Swing to the Left

Print edition : October 16, 2015

Jeremy Corbyn, the new Labour Party leader, leaves his home in north London on September 11. Photo: STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS

Corbyn addresses a pro-refugee rally in central London on September 12. Photo: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP

A train stranded near the Huntingdon Railway station in Cambridgeshire, England. Corbyn has outlined his plans for a publicly owned railway network. Photo: AP

Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto offers an alternative rooted in fairness, decency and social justice, but to win the next elections, the new Labour Party leader must be able to keep the parliamentary party united and expand his and his party’s popular base by drawing in newer sections of people.

THE Ealing Town Hall was packed to capacity an hour and 10 minutes before the meeting was due to start. The spillover room soon filled, and those unable to enter were left standing outside, unsure of what to do. As young volunteers in red shirts emblazoned with “Jeremy Corbyn for leader” regretfully turned people away, the man everyone had come to listen to appeared outside. Dressed in casuals, the 66-year-old veteran of socialist politics in Britain addressed the crowd for seven minutes, encapsulating the speech he would make later in the hall. He spoke of the cruelty of the new welfare system, asking people to give thought to the dehumanising impact of disadvantage. He touched on the health needs of society, especially those of the vulnerable sections, and the importance of having a National Health Service (NHS) that would be free at the point of delivery. He spoke of the brutality of war, especially nuclear war, and his firm opposition to the proposed renewal, at a cost of £100 billion, of Britain’s Trident nuclear missile programme. He then made his way to the main hall where applause and cheers had already started, but not before personally greeting the audience in the spillover room. This was vintage Corbyn—considerate, approachable and inclusive, qualities that have won him many admirers.

The audience was a representative cross section of real Britain and comprised people of all colours and nationalities, from across class and occupation groups, and in large part young. Corbyn is an attractive and convincing speaker who has a special appeal for young people. Over 10,000 young first-time volunteers joined the Corbyn campaign, proving the point he repeatedly urges his older audiences to consider. Young people today are neither cynical nor apolitical, he argues, but will engage in politics only if it is made meaningful and transformatory.

By the end of his campaign, the candidate for whom the odds at the start were 100:1 was by far and away in the lead, leaving the three other contenders—Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall—way behind. Corbyn notched up 99 election meetings across the country, which drew ever-increasing numbers. When the election results were announced at the Labour Party conference on September 12, it was not the fact of Corbyn’s win but the scale of it that came as a shocker to his supporters and detractors alike. Corbyn won 59.5 per cent of the votes, more than half the 500,000 plus votes cast, with Burnham at 19 per cent, Yvette Cooper at 17 per cent, and Liz Kendall at 4 per cent. It was a resounding victory, and one that surpassed that of even former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Austerity agenda

Looking back, Corbyn’s unprecedented rise in British politics is the outcome of both the austerity agenda of the Conservative Party over the past five years and the political mainstreaming of the Labour Party. The rightward swing in Labour politics under Tony Blair’s government, in respect of its economic agenda and foreign policy—in particular the disastrous decision in 2003 to send in ground troops to fight in Iraq—continued unchanged in substance under his successor Gordon Brown (2007-10). When the financial crisis came in 2008-09, the Conservative opposition pointed to the Labour government’s so-called profligate social sector spending as having exacerbated the recession. The anti-incumbency mood in the country was well reflected in the 2010 electoral outcome—a fractured mandate that resulted in the formation of a coalition government of the Conservative Party under David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg.

The coalition government introduced austerity programmes that drastically cut social sector spending. This hit wages, pensions, disability payments and state benefits. In power, the Lib-Dems, who had positioned themselves somewhere between the two parties, could make little headway in preventing the austerity agenda. In fact, the party’s popular image took a battering early when it backtracked on one of its central manifesto promises, namely, that of abolishing university tuition fees.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party was experiencing resuscitation with the election of Ed Miliband. Miliband distanced himself from the Blairite legacy and attempted to bring the party’s focus on the impact of austerity on people’s lives and livelihoods. It appeared as if a new spirit had been injected into a party in disarray. The turning point for the Labour Party came in mid-2013 when it led the opposition to the government’s proposal in Parliament to launch air strikes in Syria. The motion was rejected. Labour’s principled objections had clearly won over sections of the middle ground and even some Conservative Members of Parliament. By this time, opinion polls showed Labour and the Conservatives equally balanced. However, by 2014, and with elections around the corner, the party was once again in a soft-pedalling mode, its focus on social and economic issues fast dissipating.

Labour’s disintegration started in Scotland, which was once its traditional vote base, with a large part of its constituency shifting loyalties to the Scottish National Party (SNP). During the 2015 election campaign, the corporate-style and stage-managed public engagements of Miliband were no different from those of Cameron. The party caved in on issues such as immigration and adopted an economic manifesto that offered a form of austerity-lite. This alienated its supporters, who either drifted to other parties or strayed away from politics. The party was defeated comprehensively in the elections, the biggest blow coming from Scotland, where it was almost wiped out by the SNP, which won 56 out of the 59 seats.

