What happens when the joke candidate wins? What happens when that guy, who was only permitted to take part in the election thanks to the indulgence of his parliamentary colleagues, who never intended to support him, ends up running away with the contest? For once, my friends, in this summer of absurdity these are not questions about Donald’s Trump’s improbable rise to political prominence. They are, instead, the questions haunting the British Labour Party.
Labour, still reeling from a calamitous performance in May’s general election, appears set to make Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran left-winger from north London who has never held a ministerial position, the party’s next leader. This will surprise Corbyn as much as it will astonish the rest of Britain — for the simple reason that few people, including perhaps Corbyn himself, ever thought he could win. Nor did anyone else.
Now, the latest polls suggest Corbyn could win the leadership on the first ballot, taking 53 percent of first-preference votes. If accurate, this would be the most astonishing turn of events in modern British political history. It is, Labour MPs worry, a form of political suicide. Just 15 MPs intend to vote for Corbyn in the actual ballot and leading figures within the party have already indicated they would not serve in his shadow cabinet.
How has it come to this? How is it that Labour is on the verge of selecting (the result will be announced next month, but everyone agrees that Corbyn will win) a candidate whose views place him further from the mainstream of British politics than any other leader of any major political party since, at least, World War I?
Corbyn’s rise began with something surprising: a sympathy vote. Labour rules dictate that a candidate for the party leadership must be endorsed by 15 percent of the party’s MPs. Though former ministers Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, as well as the Blairite candidate Liz Kendall, mustered that support easily, Corbyn struggled. But, the party’s left wing cried out that it was important to have Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot to have a broader debate about Labour’s future.
Consequently, a number of MPs lent Corbyn their support so he could reach the 35 required nominations — even though they had no intention of voting for him. After all, what harm could it do? Corbyn would only attract support from the hard-left fringe. He’d finish fourth — and a poor fourth at that.
It hasn’t quite worked out like that. In one of those bouts of hysteria to which British politics increasingly seems subject, something called “Corbynmania” has taken off.
The road to hell, of course, is paved with good intentions; now many of those MPs look like chumps. “I’m beginning to wish that I hadn’t [given Corbyn my support], to be quite honest about it,” Margaret Beckett, a former Labour foreign secretary told the BBC.
Corbyn, who is 66, abstains from alcohol and meat and has the look of a disappointed geography teacher in a third-rate suburban high school. But somehow, he has found himself playing to packed galleries all across Britain. Thousands have turned out to see him promise that, actually, there is a truly left-wing alternative to David Cameron’s Conservative government.
Thousands more have registered to vote in a leadership election that has, effectively, become a nationwide primary. For just 3 pounds, or about $4.70, citizens could register as a Labour “supporter” and receive the right to vote. These new voters, added to Labour’s existing members and supporters registered via their labor union, mean the electorate is, potentially, more than 600,000 voters. (Previous Labour elections were conducted via an electoral college giving equal weight to the votes of MPs, labor unions, and ordinary members.) Though some mischievous Conservatives signed up to endorse Corbyn, most of the new registered supporters appear to have come from the left. Labour has promised to “vet” these new voters, insisting that anyone found to have publicly endorsed another party will have their eligibility to vote rescinded. That is proving easier to promise than to achieve.
Corbyn’s rise reflects both the inadequacy of his opponents — none of whom have proved capable of inspiring Labour voters — and the deep, even existential, crisis the party found itself in following its defeat in May’s general election. On polling day, Ed Miliband woke up convinced he was heading to Downing Street; voters disagreed, handing Labour its most humiliating defeat since 1983, the year, it is worth observing, Corbyn was first elected to parliament.
Why did Labour see its fortunes fall so far this year? Yes, the party had failed to craft a convincing economic message, but the greater problem was Miliband himself. Voters simply didn’t see him as a viable or credible prime minister. In ordinary circumstances, that might have led the party to make “electability” a key test in the contest to succeed him as party leader. These are no ordinary times, however, and instead the Labour Party — and the broader left — seems to have convinced itself that Britain elected a Conservative government because Labour wasn’t left wing enough.
A Corbyn-led party will provide ample opportunity to test that hypothesis. The 1983 party platform was memorably dubbed “the longest suicide note in political history,” but that verdict might have to be revisited if Corbyn leads the party into the 2020 election.
