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Jeremy Corbyn, a leftist long marginalized in British politics, surprisingly won the Labour Party leadership in September's election. Photograph: Vaughan Melzer.
With Britain’s 2015 Labour leadership election in the books, it is time to write the obituary of the New Labour era. The Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years were dominated by highly skilled and business-minded political insiders, their every move weighed by fear of how they might be reported in the newspapers. But on September 12 that period ended. The disciples of New Labour lost spectacularly to Jeremy Corbyn, an easy-going leftist. His strategy was simple: he talked in plain terms about the moral wrongness of a Tory agenda to which Labour had ceased to offer clear opposition—and about what Labour could do to create a more just and equal country. The party once closely identified with the cautious, compromised politics of the Third Way is now, against all expectations, led by a socialist.
Corbyn is a mainstay of the British left. For years, he has demonstrated alongside trade unionists, left-wing students, and assorted other radicals. Since 1983, he has been the member of Parliament for Islington North, a densely populated and socially mixed community just outside central London. Over these decades, he has been a reliable rebel against his own party’s top brass. During Labour’s ascendancy from 1997 until 2010, Corbyn constantly criticized the leadership on foreign and domestic issues, from the Iraq War and abridgements of civil liberties demanded by the government’s anti-terrorism strategy to the introduction of market mechanisms into public services.
Yet few would have given Corbyn much chance of taking the leadership himself. During the 1980s, his staunch support for anti-racist and gay-rights causes, as well as his readiness to talk with the political representatives of the Irish Republican Army even at the height of its bombing campaign, led to him being mocked in the press as a model of the “loony left.” Later, Labour’s centrists came to see him and his allies as a harmless anachronism, a throwback to the naive socialist creed Blair’s party had left behind. So how is it that Corbyn and his supporters engineered a victory nobody could have predicted?
Both his vote share and his margin of victory dwarf Blair’s 1994 results. In a field of four candidates, Corbyn won an outright majority on the first round of voting, taking 59.5 percent of the vote. Experienced former ministers Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, both of whom had served under Blair and Brown, finished a distant second and third. The candidate most closely associated with the Blairite, pro-business side of the party, Liz Kendall, languished in fourth place with a mere 4.5 percent of the vote.
Corbyn seemed reassuringly normal, with an agenda that directly responded to the U.K.'s pressing problems.
In some ways, Corbyn’s long record of campaigning for unpopular causes worked in his favor, showing the sincerity of his political commitments, many of which were ahead of their time. The same newspapers that once called him an extremist for supporting the political struggles of gays and lesbians now treat gay rights as a matter of common sense.
But there is more to his win. Corbyn offered unequivocal distinction from the Tories at a time when the left is suddenly finding a new home in the global mainstream, as evidenced by the election of Syriza in Greece, the rise of Podemos in Spain, and Bernie Sanders’s surprising showing, so far, in pursuit of the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination.
Two photographs that circulated on social media during the Labour leadership campaign offered a telling demonstration of the benefits of Corbyn’s long political record. One, from 1987, shows Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in his college days, sporting the absurd outfit of the Bullingdon Club. An elitist Oxford dining society devoted to rituals of bonding among young right-wing men, the club is known for evenings of over-indulgence, vomiting, and violently smashing up local restaurants. In the other photo, Corbyn is pictured being led away under arrest from an anti-Apartheid demonstration outside the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square.
Corbyn’s message of unbending opposition to the Tories and hope for a socialist alternative resonated with two groups in particular: older former Labour supporters, many of whom left the party over the Iraq war, and younger voters, for whom the formation of New Labour and the ideological battles of the 1980s and ’90s were just an abstraction from the history books. These voters volunteered for Corbyn in the thousands and packed the halls where he spoke. They orchestrated a slick digital campaign, with the help of Britain’s two largest labor unions, Unite and Unison (the latter had been expected to support Cooper). But the most striking feature of the campaign was Corbyn’s reinvention of the old-school spectacle of the political rally. There was an almost revivalist atmosphere at venues throughout the country as young and old were swept up by Corbyn’s directness and understated passion.