It was this disenchantment that Corbyn confronted in his campaign. He commenced his campaign after having scraped through the required number of 35 nominations to stand for the election. He engaged directly with audiences, addressing the real concerns and reigniting hope and the belief that life could change. His campaign started attracting bigger and bigger crowds and soon became a small whirlwind that spun out new ideas and an alternative vision. At the same time, the manifestos offered by other contenders, all of whom started on the premise that Labour’s 2015 electoral defeat was because Miliband’s agenda was too radical and failed to address “aspirational” middle-Britain, were becoming increasingly irrelevant.

The Corbyn platform

Corbyn’s manifesto, on the other hand, attracted people because it offered an alternative rooted in fairness, decency and social justice. On the economy, Corbyn argues that the deficit, which the Conservatives want to cut, should not be reduced by cuts in social spending. Rather, it must be financed by higher taxation on the incomes of the rich and the corporates, alongside a crackdown on tax avoidance. The railways must be renationalised as should the energy companies. He put forward the idea of “quantitative easing for people” and not for banks, arguing that while the Bank of England issued £375 billion electronically between 2009 and 2012 to buy bonds and other debts, this should have instead been used for building infrastructure that would stimulate the economy and boost employment. A national maximum wage must be introduced to cap very high salaries, he said.

On foreign policy issues, he believes that to win peace in West Asia, negotiations with militant groups are necessary. Labour should not support air strikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and instead should seek to cut off its arms supplies. His foreign policy would prioritise “justice and assistance”. As a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, he supports an arms embargo on Israel and a boycott of its goods. He has also been a long-time supporter of a United Ireland and believes that the United Kingdom should withdraw from Northern Ireland.

Corbyn believes that Britain should scrap Trident and put its workforce into other, more productive employment channels.

A Labour government under Corbyn would seek to establish a National Education Service modelled on the NHS. He wants university tuition fees scrapped and replaced by a system of grants that can be funded by a 0.05 per cent increase in corporation tax. Under him, state-funded private academies and the so-called free schools—the independently funded, expensive private schools in the U.K.—would be made to come under the local authority as before. His arts policy states that every child should be given the opportunity to learn a musical instrument or act on stage.

Rent controls should be reintroduced and more council houses built to address the housing shortage. The rights of council tenants to buy their homes should be extended to the private rent market as well.

On immigration, he believes that people who are desperate, like the refugees currently seeking asylum in Europe, should be accommodated in host countries, including the U.K. He is a sharp critic of Cameron’s immigration policy. Corbyn believes that the U.K. should not quit the European Union (E.U.) provided there is substantial reform. He opposes the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal.

Historic though his elevation has been, it is not surprising that Corbyn’s manifesto has polarised the political establishment at Westminster and incurred the wrath of Britain’s overwhelmingly right-wing press. For the mild-mannered but determined socialist, it has been a trial by fire. Reacting to his election, the Conservative Party said that Corbyn would be a national security threat if he were ever to become the Prime Minister. In his own party, several shadow ministers resigned and many said they would not agree to serve under Corbyn even if he asked. The media have subjected him to relentless criticism. He was upbraided for not appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on the Sunday after his election (he later said that he had made a prior commitment to visit a charity which he did not want to cancel). When he announced the first three posts in the shadow cabinet, there was outrage that he had not named a woman. When he announced a shadow cabinet that had 16 women to 15 men the following day, the press attacked him for not appointing a woman to one of the three top posts. He was accused of being unpatriotic because he did not sing the national anthem at a Second World War veterans’ memorial. The Times carried a story about an alleged affair he had with his long-time ally, the MP Dianne Abbot. Dissension in the Labour Party—which is indeed a fact—is routinely played up. A prominent newspaper commissioned a poll just days after Corbyn’s election in which the majority of respondents said that he would not make a good Prime Minister. Corbyn’s first major parliamentary appearance at the Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesdays was eagerly anticipated. Instead of the usual format, Corbyn crowdsourced questions and read them out, leaving the Prime Minister no option but to answer them seriously, whether the question was on tax credit cuts or the crisis that mental health care is in. In a half hour that is usually marked by one-upmanship and insult trading, Corbyn’s obvious sincerity of purpose had a sobering impact. Some media quarters offered grudging appreciation, but several chose the occasion to pillory him.

The challenges that Corbyn faces are many and formidable, and they mainly come from within the Labour parliamentary block. A serial-rebel, who voted over 534 times since 1997 in Parliament against his own party’s positions, Corbyn now has to build a broad framework of unity that allows for differences in views but arrives at a consensus on major issues. His choice of John McDonnell, a long-time friend who shares his political convictions, as Shadow Chancellor faced strong opposition from within the party. McDonnell backs Corbyn on economic policy and his programme of renationalisation of the railways, the energy companies and Royal Mail. Corbyn must also keep his support base as energised and involved as it was during his campaign. No Labour leader in the past few decades has had the kind of popular mandate Corbyn enjoys, and none has had such little parliamentary support either. On the major question of membership of the E.U., Corbyn has considerably diluted his earlier view that the U.K. should quit the Union. He says Labour will vote to stay in Europe, but only if the E.U. rules are reformed and Cameron does not compromise on issues relating to workers’ rights and the environment.

Keeping the parliamentary party united behind his leadership, leading the opposition to Tory policies, and expanding his and his party’s popular base by drawing in newer sections of people are the tasks before Corbyn. In this, of course, his success in the last goal will determine his success in the first two.

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