British Labour Party Takes A Strong Tilt Left In Leadership Election

Britain's Labour Party has taken a hard tilt left with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

Jeremy Corbyn

Just over four months after David Cameron’s Conservative Party scored a massive victory in the United Kingdom’s General Election, the Labour Party has elected a new leader who promises to take the party in a hard-left direction that doesn’t seem well-tuned to the message voters sent:

LONDON – Britain’s opposition Labour Party on Saturday took a remarkable leftward turn, electing as its leader Jeremy Corbyn, a longtime socialist committed to nationalizing key industries, scrapping Britain’s nuclear missile system and reversing the centrist policies of previous leaders such as Tony Blair.

The result of the contest, announced on Saturday morning in London, gave stewardship of the Labour party to the hard left for the first time in more than three decades, a development seen here as one of the most surprising upsets in modern British politics.

As Europe continues to feel the aftershocks of the financial crisis of 2008, voters have been increasingly attracted to the political extremes, with support growing both for socialist parties on the left and nationalist ones on the right. The Labour leadership result could now shift the main opposition party in Britain closer to the types of positions taken by other leftist parties that have become prominent across Europe, including Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

Mr. Corbyn, 66, has been a lawmaker for more than three decades but never served in government, preferring to campaign, often for unfashionable causes, and frequently rebelling against the party line.

He only made it into the contest at the last minute, gaining the 35 nominations he needed from fellow lawmakers, thanks to the support of some colleagues who did not support him but thought he should take part.

Yet his program, which includes nationalizing energy and rail companies, printing money to boost the economy and scrapping Britain’s Trident nuclear missile system, has struck a chord with many activists and new, often young supporters.

Crucially, he took advantage of a rule change that allowed candidates to recruit sympathizers who, for a small fee, could sign up as registered supporters of the Labour Party and gain a vote in the contest.

Much like Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has ignited liberal passions in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in the United States, Mr. Corbyn is promising radical approaches to longstanding problems.

As Labour leader, Mr. Corbyn will be some way from power, but his views could influence policy, particularly on foreign affairs. Mr. Cameron, for example, wants to know the position of the new Labour leader before asking Parliament to authorize military strikes in Syria. Two years ago, Mr. Cameron lost a vote on the issue, and Mr. Corbyn was a staunch opponent.

Then there is a looming referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union, due by the end of 2017, in which Labour’s role will be important. Though Mr. Corbyn has not said he wants Britain to leave the bloc, he has said he voted against British membership of the bloc’s forerunner in a plebiscite in 1975.

And in Washington there may be unease over the main British opposition party’s being led by a fierce critic of American foreign policy — one who, without endorsing their actions, has described Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends.”

Hardly anyone contemplated such an outcome after the party’s previous leader, Ed Miliband, led Labour to defeat in May’s general election, on a platform already seen as being to the left of Mr. Blair. After that electoral rebuff, most expected the right of the party to reclaim the leadership. Instead the Blairites tried frantically to derail Mr. Corbyn, a vegetarian teetotaler based in North London who made a career of rebelling against the party line and until now had little public profile outside of party activists.

Steven Fielding, professor of political history at Nottingham University, said Mr. Corbyn’s rise had “taken everyone by surprise,” yet even opponents concede that his campaign has energized a cohort of enthusiastic, and often young, supporters.

Such people, Mr. Corbyn said at a rally in London this week, had been “written off as being a nonpolitical generation, when in reality they were a political generation that politics had written off.”

Although Britain’s economy is growing fast, Mr. Corbyn’s message has struck a chord with workers and families still feeling the aftershocks of Europe’s financial crisis of 2008.

For many, prospects remain poor, wages low and employment insecure. Soaring housing prices in the south have left many locked out of the real estate market. Bankers remain the target of simmering resentment.