While the post-crash politics of austerity has led elsewhere in Europe to challenges from new parties, in Britain Corbyn’s success suggests a transformation from within. This has something to do with Britain’s electoral system, which punishes small and new parties; political insurgencies take place within rather than in opposition to existing structures. But it also reflects the fact that, through the years of Blairism and Labour’s embrace of neoliberal economics, figures such as Corbyn had kept the flame of radical and egalitarian politics burning.
• • •
There would not have been an opening for Corbyn if Labour hadn’t collapsed on May 7, in the British general election.
As voting finished that day, party leader Ed Miliband and his advisers were preparing for office. Internal polling suggested that there would be a hung Parliament. But Miliband was confident that under such circumstances Labour would be better placed than the Conservatives to work out a coalition with the smaller parties—the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists. This confidence was not born of blind faith but reflected the data reported by the commercial polling companies: the election would be tight, but Labour had done just enough to be able to negotiate its way into Downing Street.
The exit poll reported by the three national TV news channels—the BBC, ITN, and Sky—on the stroke of 10 p.m. therefore came as a shock: the voters had elected a Conservative majority. When the votes were tallied in full, Labour had won ten seats that had gone to Conservatives in 2010 but also given nine back, including that of Ed Balls, formerly Brown’s chief adviser, who would have been chancellor of the exchequer in a Labour government. This unforeseen defenestration of a senior Labour parliamentarian was emblematic of a deeply disappointing night.
How did it go so wrong? Election night revealed two tectonic shifts. First, the Liberal Democrats were almost totally annihilated. Junior partners to the Tories in the Coalition government, they lost forty-eight of their fifty-six seats. Second, the Scottish National Party (SNP) triumphed utterly, growing from six to fifty-six seats out of fifty-nine Scottish constituencies.
The severe damage to the Lib Dems was inevitable. In 2010 their leader Nick Clegg had been so eager to enter the government that he adopted the Conservative’s core positions and largely abandoned his own party’s political agenda. So in May the more left-leaning Lib Dem voters repaid Clegg by abandoning him. But, on net, Labour didn’t benefit from their defection. Tactical voting patterns, which previously saw left-leaning voters cast ballots for the Lib Dems in order at least to keep the Tories out, unwound in the face of disgust at Lib Dem capitulation to those very Tories. Perversely, these shifts from the Lib Dems to Labour mostly benefitted the Conservatives. And by shrinking the distance between his party and the Conservatives, Clegg gave the more right-leaning among his supporters little reason to support his party over their senior coalition partners. Thus, while Labour won twelve seats from the Lib Dems, mostly in urban areas, the Conservatives took twice as many, sweeping the board in what had once been the Lib Dem heartlands of the rural southwest. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Cameron about the political logic of coalition governments, “The little party always gets smashed!”
Meanwhile, the SNP rode a political tide swelled by the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Labour lost forty of its forty-one Scottish seats. Here, as elsewhere, the roots of Labour’s defeat lay with decisions made years before. In 2012 Labour joined the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the cross-party Better Together campaign to urge Scottish voters against independence. By campaigning with its rivals—the party could have run its own unity campaign—Labour managed to elicit the opprobrium the Scottish electorate usually reserves for the Conservatives. Although the SNP lost the independence referendum, the 45 percent of Scots who favored leaving the union now had a deeper political connection to the SNP, while Labour looked like “Red Tory” advocates of the U.K. establishment. When, after the referendum, Cameron reneged on a promise to fast track further devolution of powers to the Scottish parliament, he did little damage to his own party, which already had meager prospects in Scotland. However, as a member of Better Together, Labour had also put its stamp on that promise. It had much to lose, and did.
Other bad choices came back to bite Labour years later. Soon after its 2010 defeat, the party decided not to challenge Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s case for post-crash austerity, opting instead to develop their own “austerity with a human face.” Labour politicians knew well the vacuity of Tory arguments blurring the distinction between national accounts and household budgets, but these lines about running up bills on the family credit card were readily intelligible to broad swathes of the public. A more nuanced Labour message would have required patient exposition. So, rather than take on a possibly unwinnable task of political persuasion, the leadership gambled on the outlines of Osborne’s fantasy economics. But in doing so, it left itself open to vigorous attacks when the election came around. At the third of the televised debates, Miliband elicited audible gasps from the studio audience when he resisted a questioner’s call for him to “apologize” for “spending too much” in government and causing the economic slump.
