“For heaven’s sake man, go!” roared David Cameron on June 29. He sounded like a bad actor in an historical drama—which, in a sense, he was. Cameron was shouting across the dispatch box in the House of Commons, imploring Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to resign. It was less than a week after Brexit, and Cameron himself had just resigned as prime minister, having gambled his credibility on the E.U. referendum and lost. The Westminster elite were convulsing. Corbyn faced a dramatic rebellion from his parliamentary party—many of whom were angry that he had shown insufficient enthusiasm for the pro-E.U. Remain side. In the days after Brexit, most of his shadow cabinet resigned in disgust, and his enemies in the party marshaled all their forces against him. In a secret ballot, four out of five Labour MPs signed a vote of no confidence against Corbyn. His position looked untenable. Cameron, in demanding his opponent stand down, seemed to be speaking for the country.
As usual, however, he wasn’t. Corbyn didn’t go. He stayed and has somehow grown stronger. He saw off his challengers and, on September 24, thumped his former minister Owen Smith in a leadership re-election, winning an even bigger majority—or, as he and his fans like to call it, mandate—than he had last year when he thumped his other rival. The “Blairite” moderates, the disciples of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the Brownites, the survivors of Gordon Brown’s administration, have been left licking their wounds and wondering where it all went wrong.
Cameron, by contrast, went on to be humiliated further by his successor, Theresa May, and has ended up abandoning political life. He resigned again on September 13, this time as an MP, and is now rumored to be off to live in New York. Fare thee well, Dave. May has set about ridding her party of Cameron’s agenda and his “Notting Hill Set,” who have dominated the Conservatives for the last ten years. Now, the whole modernizing Cameroonian agenda, which still seemed clever only last year when he won a general election, suddenly looks like an embarrassing p.r. experiment.
Corbynism, however, is a much stranger beast, and embarrassing in a different way. It is a bit like Trumpism, only for left-wing, ultra-politically correct vegan types. Just as Donald Trump has shown with the GOP, Corbyn has proved that Labour, a once great political movement, is now a dead brand. People will vote for its red rose every few years at a general election, but they don’t care about it. The energy on the left, as on the right, is on the outsiderish fringes—the freaks and geeks. The usually fractious ideologues of the hard left have suddenly found a triumphant unity. Having spent years in the wilderness, holding protest marches for hopeless causes and bleating about the evils of neoliberalism, the radical left has suddenly found itself in charge. Members of the Socialist Workers Party and the Green Party have started coming back to Labour. Momentum, the new left-wing “grassroots” political movement, was founded only last year—to support Corbyn’s leadership—but it is already effectively running Her Majesty’s Opposition.
The trouble is, as bitter moderates are eager to point out, Corbynism, while popular, looks like a general-election disaster waiting to happen. Corbyn’s strength is Labour’s weakness, and, as even the Sunday People, a left-wing rag, pointed out, “An unelectable leader is about as much use as an ice-cream in the desert.” Momentum may be active and noisy, but most people think it a wretched organization. The Corbynites, who tend to be middle-class graduates from bad universities, are probably the most annoying people in Britain. A bit like those new “Alt-Right” types in America who call Trump “Daddy” on the internet, the Corbynites exist in a netherworld of conceited irony. Their voice is heard mostly online. On social media, they “troll” anybody who disses “Jez” in print.
They think they are part of a great cause as well as in on the joke. Look up the wacky songs of praise for Corbyn on YouTube—and try not to cringe. One, by a young man named Sam Harrison, is entitled “I Feel Like Jeremy Corbyn”:
I march in the CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] parade
And I feel like Jeremy Corbyn
I buy my groceries from fair trade
And I feel like Jeremy Corbyn . . .
I believe in public healthcare
I believe in state welfare
I’m sick of first-world poverty
And I think I’m going to vote for Jeremy . . .
The vast majority of Britons, surely, would rather vote for a charmless technocrat (step forward, Theresa May) than for anyone representing this ghastly new left. Corbyn himself is no Trump: He has more principles but less personality. “Jezza” or “Jez,” as his fans call him, is a plodding, badly dressed, and depressing figure. A large part of his appeal lies in the fact he is the opposite of slick. He does not poll well. According to one survey, only 19 percent of voters thought he would make a better prime minister than May. But the Corbynites see unelectability as authenticity, and would be quite happy to lose election after election so long as they felt good about themselves. Indeed, not being in power is the point: It means they can bleat about how the world should be without ever having to worry about what would happen to their comfortable existences if they ever did win.