The campaign against Corbyn reached a fever pitch as the leadership election drew closer, with the height perhaps being reached last month when no less than Tony Blair himself penned a column in The Guardian warning his fellow party members that electing Corbyn leader would send the party down the road to electoral ruin. At that point, though, it seems as though the die had already been cast, with polling showing Corbyn headed for a landslide victory as early as a month ago. In the end, it seems that a combination of the economic factors noted above and the more open voting procedures that the party had adopted allowed Corbyn to not only avoid a second ballot but get one of the largest margins of victory Labour has ever seen in a leadership election. On some level, it seems as though the resentments against Blair and his supporters that still exist from the days of the Iraq War and the economic downturn also played a role as their warnings about the direction they believed Corbyn would take the party ended up helping him rather than hurting hum. Corbyn’s supporters will also no doubt claim that it was the appeal of his ideas that led to his historic win.

Whatever the explanation for his victory, Corbyn will now be the leader of the main opposition leader in the British Parliament. While that will give him some degree of prominence in British politics it will, of course, give him no real power whatsoever in government. Additionally, absent some kind of political catastrophe that seems unlikely, there will not be another national election in the United Kingdom until 2020, and it’s entirely possible that Corbyn may not be Labour leader by then if events between now and then show that the warnings of the Blairites were true. On paper, at least, it appears that they may right. Corbyn represents an effort to pull Labour back to the policies of the 1970s and 1980s that led to nearly twenty years of Conservative Party rule that ended only with the rise of Tony Blair and “New Labour.” While the polling heading into the 2015 elections had suggested a close election, the results showed a decidedly strong tilt in favor of the Conservatives, while Labour lost not only in England but was decimated in Scotland in a way that it seems unlikely to recover from any time soon. There’s really no indication that British voters are looking for a tilt to the left and return to the days Neil Kinnock. Some have suggested that a Labour tilt to the left would work to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats, who were decimated in the May elections, but that party still has to deal with the legacy of its alliance with the Tories which seems to have turned off many longtime supporters. With the elections five years off, it’s much too early to say what impact Corbyn’s election will have, of course, but at least on the surface this doesn’t seem to be a very wise choice by Labour.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    Sorry Doug but I think you are wrong. Corbyn is exactly what the labor party needs now. There is a new populism blooming both in GB and the US. There is a revolt against the plutocrats and oligarchs brewing. No pitch forks yet but you can see it in both the left but also in the Tea Party right. here in the US and I think the the same applies to GB.

  2. Hal_10000 says:

    Corbyn is a nut. He’s stuck in the 1970’s and wants Britain back there too with a stagnant economy and inflation. He even wants to re-open the mines because what Britain really needs is to send another generation of men into the ground to have their bodies broken digging out a mineral that’s both an economic sinkhole and terrible for the planet.

    This is basically Labour going the same way the Tories did in the 1990’s or the way the Republicans did after 2008: deciding that their big problem is not being radical enough. I hope they learn the lesson as painfully. Apparently, we learned nothing from the implosion of Syriza

  3. Castanea says:

    It’s not a “tilt” when most of the population agrees with Corbyn and the only concerted disapproval comes from old media.

  4. stonetools says:

    @Hal_10000:

    Corbyn is a nut. He’s stuck in the 1970’s and wants Britain back there too with a stagnant economy and inflation. He even wants to re-open the mines because what Britain really needs is to send another generation of men into the ground to have their bodies broken digging out a mineral that’s both an economic sinkhole and terrible for the planet.

    Looking over the extensive Guardian commentary on Corbyn’s election, I see zero evidence of Corbyn promising “a return to the 1970s”. That is merely right wing propaganda which you are dutifully repeating.

    Here is his profile. Readers can judge for themselves. From what I have read of the Guardian commentary, I think it is likely that he will be a caretaker leader and that someone else will lead Labour in 2020. That someone, however, will have a program significantly to the left of Labour’s 2015 “me too” program, which failed so dismally to engage voters, especially in Scotland. Guardian analysis re electability here.