It is true that a more assertive and economically literate approach might not have worked. It certainly would have carried political risks. But by failing to challenge the basics of Tory economics—and by failing to argue with sufficient force that the crash and the banking crisis caused the deficit, rather than the other way around, as the media and the Tories pretended—Labour left intact the public perception that the crisis was somehow its fault.
Miliband’s fate in the debates was emblematic of his broader fortunes. The public was often confused about whether his party was offering a slight variation on business as usual or something very different. Miliband sometimes signaled his egalitarian commitments by attacking “predatory” businesses and championing the rights of those in low-paid and precarious employment, but the overall impression was of a party falling between two stools. Flashes of radical energy were overshadowed by extreme caution. David Axelrod, President Obama’s chief strategist and sometime adviser to Miliband, mocked the party for offering the public no more than the chance to “vote Labour and win a microwave.”
At his most engaging, Miliband seemed to promise a decisive break from New Labour toward a more equitable and responsible model of capitalism. But his own election as leader had come with the extremely narrow defeat of his older and more Blairite brother David and thus denied him a clear mandate for a sharp turn away from New Labour orthodoxy, however much he might have wanted to pursue it. Moreover, he faced a hostile media environment, with the newspapers constantly painting him as a “weird,” intellectual North Londoner, disconnected from the hopes and concerns of ordinary voters. Some of the barrage against Miliband, who is Jewish, stooped close to anti-Semitism; on election day, the front page of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun urged voters to “Save Our Bacon”—a headline run over a picture of Miliband inelegantly eating a bacon sandwich. The Daily Mail even attacked Miliband’s dead father, the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband, as “the man who hated Britain.”
Miliband’s forbearance was remarkable, but the onslaught contributed to his difficulties in communicating a clear message to the electorate. Signals remained mixed, and party unity was achieved at the cost of muddying the waters between reform and the New Labour status quo. As his chief speechwriter, the Oxford political theorist Marc Stears, put it after the election, “Ed Miliband and his team never settled on a single way to describe the historic break we were aiming at.” Miliband aimed to be the first Labour prime minister who would “under-promise and over-deliver,” but the public had little sense of what the promise was and less confidence in Labour’s ability to deliver it.
Caution cost the party from two directions. On the left, it lost Scotland to the avowedly anti-austerity SNP and saw more than a million left-leaning voters give their support instead to the Green Party. On the right, Labour’s inability to shake its post-crash reputation for economic mismanagement meant it had little hope of converting Conservative voters. And it failed to stem the tide to the anti-European populist UK Independence Party, which made worrying inroads into Labour’s blue-collar support outside London.
• • •
The general election made clear the extent of Labour’s shortcomings. And yet, when the leadership campaign began, the front-runners—Burnham, Cooper, and Kendall—seemed to be blind to the full range of the party’s problems. They understood that voters no longer trusted them on the economy. But they responded by apparently buying into the falsehood that Labour, for two decades a firmly neoliberal outfit, was “anti-business” and insufficiently interested in economic “aspiration.” On May 29 Burnham launched his campaign at the London headquarters of Ernst & Young, defensively and unsubtly communicating his pro-business credentials. Just a few weeks earlier, Labour activists had been campaigning for a party that spoke, under Miliband’s leadership, about the need for a fairer and more equal economy. For party members, Burnham’s announcement was a jarring scene.
Then, on July 20, Burnham, Cooper, and Kendall compounded this impression of a knee-jerk lurch to the right by abstaining from the parliamentary vote on Osborne’s welfare reform bill, which introduced severe cuts to welfare payments, including all child tax credits for the third and subsequent children in each family. Acting leader Harriet Harman argued that Labour shouldn’t vote against the bill but instead listen to voters who had just elected a Conservative government. Given that the Tories had won with the support of less than 25 percent of eligible voters, Harman’s justification for giving up forceful parliamentary opposition mystified many. Corbyn, along with forty-seven of his colleagues, defied her instructions; they voted against the bill and took the opportunity to make simple moral arguments about the need to protect society’s most vulnerable members.
