Dispatch

Jeremy Corbyn and the Fight for the Soul of Britain’s Labour Party

Can a socialist from North London wrestle back Labour from the big banks and Blairites?

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LONDON — My first experience of a British Labour Party conference was in 2011, one year after the party lost an election to a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition after 13 years in power. The conference, which took place in a giant neon complex in central Manchester, was like the battle for the party’s soul. Gleaming stalls advertising big finance corporations were crammed in next to trade union kiosks, anti-war campaigns, and ramshackle stands selling communist newspapers.

That tussle for space on the conference floor was a reminder of the ideological disputes within Britain’s Labour Party — between its socialist origins and its capitalist present. I felt sure that if the trade unions stopped attending conferences, a big bank would simply slide in and take their space. It was then, more than ever, that I understood why so many people on the British left continue to work with the Labour Party, despite its contemporary form seeming so at odds with their values. It is almost as though left-wingers remain loyal to Labour in order to save the party from itself. Very little at that 2011 conference hinted at the fact that, just four years later, those ideological disputes would be fought out in the leadership election, with an MP from the party’s left wing looking like he would emerge the victor.

Despite significant left-wing support at a grassroots level, many of the Labour Party’s representatives in Westminster — known as the PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party) — frequently adopt what could reasonably be described as center-right positions. Few in the PLP support trade unions’ strikes, and many often adopt the punitive rhetoric of the Conservatives on issues such as welfare and immigration. Indeed, in 2013 Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Rachel Reeves promised that Labour would be tougher than the Conservatives on welfare, insisting, “Nobody should be under any illusions that they are going to be able to live a life on benefits under a Labour government.”

In his 1961 book Parliamentary Socialism, the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband observed that Labour’s place at the heart of the British state meant it was virtually impossible for the party to support extra-parliamentary social or industrial struggle. The party would, inexorably, abandon its subversive roots in order to survive as part of the establishment. Ironically, it was Ralph Miliband’s son, Ed, who would prove his father right. Ed Miliband was leader of the Labour Party between September 2010 and May 2015, and spent his tenure attempting to move the party away from the right and toward center-left social democracy. But all too often his need to calm the nerves of the right-wing establishment was at odds with his desire to promote himself as an anti-establishment figure. For example, in April, Miliband attempted to argue that immigration had benefited Britain, and that he would never “do anything to denigrate or demean the contribution of people who have come to this country.” By May, ahead of the general election, the Labour Party was selling mugs in its online shop pledging controls on immigration, as part of an attempt not to be outflanked on the right by the Conservatives and the far-right party UKIP.

This kind of incoherence led the Labour Party into an ideological wilderness, unsure of its own values or purpose. The ensuing election defeat in May was so seismic that it pushed the party into a state of crisis, leading many psephologists to predict that the Conservatives would hold power for at least another 10 years. One high-ranking Labour MP told The Telegraph in the aftermath: “What we need is a real scrap. We need blood on the carpet.” What this anonymous MP probably did not anticipate was that the necessary scrap would lead to Jeremy Corbyn, one of the party’s most prominent socialists, emerging as the frontrunner in the current leadership race.

Until 2014, the Labour Party used “electoral colleges” consisting of party members, trade unions, MPs and MEPs, and affiliated societies. But following criticisms from some MPs that trade unions were too influential in Labour’s internal democracy, this year the party has switched to a one-member-one-vote system, meaning any individual can pay £3 to be a “supporter” of the party (but not a full member), and get a say in the leadership election. The ballot papers will be sent out on Aug. 14, with the result announced at a special conference on Sept. 12. (Yes, it really does take that long.)

If Corbyn becomes Labour leader, he will chair the Shadow Cabinet, meaning he will choose which ministers shadow particular government departments, and then manage those departments in the event the party wins an election. He will also be required to debate Prime Minister David Cameron in Prime Ministers Questions every Wednesday. And, should Labour be elected again, Jeremy Corbyn will be the next prime minister of Great Britain.

Corbyn is the MP for Islington North in London. He has spent his three-decade career in politics shunning the spotlight in favor of left-wing causes, from Latin American socialism to opposing U.K. hospital closures. He is fond of pastel shirts without a tie, doesn’t drink, and travels around by bike. He shows no interest in public relations, delivers unpolished media performances, and has spent his career advocating for the issues he cares about, regardless of how fashionable they are at the moment. This has often meant he has been on the right side of history, as with his uncompromising stance against South African apartheid and his championing of LGBT rights in the 1980s. And he has rebelled against the Labour whips over 500 times since 2001. (In British politics, “whips” are essentially a party’s enforcers, ensuring MPs vote on legislation the way the party’s leader tells them. Breaking a whip can be very serious, depending on the legislation in question.) Corbyn’s unwillingness to play the game has also meant that for the majority of his career, he has been marginalized by the Labour establishment.

