For almost two decades, or ever since Tony Blair became prime minister, the British have moaned about a lack of opposition in politics. All our politicians “sound the same,” we say—and they do, it’s true. Our parliamentary system may be designed for confrontation, but so far this century the Labour and Conservative parties seem to have done nothing but compete for the center ground. Members of parliament still shout at one another across the House of Commons, as if each side despised everything the other stood for, but as a whole our elected representatives stand for the same things: free enterprise, social liberalism, egalitarianism, internationalism. Traditional Tories or old-fashioned socialists who dissent from these dogmas are seen as troublemakers or oddballs.
Yet on Saturday, September 12, something changed. The Labour Party did the unthinkable and elected a flat-cap-wearing, bearded far-leftist called Jeremy Corbyn. He didn’t sneak in; he stormed to victory. A 200-1 shot with bookmakers when his campaign began in June, he ended up winning the election with an overwhelming 60-percent majority. There had been fears that Corbyn might win through a fluke, because reforms intended to make his party’s leadership contest more digital-age and democratic had opened the system up to abuse. An ironic campaign, launched by my Spectator colleague Toby Young, urged right-wingers to pay the £3 ($4.50) fee to become “registered supporters” of Labour so as to cast their vote for Corbyn and “consign Labour to electoral oblivion by 2020.” But—here’s the really funny part—it wasn’t just pranksters and “clickactivists” who voted for Corbyn; among fully paid-up Labour members, he won more votes than his nearest two rivals, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, combined.
The modernizers within the party had been humiliated. In the days following Labour’s defeat, the Blairites argued that Labour had lost because it had strayed from the sacred center. The outgoing leader, Ed Miliband, with his rhetoric about “predatory capitalism,” had moved too far left, they said, and voters had punished him for it. David Cameron—the self-styled “heir to Blair”—had triumphed instead. The thriller writer and former friend of Tony Blair, Robert Harris, urged the left to replace Miliband with “someone who challenges the cosy certainties of the Left rather than panders to the prejudices of the faithful.”
But the party faithful were not in the mood for self-correction. Corbyn only just got on the ballot in June—he was ten seconds from failing to hand his application in on time—yet he almost instantly tapped into something strange and powerful. At first trendy pundits only dared welcome his “contribution to the debate”—nobody thought he could actually win. Within a few weeks, however, he was all anyone talked about. By the time the first poll came out in July, Corbyn was 17 points ahead.
It now seems as if nothing could have stopped him. The right-wing press and Corbyn’s opponents began throwing out shock stories about the extent of Corbyn’s radicalism. They pointed out his links to terrorist organizations such as the IRA and Hamas. His supporters didn’t care. The Times revealed that Corbyn had referred to Osama bin Laden’s death as a “tragedy” on Iranian state television—and everybody raised an eyebrow. But the “Jez We Can” bandwagon rolled on. Tony Blair even took to the pages of the Guardian to issue a humiliating last-gasp appeal to save the Labour Party from “annihilation” under Corbyn. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re on the left, right or centre of the party,” he said, “whether you used to support me or hate me. But please understand the danger we are in.” Nobody cared. The left wanted to show Blair how much they hated him and everything he stood for. So they elected a man who has spent his life denouncing capitalism, America, and Western imperialism; a man who had defied the whip—that is, voted against the party line—more than 500 times.
Political pundits have been scrambling in recent weeks trying to figure out what on earth is going on. A number of commentators—including the Hillary Clinton groupie David Brock—have tried to connect the dots between Corbyn’s story and the rise of Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont who against all odds is polling ahead of Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire. Like Corbyn, Sanders is a socialist who is thought to be too left-wing to be a serious candidate. Like Corbyn, he has defied political gravity because he is considered a man of principle. Both Corbyn and Sanders have exploited the anticapitalism and the antipolitics in the Zeitgeist; the widespread sense that globalization isn’t working for anyone but the super rich, and that democracy is rigged in favor of big business. But while Sanders rails against Wall Street and American imperialism, he can hardly be called a friend of terrorists. Corbyn can, and that’s not neocon hyperbole. He represents a peculiarly English kind of radicalism, a lingering fury against the monarchy and the remnants of the class system. At the same time, his appeal is strangely postmodern. Corbynmania, as it is called, is shrouded in irony. People like him as a politician because he is so obviously a bad politician—the opposite of the statesman stereotype: He dresses badly, lacks charm, and is a poor rhetorician. He may talk, like a President Obama, about hope and change, but he looks depressed as he does so, and he stresses the wrong words.