Tony Blair, the only Labour leader to win an election since 1974, warned that if Corbyn becomes leader, “it won’t be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation.” Like almost every other mainstream senior Labour figure, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw agreed. “People must understand this is a vote for perpetual opposition,” he said, adding that the “fundamental problem here is I don’t think anybody remotely believes that Jeremy Corbyn could win power.” And if Labour is not in power, it follows that the Conservatives are. When Labour lost in 1979, it was exiled to the opposition for 18 years; moderates worry a similar calamity could befall the party now.
Swamped by the Corbynite insurrection, Labour’s moderate wing has been reduced to gallows humor. As Philip Collins, Blair’s speechwriter and now a columnist for the Times, tweeted: “From now on events in the Labour party will be subject to new dates. There was Before Corbyn and then there will be After Disaster.” None of this has made any difference; indeed, the left so despises Blair and his remaining acolytes that their interventions may well have done more harm than good.
Nonetheless, some of Corbyn’s domestic policy preferences are, considered individually, surprisingly popular. His desire to re-nationalize the railway industry is shared, at least in theory, by a majority of Britons. Equally, his generic hostility to “austerity” is hardly controversial, at least among voters who think Labour’s problems began with Blair. Other policies, such as increasing the minimum wage by 25 percent, imposing rent controls, abolishing university tuition fees, and nationalizing Britain’s power and utility companies are more expensive but still just about within the bounds of mainstream political thought. On the other hand, his main economic policy — which he dubs “the people’s quantitative easing” — would juice Britain’s economy by, well, printing money (notionally to fund infrastructure spending).
It is Corbyn’s foreign-policy views, however, that mark him out as a man of the far-left. He chairs the Stop the War coalition, an organization that believes Tony Blair, George W. Bush, and Benjamin Netanyahu should each be tried for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He also favors unilateral nuclear disarmament and supports Britain leaving NATO, an organization he believes provoked Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Then there is the politics of the Middle East. Corbyn has called Hezbollah and Hamas his “friends” and suggested that “the idea that an organization [Hamas] that is dedicated towards the good of the Palestinian people, and bringing about long-term peace and social justice and political justice in the whole region, should be labeled as a terrorist organization by the British government, is really a big, big, historical mistake.”
That, perhaps, was consistent with Corbyn’s views on Northern Ireland. A longtime supporter of a United Ireland, Corbyn invited Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin leader, to the Houses of Parliament just three weeks after the IRA tried to murder Margaret Thatcher and the rest of her government in Brighton in 1984. During this leadership campaign, Corbyn has repeatedly declined to condemn this and other IRA atrocities.
Earlier this year, he appeared on the Russian propaganda TV station Russia Today to argue that although “some of what ISIS has done has been appalling,” nevertheless “there has to be a political solution. All wars have to end in some kind of political compromise. Why not start with the political compromise now?” (He now says the Islamic State is “a vicious, repugnant force that has to be stopped.”)
Throughout his career, Corbyn’s standard response to any foreign-policy crisis — from Kosovo to Iraq, Cuba to Venezuela — has been to ask which side the United States is on and then back the other. That is the viewpoint widely shared on the British far-left, but it places Corbyn far outside mainstream public opinion.
So, too, does his unfortunate association with other fringe groups. Corbyn’s supporters deplore what they consider “smear” campaigns that tie the candidate to anti-Semites and other extremists. Nonetheless, Corbyn is on the record defending Raed Salah, the leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, whose extremism led to him being banned from visiting the United Kingdom. Corbyn referred to Salah, who has spread blood libel and believes Jews were warned not to go to work in the World Trade Center on 9/11, as “a very honored citizen” whose “voice must be heard.”
None of this appears to matter to a Labour Party that has turned in on itself, apparently more concerned with fighting its internal battles (anyone to Corbyn’s right is denounced as a “Red Tory”) than on speaking to the wider electorate. It is an astonishing sight and, for many long-term Labour supporters, an agonizing one.
Amid all this, it is easily forgotten that David Cameron only enjoys a majority of 12 seats in the House of Commons and that, though the path toward a Labour recovery at the next election might be difficult, it is at least visible. This leadership contest, however, indicates a movement into free fall and preparing for a fresh bout of internecine feuding. A formal split, of the kind that happened in the early 1980s when Labour moderates, despairing of the far-left’s hold on the party, resigned to form the Social Democratic Party (a precursor to the Liberal Democrats), remains unlikely — but the scale of Labour’s intellectual collapse remains breathtaking.
Even so, many of Corbyn’s own supporters do not think he is likely to win a general election. At a recent rally in Glasgow, the candidate was introduced as “the next prime minister of the United Kingdom,” a declaration that was, amid the cheering, met by a discernible ripple of laughter.
Photo credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
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