Cannier operators than Burnham, Cooper, and Kendall might have joined Corbyn in breaking party discipline, signaling their credentials to the party’s internal electorate. Instead, Burnham and Cooper dispatched agonized, semi-apologetic press releases seeking absolution after the vote. But party members knew where they stood. As Ronald Reagan once put it, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”
Although it was not their intention, the leadership could not have granted Corbyn a more valuable political gift. Here, ostensibly, was a party of the left, whose chiefs failed to oppose growing child poverty while emphasizing their friendliness to business interests. Though Cooper had worked for Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992, none of the centrist candidates had learned the most basic lesson of that experience, one constantly reinforced in U.S. politics since: a candidate should tack to their base to win the nomination and then tack to the center for the national election. Other than Corbyn, the Labour candidates seemed to be doing the opposite, alienating Labour’s membership as they tried to conform to a media-driven standard of respectable electability.
The front-runners’ caution created political space for Corbyn, whose campaign had seemed quixotic at first. He alone argued against austerity, proposing to fix public finances by creating inclusive growth rather than further disadvantaging the poor or cutting services. The way to achieve growth, he insisted, was to use the power of the state to invest in physical infrastructure and education and to create a new national investment bank. He also argued for real action to curb the predatory business practices Miliband had at times criticized, including an aggressive crackdown on tax avoidance by large corporations such as Starbucks and Google. Meanwhile, Corbyn’s team launched more targeted policy documents on issues from mental health care provision to state support of culture and the arts. With surprising effectiveness, his campaign combined a broad and radical vision with specific proposals, which showed potential supporters that their particular needs and concerns were being treated seriously.
Kendall’s campaign was in trouble from the start, but Cooper and Burnham could have pushed back harder as Corbyn took off. Instead, Cooper attempted to minimize her campaign’s negatives rather than develop its positive aspects, such as provision for early childhood education and investment in high-tech jobs—two themes that might have attracted supporters away from Corbyn. Burnham vacillated between Corbyn’s territory and Ernst and Young’s, leaving the impression that he lacked clarity and resolve.
One might expect better tactics from veterans such as Cooper and Burnham, but their choices make more sense in light of their backgrounds. Insiders both, they had worked for senior Labour politicians before winning election to Parliament and becoming junior ministers. Each understood that loyalty and caution bought patronage and advancement. But while they were effective party operators, they seemed to be at sea when old political certainties began to crumble.
Thus Cooper and Burnham became symbols of an ossified party, unimaginative and insular. Leading Labour politicians of the past might have made their careers in trade unions, local government, academia, or law before entering politics. They might have been able to call on a broader set of skills and on independent political capital. But now these were missing. By comparison Corbyn seemed reassuringly normal—a politician, to be sure, but one who could speak sincerely, without employing the tortuous doublespeak of his rivals. And when he spoke, he had something to offer: a set of values and a policy program that resonated with people who could ignore neither the inequality surrounding them nor the dried wells of opportunity scattered among the mansions of financiers who had emerged unscathed from the crisis they created.
• • •
The conventional wisdom holds that Corbyn’s victory will deeply damage the Labour Party, returning it to the years of electoral failure experienced in the 1980s. But if Corbyn’s win has only one lesson, it is that political prediction is a fool’s game. As he put it in his victory speech, “Things change.” If the conventional wisdom were always right, then Corbyn would not have become leader in the first place. It is simplistic to imagine that history repeats itself so neatly.
It is also naive to assume that Corbyn is just reviving discredited socialist politics of some previous era: whatever its deficits, his agenda is a direct response to the country’s most pressing political and economic problems. Ed Miliband acknowledged the importance of such a program in his unusually candid first speech to the House of Commons following Labour’s general election losses. “A huge question facing all Western democracies in the next five, ten, twenty years is whether we are comfortable with the huge disparities that exist,” he said—“whether we are fated to have them, and whether we want to even try to confront them. Personally, I believe we will have to.” Corbyn has a strategy to confront those inequalities, and other politicians of the center-left will have to develop their own. The ground has shifted; there can be no return to the discredited New Labour era, when Peter Mandelson, Blair’s chief lieutenant, could describe the party as “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.”
