A Primer for Americans on Corbynmania

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Many of my American friends have asked me what’s going on with the UK Labour Party leadership election. Hence this primer on the state of play.

After the Labour Party’s shock drubbing in the 2015 election, Ed Miliband resigned as leader. The usual internecine fight that losing parties go through broke out: One faction said the party was not centrist enough and another said it was too close to the center and too far from its traditional roots. The former group are known as New Labour or Blairites (e.g., Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and of course Tony Blair himself). Andrew Rawnsley’s massive book is the essential resource if you want to understand New Labour in depth, but in short New Labour explicitly rejected the socialist left, made peace with the market and neoliberalism and was handsomely rewarded for these changes by British voters (Labour were in power from 1997-2010). In their eyes, Milliband lost because he positioned himself too far to the left, and the party will therefore not get back in power unless it goes with someone closer to the center, like Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall.

Rubbish! says the Socialist wing of Labour, whose negative views of New Labour I related in a prior post that quoted Ian Martin’s dyspeptic, hilarious take on the 2010 Party Conference:

Labour’s message to the electorate is clear – austerity is the new reality but we’re nicer than the Tories. Berks. I hate Labour more than I did when Blair was in charge, squinting into the distance, joshing with America, socialising with the Murdochs. At least he believed in neo-liberalism. The current Loyal Opposition half-believe, but also half-yearn to reconnect to the movement that sustains them, which is half-decent of them I must say. The first clear chance for years to differentiate themselves, to renounce austerity and commit to a genuine Labour manifesto, sod the Mail, renationalise, reunionise, tax the rich, protect the poor, FIGHT FOR THE WORKING CLASS WHICH IS TECHNICALLY THEIR FUCKING PURPOSE and all they can offer is the Vegetarian Option.

In the eyes of old Leftists like Martin, Labour must return to its Pre-Thatcher era values and policies. And to the shock of New Labour, the traditional left has found a champion who is electrifying the party’s grassroots: Jeremy Corbyn (photo above). You can read a bit about his policies here, which reject the essentials of Blairism in favor of the more socialist policies that Labour embraced during the first 90 or so years of its existence. Corbyn is demonstrating the truth of the same political principle as did Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland: If you passionately articulate a clear political message without equivocation and associated Westminster-speak, many formerly disengaged people come out of the woodwork to support you. What can’t be overlooked about Corbyn is that while he is a greybeard who makes aging Labour members nostalgic for their youth, his message is also resonating with a new generation of young leftists who have been alienated from politics until now.

Despite the vein of discontent he has tapped, Corbyn only has a chance of winning because of a major change in the leadership election rules. Previously, Members of Parliament (MPs) had significant control over who became leader. Now they only get to form the list of candidates on which all members of the party then vote (and in that establishment-controlled phase, Corbyn just barely scraped by). The grassroots members are thus in control from here on out, and many of them are looking for someone like Corbyn who speaks to the hearts. A parallel that Americans might appreciate is what happened in the Democratic Party between the 1968 and 1972 elections: New nominating rules meant that former political bosses were overthrown and a wave of new faces with challenging views crashed the party. Of course their hero, George McGovern, got crushed, and that could happen to Corbyn as well if he ever leads his party in a national election. But based on the Labour members I have talked to, many of them would rather lose with someone like Corbyn than win with a New Labour leader.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.