  5. Trumwill says:

    Man, is that really what the UK Left thinks? That Miliband lost because he was insufficiently liberal? Obviously Corbyn voters think they can go lefter and win, but… man.

    Can Cameron and Osborne and the Tories really be that fortunate? Really? Man..

  6. Ben Wolf says:

    @Trumwill: Miliband was conservative as Blair. The UK, like the US, has no left.

  7. Steve Hynd says:

    Obviously, being too left-wing is why Labour Party MPs in Scotland are now rarer than pandas…

  8. Trumwill says:

    @Ben Wolf: Miliband was a Kinnock man. Tony Blair was a repudiation of Kinnock. Miliband was a reaction to Blair.

  9. Lounsbury says:

    @Ron Beasley: Your note is a perfect example of provincial navel gazing mistaking own-political enviro as a generlisable condition.

    @stonetools: Guardian commentary…. really that is how you would judge a Labour leader. How very amusing.

  10. Hal_10000 says:

    @stonetools:

    Here is the BBC’s summary of his positions. Withdrawal from NATO, nuclear disarmament, printing money (aka inflation), massive nationalization of industry, wealth redistribution. That’s pretty radical left.

    The UK, like the US, has no left.

    See, Americans would argue that the UK has no right. Both parties favor action on global warming. Both favor keeping the NHS. Both favor high taxation. The conservatives would be well to the Left of the Democrats in this country.

  11. Andre Kenji says:

    The idea that Corbyn is stuck in the 1980´s is a common joke among British comedians.

  12. Ben Wolf says:

    @Trumwill: There were no substantive policy differences between Blair and Miliband.

  13. Ben Wolf says:

    @Hal_10000:

    1) Creating currency does not create inflation.

    2) Nationalizing parts of industries is neither of the left nor the right.

    3) The Tories have been privatising the NHS since 2010 with predictably bad results.

    4) The Tories have reduced taxes on the wealthy and raised them for everyone else, again with predictably bad results.

    5) Cameron has explicitly stated his government’s drive to reduce “dependency” is ideological and not economic.

    The heart of socio-economic conservatism is establishment and enforcement of aristocracy. The rich and the poor are kept in place and if the latter get uppity it’s a boot to the face. Radicalism is rejection of the notion some are better than others.

    Of the two we know which is law of the land under Tories.

  14. Mu says:

    I think I embody the question of “is there a left in the US/right in the EU”. When I moved to the US, I went from right wing to near socialist without changing one single opinion. Sanders would be considered mainstream conservative in Europe, despite his self-professed socialist status. In the EU, HMO-level healthcare and barely-above-starvation minimum social security are right-wing demands, here they are socialist nightmares sure to bring the end of the world. There’s just no comparison in the mindset of the people on both sides of the Atlantic.

  15. Grewgills says:

    @Lounsbury:
    “Your note is a perfect example of provincial…”
    That is your absolute favorite word isn’t it? I think it would be easier to count your comments that don’t contain it than your comments that do. Perhaps a thesaurus is in order.

    Edit: I’m a tiny bit sorry for the snark on a sure to be long Monday morning, but perhaps not every comment that you find less fully informed than your own deserves that bit of condescension.

  16. Lounsbury says:

    @Grewgills: Provincial is precisely the right adjective for a large number of commentators here when they blither on about foreign politics and blindly import their domestic political referants for ignorant and provincial analysis.

    @Ben Wolf:

    1) Creating currency does not create inflation.

    Of course creating a currency does not.
    Adding excess money does of course create inflation, it is the very source of it. Of course in the modern situation, achieving the creation of excess money in the system is challenging.

    2) Nationalizing parts of industries is neither of the left nor the right.

    Bollocks.
    Nationalization is rather quite the feature of the hard Left (although it does crop up on the Fascist state-centric right), and in the modern Liberal anglo tradition, very much the preference of the hard left.

    But one can see where the retread Labour got its votes from.