Early signs suggest that Corbyn’s leadership is breathing new life into the party, which has gained 60,000 new members since his election. And his ideas are broadening British political debate at large. Nationalization of the railways, a proposal popular among an electorate tired of inefficient and exploitative private rail companies but kept at bay by Labour’s ideological timidity, is back on the table. Corbyn is also advocating a lifetime public education system, on the model of the National Health Service, whereby the state would play an active role in the development and maintenance of citizens’ skills and job preparation not just early in people’s lives but throughout their careers. The devil will be in the details, but the plan as discussed so far reflects determined engagement with the problems presented by today’s labor market, in which people often change jobs and need to retrain. It is no retreat to old orthodoxies. That such policies—supported in the past by visionary economic thinkers such as James Meade—can be good for both economic growth and personal development shows their considerable potential.
Another positive early sign comes from John McDonnell, Corbyn’s shadow chancellor of the exchequer, who has appointed a board of economic advisers filled with distinguished academic economists including Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz, Simon Wren-Lewis, and Mariana Mazzucato. Mazzucato, author of The Entrepreneurial State (2013), has been especially influential. Her emphasis on economic growth as a collective rather than individual endeavor, and her account of the state’s role as a facilitator and guarantor of inclusive economic progress, show in Labour’s new economic strategy. Corbyn and McDonnell’s policies take seriously Mazzucato’s point that “policies traditionally considered ‘business friendly,’ such as tax credits and lower tax rates, can be bad for business in the long run if they limit governments’ future ability to invest in areas that increase innovation-led growth.” For example, the party is looking for ways to reduce some of the risks of innovation through state support of private research into green technologies while seeking to distribute the rewards more broadly when innovation succeeds.
After years of economic policy made to please the tabloids, the prospect of an agenda crafted with the input of figures such as Mazzucato, Piketty, and Stiglitz signals hope. Rather than fetishize reductions in public spending as Osborne has, McDonnell has already made the case for public investment in people and infrastructure. His first speech as shadow chancellor, at the party’s annual conference in Brighton, showed an understanding of the implications of Piketty’s work, which recommends shifting much of the focus of the tax system from income to wealth. He also proposed significant regulatory reforms aimed at decreasing systemic risk in the financial sector, a challenge that policymakers have ducked during the whole post-crash period. He advocated re-engineering the mandate of the Bank of England so that it considers not just inflation but also employment and economic growth. And he has asked Lord Kerslake, former head of the civil service, to study the case for breaking up the Treasury and creating a separate ministry of economic development.
The newspapers will no doubt try to portray these sensible, well-evidenced lines of policy development as extremist, but they are proportionate responses to important problems. One can only hope that McDonnell’s distinguished advisers are able to help make the case to the electorate at large and in particular to the party’s parliamentarians, many of whom have had their imaginations narrowed by years of Tory and New Labour orthodoxy.
Indeed, the internal barriers may be toughest for Corbyn to surmount. His project enjoys an overwhelming mandate from Labour members, but many of his parliamentarians are skeptical, if not openly hostile. No previous Labour leader struggled against so much opposition within his own parliamentary party; all previous leaders had been elected either solely by Labour’s MPs (before 1981) or by an electoral college. Accordingly, Corbyn will not find leadership easy. He has been a maverick for his whole political life, and the experiences of compromise and authority will be new ones.
It is difficult to predict whether Corbyn will still be leading his party come the 2020 election, and there are many potential pitfalls ahead of him. But as Corbyn himself would be the first to say, what is important for the Labour movement in the long run is not the fortunes of one politician, but the quality of its ideas, the power of its values, and its capacity to communicate both of these to the country as a whole. Corbyn’s success so far shows that the New Labour party of Blair had run out of ideas and had lost the ability to communicate its values. While voting for Corbyn might have seemed a risky option for Labour members attuned to past defeats, the other options seemed to promise no more than further slow decline.
Corbyn’s leadership will challenge both the radical leftists who support him and the center leftists who are not so convinced. The center-left is going to have to reinvent itself in a convincing way and show how it would deal with today’s political and economic problems. Harping on former glories has already failed. The radical left is going to find out whether the organic enthusiasm of packed public meetings can transform into a broad-based surge of support for a break from orthodoxy.
Whatever happens, the constant refrain of the British public that their politicians are “all the same” has never sounded so implausible. This one is different.
Martin O’Neill, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of York, is co-author of The Case for Community Wealth Building, and co-editor of Taxation: Philosophical Perspectives and Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond.
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