Still, the British wanted a man of principle in the frontline of politics; a real opponent in opposition. Now they had one. Moreover, Corbyn’s campaign seemed to excite a lot of young and hitherto apathetic people, which is generally thought to be good news. But the general mood toward him is one of anxiety. For most, Corbyn’s success—like Donald Trump’s—had been a good bit of fun over the summer. But in the days after September 12, it felt as if the joke had gone too far. Did we really want to go back to the ideological struggles of the 1970’s? In his first few days as leader, Corbyn did little to assuage troubled moderates. He appointed “Mad” John McDonnell, a man who said that IRA terrorists should be honored for their struggle against the British state, as his shadow chancellor. He made a convicted arsonist his education spokesman. At his first ceremonial event as Labour leader, a service honoring Britain’s war dead, he neglected to sing the National Anthem, which sent the patriotic tabloids into spasms of apoplexy. (He later claimed that he was too emotional to sing, but by then the damage had been done.) Journalists panicked, too, because in his first few days as leader Corbyn refused to talk to them. He turned down all approaches from BBC News and other networks. It was hard not to admire the demented integrity of it. Maybe he really meant what he said when he promised to shun “celebrity, personality, or abusive politics.” But in our age of 24-hour news, ignoring the media is political suicide. The beast has to be fed. A surreal video of Corbyn walking away from the House of Commons at night, refusing to answer any questions from the journalists walking alongside him, became a viral hit—but not in a good way. Corbyn’s “Long Walk of Silence” added to the impression that the new Labour leader is a bit of a strange fish.
In the end, of course, he had to buckle. He started appearing on television like any other public figure. He even let it be known that he would sing “God Save the Queen” in the future. But that cuts to the heart of Corbyn’s problem: If he sticks to his principles, he is unacceptably left-wing and a weirdo to boot. If he doesn’t, he’s just another politician like all the others—and so what’s the point of him?
Already it has become clear that, faced with enough opprobrium, Comrade Corbyn and his friends will retreat from their radicalism. Mad McDonnell has already issued a rather weasel-like pseudoapology for having heaped praise on the IRA. “I think my choice of words was wrong. I accept that,” said McDonnell.
What I tried to do for both sides is to give them a way out with some form of dignity otherwise they wouldn’t lay their arms down. I accept it was a mistake to use those words. But if it contributed towards saving one life or preventing someone else being maimed it was worth doing.
He was just trying to give a peace a chance, see? Eat your phony heart out, Tony Blair.
Corbyn the rebel MP has argued against Britain’s membership in NATO and expressed skepticism toward the European Union, which he regarded as too “economically motivated.” But Corbyn the leader is less forthright. It now looks as if he will not push for Britain to leave NATO, and Corbyn himself has suggested he will campaign to stay in the European Union in the referendum in 2017. “We cannot be content with the state of the EU as it stands,” he said. “But that does not mean walking away, but staying to fight together for a better Europe.” Another Blair-like fudge. Funnily enough, David Cameron uses almost exactly the same line to explain his view of the referendum, though his idea of improving Europe is to make it more economically motivated, not less.
On the domestic economy, too, it seems as if Corbyn is being mugged by reality. During his campaign he spoke about the “people’s quantitative easing”—pumping centrally created money into housing, energy, transport, and digital ventures. But he has gone quiet on this after economists on both sides of the political divide said that it would lead to higher inflation and a weaker currency. He also indicated that he wanted to reverse Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s much-heralded decision to make the Bank of England independent. But his justice secretary, Lord Falconer, has already made it clear that he will not support any such move, and Corbyn hasn’t yet overruled him. The only policies Corbyn seems determined to pursue are an increase in council housing, a small raise in income tax, and a still-vague proposal to renationalize the railways “one line at a time.”
Corbyn the leader is hamstrung because, while he excited Labour’s support base, he is at odds with his party—and even many of his shadow cabinet—on many of the most important issues. He won’t even get to see if his more challenging ideas really are unacceptable to the British public, because his party won’t allow him to turn them into policies. And though he may not think he is kowtowing to the media, he is already finding he can’t get very far without courting them in some way.
That’s the trouble with democratic politics. Even when our politicians are different, they end up being just the same.