Labour moderates, who are well supported in the media if nowhere else, have spent the last year grumbling about the Corbynite takeover. But they must accept that Corbyn, for all his unpopularity, is much more popular than they. His “straight talking, honest politics” may be a fraud, but it is a fraud that mobilizes people in a way that conventional lying politics does not. Labour now has 551,000 members—the highest number of any political party in Western Europe—up from 388,000 in January this year. The party’s finances are healthier than ever. Labour MPs may find the Corbynites abhorrent and sigh that their party is dead. But the harder truth is just that it isn’t theirs any more.
But half a million people can’t all be as annoying as Sam Harrison. So what is driving them toward Corbyn? It is of course the same forces that are causing the populist revolt in America: namely, the fallout from the economic crisis, the Iraq war, and the vanishing of trust in established democratic politics. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, British lefties could cope, just about, with Tony Blair’s third-way economics and his compromises with global capitalism. They somehow swallowed Peter Mandelson, as Labour’s secretary of state for business, saying that he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” But the war in Iraq was criminal. Blair’s interventionism shamed lefties and pushed them further left: It sent sensible lefties out on protest marches, often organized by radical groups such as the Stop the War Coalition. And the more the disgruntled left was ignored, the more they found common cause. As it became clear that the Iraq war was a massive mistake, and that Tony Blair’s government had hoodwinked Parliament into supporting the invasion, “New Labour” lost its moral authority, and the public, especially on the righteous left, became angrier and angrier.
Then came the financial crisis, which, especially when combined with the parliamentary expenses scandal—a series of revelations in 2009 that, as a matter of routine, members of Parliament were fiddling their accounts to rip off the taxpayer—intensified the popular sense that politics was corrupt and dysfunctional.
When Corbyn, a former chairman of Stop the War, was first elected as party leader last year, the commentariat assumed the result was a spasm of left-wingery in the wake of a general-election defeat. The party, it was thought, would soon come to its senses and realize the uselessness of the sandal-wearing brigade it had just put in charge. But they didn’t appreciate the chasm that now existed between the parliamentary party and most people who vote Labour. Now, at last, they do, but rather than try to empathize with the public, elite journalists have taken to dismissing them as stupid.
Many Labour MPs now live in fear that they will be deselected because of their earlier disloyalty to Dear Leader. There are endless whispers in Westminster of Corbynite “purges.” But Corbyn, now re-elected with his whooping mandate, seems in a magnanimous mood. In his big speech at the party conference, he tried to channel a Barack Obama-like “Yes We Can” progressivism; his vision of a “socialism for the 21st century.” “It’s true there’s an electoral mountain to climb,” he said,
But if we focus everything on the needs and aspirations of middle and lower income voters, of ordinary families, if we demonstrate we’ve got a viable alternative to the government’s failed economic policies, I’m convinced we can build the electoral support that can beat the Tories.
The Tories aren’t scared. Conservative MPs now talk about being in power for the next decade—so confident are they that Labour is wrecked. But it is a mistake to think that, just because Corbyn is a bad politician and a left-wing radical, he can under no circumstances win a general election. The center-right media never stop saying Corbyn is too “far left” for Britain—the assumption being that the Brits, unlike those crazy Continentals and Latins, are too solidly Anglo-Saxon to elect a dangerous radical.
But another economic crisis could shift the public mood further left, and Corbyn’s language, especially on foreign policy, is more electorally potent than most pundits realize. He is a peacenik at a time when the electorate are sick of military interventions. His international outlook may be soppy and utopian—not to mention anti-American and motivated by a hatred of Zionism—but it makes more sense than the current government’s. The RAF is currently supporting the mad U.S.-led policy of bombing ISIS and its enemies at the same time in Syria. Meanwhile, the government is silent about Saudi Arabia, an ally and major buyer of our arms, which is directing mass slaughters in Yemen. Corbyn often points this out, and because he’s obviously right, people are coming round to his point of view.
The Tories have a dangerous habit of forgetting how unpopular they are. Theresa May may be enjoying something of a honeymoon period as a new leader. But her appeal to Lower Middle England—or, as she puts it, those who are “just managing”—may not be quite as electorally potent as she thinks. She is a machine politician in an age when everybody increasingly thinks politics is broken. If you tell a Westminster figure today that you think Labour will win the next general election, he will laugh in your face. But someday soon the joke could be on him.