Not even the most astute commentator could have predicted Corbyn would become the favorite in the leadership contest, especially as many Labour grandees blamed the party’s troubles upon the fact that it had moved to the left under Ed Miliband. Nicholas Watt, the chief political correspondent for The Guardian, recently wrote that a potential Corbyn victory would be “one of the greatest upsets in modern Labour history.”* In fact, when Corbyn put himself forward for the Labour leadership election in June, many of those who nominated him did so to appease Labour’s left wing, rather than because they thought he had a snowball in hell’s chance of winning. One left-wing Labour activist told me at the time, “If he comes a respectable third place, I’ll be happy.” Corbyn himself admits his campaign has “grown a lot faster than anyone could have understood or predicted or expected.” The unexpected surge in Corbyn’s popularity has led to many Labour party figures accusing members of the hard left of skewing the results. But so far, the largest number of people identified as “entryists” by the party stands at 260, a miniscule proportion of the 35,000 who have registered to vote in the leadership election.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when this unlikely outsider was catapulted into first place, but I’ve spoken to many of his supporters who say that, for them, the turning point came in mid July when Labour decided to abstain from voting on a bill, devised by the Conservatives, that would cut welfare benefits for some of Britain’s poorest families. Interim Labour leader Harriet Harman urged MPs to abstain, because, she said, British voters had signaled that they wanted Labour to get tougher on welfare by voting in a Conservative government in May. The party’s mainstream suffered a further hit when leadership candidate Andy Burnham, despite being against the bill, decided to fall in line and abstain. Two of the other leadership candidates (Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall) dutifully abstained on the welfare bill, too, reminding many Labour members that Corbyn — who voted against the bill — is the only left-wing choice on the ballot. And so on July 22, the pollster YouGov cautiously released its first poll showing Corbyn had taken the lead.

Corbyn’s campaign also received a significant boost when the right wing of the Labour Party made the baffling decision to wheel out Tony Blair to share his thoughts on the leadership contest. Blair charmlessly informed members who were thinking of voting for Corbyn that they needed heart transplants, as though this would persuade them to vote differently. But outside of mesmerized political editors and the right wing of the Labour Party, Blair is a deeply controversial figure in British politics — made worse in recent years by his opaque financial arrangements and willingness to advise authoritarian governments in exchange for money. Intended to stymie Corbyn’s success, Blair’s intervention only seemed to make the Labour left dig its heels in. Not long after his speech, the Communication Workers Union decided to endorse Corbyn because his leadership would rid the Labour Party of its “Blairite virus.”

But perhaps the most important story about Corbyn’s success is the way his campaign has inspired young people. I have visited several of his phone banks, where volunteers run into the hundreds — outstripping the couple of dozen usually found at such campaign sites. Campaign managers have recently invested in dozens of mobile phones to keep up with the volume of people arriving from across London to help call potential supporters. At least half of the volunteers at the phone banks are under 30, and for many, working for Corbyn is their first experience of political campaigning. Claire Hurley, a 28-year-old student who volunteers four nights a week making phone calls for the Corbyn campaign from its trade union offices in central London told me, “Young people have been crying out for someone who will stand up for them on the issues that really matter: abolishing tuition fees, tackling the housing crisis, and supporting and growing the economy so that a secure future is an achievable reality.” For many Labour supporters like Hurley, Jeremy Corbyn is that person.

After a couple of hours of making phone calls and sharing pizza, volunteers retire to a local pub where they often stay until late into the evening, drinking, joking, and debating politics. This is the most remarkable and powerful aspect of the Corbyn campaign: It has almost accidentally morphed from a political campaign into a social movement, joining disparate elements of the British left — from students to trade unionists, activists to politicians — together. On the ground, friendships are being formed out of the campaign, connections made, activists born. This is something Corbyn recognizes. In a recent interview with The Guardian, he suggested the momentum for his campaign was partly due to “a thirst for something more communal, more participative.… The mood is there and we happen to be in the middle of it.”

Corbyn’s blindsided opponents insist that many of his core principles, such as public ownership of utilities and railways and nuclear disarmament, are relics from a bygone era. They neglect to see that British voters under 35 have no significant experience of nationalized industry or a world without nuclear weapons, and that to them these are revolutionary ideas. In this respect, Corbyn’s campaign is benefiting from the collapse of the center left seen in other European countries, brought about by social democratic leaders’ support for austerity and inability to offer the public a distinctive vision of what they would do in power. In Britain, as the right has become more liberal — championing LGBT rights and even introducing a living wage — social democrats have failed to carve out a coherent ideology of their own. Across Europe, the beneficiaries of this failure seem to be both the far right and the radical left.

There is no doubt that Corbyn and his team will face tough times if he is chosen as Labour leader. Since the polls first revealed his success, there have been murmurings from Labour Party headquarters about steps that could be taken to get rid of him — from having him removed by MPs to holding an inquiry into the legitimacy of the leadership election. Two of his fellow leadership candidates, Cooper and Kendall, have already said they would not serve in the Shadow Cabinet under Corbyn if he were to become leader. Perhaps Labour ministers will simply refuse to cooperate under his leadership, while simultaneously criticizing him anonymously in the press — as it was rumored a number of ministers did to Ed Miliband in 2012. These are all issues Corbyn’s supporters will have to remain vigilant against in the event of his victory.

Given the scale of the challenge ahead, can a man who was a virtual unknown until just a few weeks ago become a successful leader of the biggest political party in Britain? It’s not going to be easy, but if there’s one thing this leadership contest has shown, it’s that when it comes to British politics in 2015, anything is possible.

Correction, Aug. 12, 2015, 3:50 p.m.: Nicholas Watt is the Guardian‘s chief political correspondent. A previous version of this article identified him as the newspaper’s political editor.

Photo credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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