Corbyn poised to shift UK’s Labor Party to the left

In a surprising shift of the political sands, one of the parties that led international social democracy’s turn toward the centrist ‘third way’ in the 1990s is now poised to elect a new leader from the left.  On September 12, a special conference of the British Labour Party will choose a new chief to head up the opposition in parliament against the Conservative government.  In a four-candidate race, all signs point to a victory for left-wing MP Jeremy Corbyn.

The current leadership contest was set in motion following the resignation of Ed Miliband after Labour’s loss to Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives in the general election last May.  With an electoral platform combining populist rhetoric with pledges of loyalty to the Conservatives’ budget targets, Miliband failed to impress voters.  Now it seems like grassroots Labour members are going for the real thing when it comes to left politics.

For the first time since Tony Benn’s socialist insurgency campaign in the early 1980s, the forces of centrism and moderation are on the defense inside the Labour Party.   Beginning with party leader Neal Kinnock and continuing under Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ in the 1990s, British Labour has been at the forefront of social democracy’s move to the political center.  Along with President Bill Clinton, Blair pioneered the elaboration of  ‘third way’ ideology, which claimed to have found a middle path between the neoliberalism of the right and the ‘big state socialism’ and liberalism of the old left. 

Corbyn’s success in the leadership race has caught people by surprise across the British political spectrum.  Former Prime Minister Blair warns that a radical Corbyn-led party will be unelectable at the national level.   He recently suggested people who were committed to social justice and felt their heart was with Corbyn should “get a heart transplant.”  Ironically, it was Blair’s acolytes in parliament who helped put Corbyn on the ballot.  Worried that a leadership race without a left-wing candidate would look bad for the party, many New Labour MPs signed off on Corbyn’s nomination papers – never anticipating he had even the slightest chance of overtaking them.  They are now regretting it.  Among the Tories, meanwhile, many are pleased at the prospect of a divided and weak Labour Party.  Others fear that with Corbyn as opposition leader, however, the entire national debate could move to the left.

Corbyn proudly calls himself a socialist and his politics represent an about-face from the third way.  With over thirty years as a campaigner and leader in social movements, he has a solid reputation among the trade unions and the broader left.  He has long pushed for strengthening collective bargaining laws and the National Health Service (NHS), was a prominent figure in the anti-apartheid movement and the campaign to put Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on trial, criticizes NATO’s role in eastern Europe, and was an early advocate of LGBT equality.

During the leadership campaign, he has criticized the corporate tax rates of the current government, advocated the re-nationalization of the railways, promised the institution of a National Education Service modeled on the NHS that would provide free child care and increased education funding, and has opposed the renewal of the country’s Trident nuclear missile program.

One of Corbyn’s biggest and most-talked-about proposals, though, is a policy he calls a “People’s quantitative easing,” or People’s QE.  It would see the Bank of England investing in bonds to support a National Investment Bank that would build infrastructure, foster high-tech growth, and increase the supply of public housing.  Critics point out such a policy would violate European Union rules that forbid printing money to finance government spending, thus setting the UK on a collision course with EU orthodoxy.

His rapid rise in the Labour Party is not a phenomenon unique to Britain though.  It is part of a story of left resurgence that is unfolding across many countries of Europe.  The victory of Syriza in Greece earlier this year and the growing popularity of Podemos in Spain have been the most notable indicators of this shift in the balance of forces toward the left and against austerity. The move to the left has targeted not only the right, however, but also the leaders of social democracy itself.

Neal Lawson, the chairman of a group called Compass that represents the New Labour faction, says that European social democrats today are “surfers without waves.”  They have continued their same old motions but there is nothing beneath the board sustaining them – no new ideas, vision, or alternatives.  In the assumption that they are the only credible party on the left capable of governing, they are not as proactive in acknowledging the need for new policies and new paradigms.  The third way social democratic parties became entrenched in their 1990s/2000s formulas and ideas, thus losing their revisionist instincts.  They are still living in the days of TINA – ‘there is no alternative’.

In their inability to think outside the box of third way political economy, the leaders of many social democratic parties employed progressive rhetoric after the financial crisis, but continued to push austerity politics when in office.  They eagerly embraced the soft-Keynesianism of the immediate crisis period and proclaimed the intellectual bankruptcy of their center-right competitors.  However, in many cases, these same leaders then stuck to the precepts of neoliberalism – tight finances, strict welfare and unemployment eligibility criteria, debt reduction, and privatization.  The capitulation of PASOK in Greece was the paradigmatic example.  The German SPD’s support for Angela Merkel’s squeezing of Syriza and Alexis Tsipras is another.

This void of fresh thinking has left an opening for the critics of austerity.  Whereas in Greece and Spain, the left revival has taken place outside the established social democratic parties, the Corbyn phenomenon is unfolding within the broad church of British Labourism.  He enjoys the support of many trade unions, anti-austerity coalitions, the peace movement, pensioners groups, and other social justice organizations.  If he captures the Labour leadership this week – as all polls indicate will happen – Corbyn will have to translate the movement that has formed around him during this campaign into a national majority for change. 

He will not only face a formidable opponent in David Cameron, but also a divided Labour Party, with third way social democrats determined to see him fail.  Additionally, his party will continue to face competition for anti-austerity working class votes from the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the populist right-wing UK Independence Party (Ukip).

Talking to an audience beyond union leaders and political activists will require a different set of skills and tactical acumen than those needed for an intraparty factional struggle.  The outcome of the 2020 elections will depend on both the sustained mobilization of the movements that have helped propel Corbyn to the top, as well as on his own leadership abilities.

Photo: Jeremy Corbyn.  |  Wikipedia (CC)


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.