Ideologically, he’s something of a British Bernie Sanders. Politically, he could be any one of the obscure, hard-right candidates aiming for the 2016 Republican nomination.
When the British Labor Party chose Jeremy Corbyn as its new leader last month, it was in reaction to a stinging election defeat this year and in response to frustrations many Americans also feel as the presidential campaign here gets into full swing: The absence of a party they feel is looking out for them, a dire shortage of straight talk from career politicians.
From the opposite end of the political spectrum, it’s as if Republicans, who lost the last two elections with relatively moderate candidates, decided to go with the most extreme option this time: If tacking toward the center doesn’t work, maybe pure ideology will.
So far, the Corbyn experiment has gone about the way you’d expect: Not real well. And it’s fair to ask whether the U.S. or the U.K. political system is more dysfunctional.
Labor should have done better than it did in Britain’s parliamentary elections in May. Some of the reasons will sound familiar to Americans. Under Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, the U.K. has rebounded from the Great Recession better than many countries on the European mainland. But the recovery hasn’t been great. Bankers and money managers in London, like their Wall Street cousins, are doing very well. The rest of the country? Meh.
But the Conservatives actually improved their position, winning an absolute majority in Parliament. Cameron argued that Labor and its leader Ed Miliband couldn’t be trusted with the British economy, and the doubts stuck.
For some in Labor, the loss was the predictable result of the party’s move toward the political center, engineered by Tony Blair a generation ago — at roughly the same time Bill Clinton was pushing Democrats here in same direction. Labor stepped away from its roots as the party of the working class, according to this line of argument, and ended up standing for nothing much different than the Tories.
On Sept. 13, the party went in a radically different direction when it chose Miliband’s successor. Corbyn is an unapologetic socialist from the pre-Blair era, a Labor backbencher in Parliament for more than 30 years.
Michele Hanson, a columnist for the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, was elated: “At last a change from all the mealy-mouthed, middle-of-the-road, jargon-spouting, scaredy-cat wets, who have led us into a money-worshipping, war-mongering, planet-wrecking pit of inequality, apathy and despair.”
The paper’s editors were a tad more sober, highlighting the frustration with politics as usual that led to Corbyn’s victory and urging patience with his efforts to reshape the party. Commentators, including Paul Krugman of the New York Times, highlighted the failings of Corbyn’s moderate rivals for the party leadership.
Corbyn is off to a rocky start, illustrating the kind of problems almost any candidate — right or left — from outside the political mainstream is likely to face.
One is internal dissent. Give Labor credit here. Instead of falling over themselves to prove who is the purest ideologue, party officials have quit leadership posts and publicly criticized Corbyn. Last week, little more than two weeks into the job, Corbyn sparked a controversy over Britain’s nuclear arsenal. He is against plans to modernizing it at an estimated cost of $150 billion, or even keeping it. If he were prime minister, he declared, he would never use Britain’s nuclear weapons.
The party leaders responsible for defense and foreign policy quickly pointed out that Corbyn was at odds with Labor’s official stance, which is that Britain should keep a deterrent. Nuclear weapons should be negotiated out of existence, not given up unilaterally, said Hilary Benn, Labor’s leading voice on foreign policy.
A second is ceding the ideological center. At their annual party conference this week, the Conservatives are being very clear about their aims. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, Cameron’s most likely successor, told party leaders that the Tories should target traditional Labor voters who feel abandoned by Corbyn. Osborne is also enticing local councils, which often skew to the left, by giving them more financial authority.
The aim, according to analysts, is to cement Conservative dominance of British politics for years, if not decades, to come.
The underlying question is whether a Labor party led by Corbyn is simply unelectable in modern Britain. If it is, that could pose a risk for the entire country.
Labor really can’t win without a lot of votes in Scotland. But Scots – who voted against independence a year ago — are still focused on the question, and many don’t see much difference anymore between Labor and the Conservatives. In May, the pro-independence Scottish National Party won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the national parliament — many of which would normally have gone to Labor.
If it holds those gains, the National Party would be a natural governing partner for Labor. But its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, issued a blunt warning that Scotland could go in another direction. If Corbyn doesn’t quickly show that he can win, she said, Scotland would prefer independence to indefinite Tory rule.