largest labor unions, Unite and Unison, backed his campaign, which found particular resonance with two groups: older former Labour supporters, including many who left the party over the Iraq War (which Corbyn vehemently opposed), and younger voters, for whom the formation of New Labour and the ideological battles of the 1980s and ’90s were just an abstraction from the history books and who could be enthused by hearing — often for the first time — the socialist case being made with passion and directness.

The surprising lack of political dexterity shown by Corbyn’s competitors is more readily understandable in light of their background as political insiders, each of whom moved from jobs working for senior Labour politicians before becoming MPs and then junior ministers. Each developed a career in a party in which loyalty and caution were rewarded and patronage was crucial. While they were effective operators within the hierarchy of the party, they both seemed bewildered when the old certainties began to crumble. In a Britain where inequality has increased and lines of opportunity have silted up, someone like Corbyn, who seemed reassuringly normal and who could speak sincerely without employing the tortuous, overcautious doublespeak of the career politician, could flourish.

A broader political debate

Now that Corbyn has risen to the party’s leadership, he has to lead. What can we expect?

Corbyn has been a maverick, oppositional figure all his political life, and the experience of dealmaking, compromise and accepting responsibility will be a new one. His difficulty will be confounded by the fact that his support is outside Parliament, with many of his fellow MPs taking a less than enthusiastic view of his socialist revivalism. The job will not be easy.

Nevertheless, Corbyn’s leadership will expand the ideas and imagination of the Labour Party and broaden British political debate to a remarkable extent. As well as opposing Conservative austerity with direct moral arguments, he will also put some old issues back on the table, with the Labour Party having to revisit its views on nuclear disarmament, the European Union and higher tax rates on the wealthiest. The economic policies of Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, are going to put some radical ideas — such as restricting the independence of the Bank of England, nationalizing the energy companies and structurally reforming the City of London by separating retail banks from their investment divisions — onto the mainstream political agenda for the first time. The boundaries of political debate are about to shift.

Finally, Corbyn’s leadership is going to challenge not only moderates but also radicals. The moderate left, whose standard bearers came up so short against him this time, is going to have to discover whether it can reinvent itself in a convincing way rather than hark back to its former glories. The radical left is going to find out whether the organic enthusiasm of packed public meetings can transform into a broad-based swell of public support for a radical break from recent political orthodoxy.

Whatever happens, the constant refrain of the British public that their politicians are all the same has never sounded so implausible.

Martin O’Neill is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of York and a co-editor of “Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond” (paperback edition, Wiley-Blackwell, 2014). He is currently a research fellow at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, working on a project about the significance of inequality.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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