An unthinkable first

September 27, 2015

Despite an emphatic Labour party win, the ride ahead for Jeremy Corbyn is not going to be smooth

An unthinkable first

On September 12, Jeremy Corbyn was elected new leader of the British Labour party. A rank outsider, Corbyn won a resounding victory. No Labour leader has won such an emphatic mandate in the party’s entire history. His victory was widely predicted after Corbyn’s robust campaigning -- about 100 rallies organised all across the country.

For the first time in the recent history of the Labour party, the alienated grassroots membership was activated and plugged back into the heart of the party. This new groundswell was enough to see Jeremy Corbyn romp home in the first round with 59.5 per cent of the vote. The scale of the victory can be gauged from the fact that Corbyn beat his closest rival, Andy Burnham, by more than 40 points.

The rest of the three candidates won 40 per cent of the vote among themselves with the most Blairite candidate, Liz Kendal, winning only 4.5 per cent of the vote.

The result shows a number of trends. One, the extreme brand of Blairism, or new Labourism, has become a fringe phenomenon with Liz Kendal coming poorly third. Earlier, one of the new Labour stalwarts, closely associated with Blaire’s brand, Tessa Jowell, lost to Sadiq Khan, for nomination for the mayor of London. Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, associated with Gordon Brownite wing of the party, fared comparatively better with 17 and 19 per cent of votes. This means Brownism still enjoys some traction in the party.

More importantly, Corbyn’s victory emphatically underscores a deep hunger within the party for a new style of politics and change of ideological gear. Corbyn ran a very vigorous campaign on an explicitly left-wing platform.

However, with Corbyn’s elections, Britain’s entrenched establishment politics is in an uncharted territory. In the words of a noted commentator Gary Younge, "Corbyn’s victory energises the alienated and alienates the establishment".

Corbyn’s win shows that there is wider acceptance of socialist ideas than is normally thought in the Labour circles.

Corbyn has placed membership at the heart of the Labour party with MPs losing decisive say over the selection of the party’s leader. Moreover, Corbyn has indicated his intention to involve party’s members into policy making of the party. This is quite a revolution in British politics. Now political parties will have to take note of the membership concerns and not take the wider membership for granted. In this sense Corbyn’s victory has already transformed the way politics operates.

However, there are challenges ahead and the ride is not going to be smooth.

First, Corbyn’s long held and cherished republican and pacifist position are set to collide with widespread pro-monarchy sentiments within the party and outside. Corbyn is opposed to the Trident nuclear programme which is supported by large swathe of the Labour party. Corbyn’s decision not to sing the national anthem at war veteran’s ceremony has already drawn flak from the media and some members of his shadow cabinet.

British media has hungrily latched onto these issues. From the way media has reacted in extremely hostile fashion to Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign and election is a foretaste of already intensifying smear campaign. Conservative party, for its turn, is positioning to add strategic fuel to the anti-Corbyn bonfire lit by the largely hostile media.

Second, the biggest battle would of course be fought with the Labour party itself. The tensions within the Labour party would centre on the axis of membership-MPs power divide and the right-left divide within the party. The right wing and Blairite section of the party may not lie low for too long. Stirred by the hostile media, some of the MPs are already talking of toppling Corbyn within a year.

In response, Corbyn has signalled shifting of more policy making power to the party’s larger membership which has powered his rise to the leadership position. If Corbyn has his way, the power of the MPs will be reduced further.

Third, Corbyn was the candidate of most of the trade unions. A trade unionist himself, he has made no secret of his closeness to the trade unions and spoke of strengthening the Labour-Unions bond in his first policy speech at the Trade Union Congress.

Moreover, he has vowed to resist the repressive new trade union bill which seeks to outlaw the union strikes. Yet, he will have to balance this relationship and not be seen to kowtow to the union too much. This will give the hostile media another opening to double down on Corbyn. He has begun well on this front by appointing John MacDonnell as shadow chancellor reportedly in defiance of the wishes of the unions which seek to curtail the right to strike.

Fourth, the wider issue of electability is the one Corbyn will need to tackle head on. The mantra of electability is being used to discredit Corbyn as his socialist platform and supposedly lack of charisma is being seen as electoral liability. Although next election is way away into the future, Corbyn’s mobilisational skills and resonant political platform can overturn the consensus of media on Corbyn’s electability prowess.

Considering his power of pulling off an unlikely leadership election, Corbyn can repeat this feat at the next general elections. Even veteran conservative politician, Kenneth Clarke, has said that Jeremy Corbyn is best placed to win the next election for the Labour party.

Fifth, his election also holds the possibility of restoring Labour party to its largely socialist roots as in its founding days under the leadership of Keir Hardier, the founding father of the party. Under Blair the party moved much to the right of the centre politics by ditching clause 4 of the Labour party constitution which professed notional commitment to public ownership of the means of production. Corbyn’s win shows that there is wider acceptance of socialist ideas than is normally thought in the Labour circles.

While the challenges listed above will be addressed in the coming months and years, there is already consensus among the political commentariat that Jeremy Corbin has transformed the politics by winning the election and revealing new ways of doing politics. He showed this by crowd sourcing his questions for the rowdy, noisy prime minister question time.

This is an unthinkable first, new in British politics. From the look of things it is apparent more firsts are in order in the coming days.

An unthinkable first