Editor's Note: Jeremy Corbyn's recent election as the leader of the opposition Labour Party has been hailed as the greatest upset in the history of modern British politics. In this guest column for The Indypendent, Hazel Healy, co-editor of the U.K.-based New Internationalist explains to an American audience how a little-known leftist came out of nowhere to capture the imagination of voters.
OXFORD, U.K.–It was extraordinary, no getting away from it. One week on from Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party, left-wingers across Britain are still in shock, bemusedly wondering how it came to pass.
Corbyn came out of nowhere to win the Labour leadership. He was the token Left candidate. He scraped together the prerequisite support of 35 members of parliament to qualify as a candidate for party leader from people who thought he didn’t have a cat’s chance in hell of winning (former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett would later call herself a ‘moron’ for lending her backing.) Having said that, he’s the MP who has always been there. Corbyn is a veteran, the go-to rebel MP who you could rely on to back every activist cause going.
His journey from the margins to the corridors of power is now the cause of much head-scratching. He got the backing of the trade unions in July, and much has been made of his runaway popularity on social media (best takeaway hashtag being that catchy, US-inspired #JezWeCan). But Corbyn’s tiny, 20-strong campaign team didn’t engineer this success – this was a spontaneous outpouring of support, which reflected a wider grassroots swell, right from the start, his rallies packed-out and legions of volunteers offering support.
It wasn’t youth or good looks, or energy levels that won it for him. In one televised debate, he looked like he could hardly be bothered. He gave long, tetchy Chomksy-esque replies to needling over his (historically correct) identification of NATO’s role in the current Ukraine crisis – and could be seen checking his watch as the camera panned out. He looked like he didn’t belong there. Pictured with the other candidates, shiny, ambitious and jostling in their carefully chosen clothes, pre-selected soundbites at the ready, he actually looks superimposed.
But this was precisely his appeal. Much like his American counterpart Bernie Sanders, he was sincere, not a careerist politician. And when he spoke, you believed him. He marked a clean break from Blairite politics; he voted against the war in Iraq, against the introduction of tuition fees in higher education. Untarnished by these and other unforgivable New Labour compromises, he also offered a positive radical, anti-austerity platform that plumped for growth, not cuts.
The membership of the Labour party surged. Some 100,000 people registered as supporters in order to vote . Among them were former party members who exited en masse after the Iraq war, returning to the Labour fold. Others were ex-Labour voters who suddenly glimpsed a party that might stand in real, ideological opposition to the conservatives, not offer austerity-lite.
Panicked, Labour purged 4,500 would-be voters who they claimed were not true supporters. But Corbyn won all the same – a landslide victory of over 59 percent.
This pesky business of democracy has MPs on all sides of the political spectrum up in arms. Now that he’s in post, everyone is out for his blood. Prime Minister David Cameron led the charge with a deranged tweet,which labeled him both a threat to national security and ‘to your family’. (It backfired, generating some hilarious responses on Twitter).
But it’s not just Cameron. The whole political class is appalled. Labour MPs in a state of confusion. No one can quite bring themselves to question Corbyn’s credentials – a decent man, with the right values – but the majority hate what he stands for and project electoral suicide.
But that begs the question – if the Labour party rank-and-file support Corbyn yet his fellow MPs revile him, who exactly do they represent? Blogger Kerry Anne Mendoza sees their reaction as evidence of an ever more isolated ‘permanent political class’, who have more in common with each other than the electorate.
The same can be said for the mainstream media. Liberal and right-wing alike, they have had it in for him from the start. The Liberal press predicted doom if he came into office (Yes, America, even The Guardian) and the right went apocalyptic when he won. Nothing short of ferocious.
Corbyn has just finished – should I say survived? – his first week in office. The day the result came in, Corbyn slipped out of a House of Commons side door to address tens of thousands at the Refugees are welcome here march in Central London. When it came to the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions, he crowd-sourced his allotment of six questions to David Cameron from the general public. He took a battering for failing to sing the national anthem, was accused of assaulting a BBC camera men and looked exhausted – but he pulled together a convincing shadow cabinet.
At New Internationalist, the progressive publications co-operative where I work, we are marveling at how John McDonnell, the man who launched Blacklisted, our latest book on the war against unions is now shadow chancellor. But more seriously, this also feels like a unique national opportunity. Could it be that the focus-group politics ushered in by Tony Blair underestimated the British public? For once, rather than a myopic focus on swing voters, a Corbyn-led Labour Party may mobilize the millions of disaffected voters who have shunned politics – remember, only 24% of Britain's eligible voters backed the Tory government in general elections earlier this year.
Corbyn has many challenges ahead – not least within his own party. But slowly disbelief is giving way to an altogether unfamiliar sensation where mainstream politics are concerned – that of hope.