Corbyn Explained For Foreigners

A couple of people have asked me to talk about Jeremy Corbyn here, to explain his election as Labour leader for people who aren’t in the UK. I’ve so far resisted doing so, because I have a lot of friends who think he’s the Messiah, and a lot who think he’s Satan, and almost all of those people take any disagreement with their stance as being a personal attack (if you’re not one of those people, then I’m not talking about you). But I’m going to try to explain here what’s been going on for those of you who are very confused by references you’ve seen on Twitter and so on.

To get my own biases out of the way first: I am a member of a political party other than Corbyn’s. I think that the Labour Party, of which he is now leader, is a fundamentally corrupt, irredeemable, organisation, but that he himself is a principled man. I don’t share all his principles, but he is closer to me on many issues than the other people who were leadership candidates for his party. I think him being leader of Labour might end up being good for my party in electoral terms, and almost certainly will end up being good for the country’s political culture, in that it will shift the Overton window to the left, which it needs. But fundamentally, he’s the leader of a party I disagree with, and their leadership election is not my fight. That said, now the explanation:

Jeremy Corbyn is the latest example of what Charles Stross has been referring to as the “Scottish political singularity”, although really it’s a British-wide constitutional crisis. Britain’s constitution, its electoral system, and its parties, are all proving increasingly unfit for purpose, and it’s becoming very apparent that centrist triangulation, which had been the principal electoral strategy for the last few decades, is not what a plurality of the voters want,

Any political story you’ve heard from Britain for at least the last decade is a variant on this — people want something other than centre-right authoritarian politics, but we have a system (both an electoral system and the systems in individual parties) which produces that no matter what the voters’ wishes. The rise of UKIP in the polls, the huge gains by the Lib Dems up to 2005, followed by the coalition and the Lib Dems’ huge losses this year, the AV referendum (which we lost, but still got a higher percentage of the vote than any party has in decades…), the Scottish Nationalists getting nearly every seat in Scotland, the recent Scottish independence referendum, and the forthcoming EU referendum, all come down to this. No matter who you vote for, you get a government that supports cuts to the welfare state, tax cuts for businesses, government surveillance of everyone at all times, and so on.

My own party, the Liberal Democrats, is, hopefully, moving away from that consensus again (it always disagreed with it, but the previous leadership tried to compromise with it as much as possible, with disastrous results in the most recent election). But both Labour and the Conservatives have remained firmly committed to it, with only very slight details of emphasis.

The next thing you need to know is that the Prime Minister, in Britain, is not a directly elected position. Rather, it goes to any MP who can get a majority of the House of Commons to support them — usually this will be the leader of the largest party, so at the moment David Cameron is leader of the Conservatives, who have a majority in the Commons, so he is Prime Minister. This is important — we do not directly vote for the head of Government, and actually the only people who have a say over it are MPs.

Different parties handle the choice of the leader in different ways. The Conservatives, I believe, still leave the choice just to their MPs. The Lib Dems and Greens have a democratic vote among their members. Labour have tried various different ways of choosing their leader, but last time the election caused such controversy that they instituted a new system this time. Any member, or registered supporter who paid £3 (about $5), could vote for the leader. However, to stand, the candidate had to get nominated by a significant number of the Labour MPs, to make sure the leader would actually have the support of the party in the Commons too.

Three centre-right bland authoritarians all stood — Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham, and Liz Kendall. These are all people who are absolute standard identikit politicians, and it was widely considered that the contest was really between Cooper and Burnham.

But while Labour is currently a centre-right authoritarian party, it *used* to be a socialist one, and several of its older members joined when it was. These socialist members take it in turns to stand for the leadership, not expecting or even wanting to win, just as an attempt to push their party slightly to the left — these are the equivalents of the candidates who stand for the Presidency just to get in the debates and push their one or two policies.

This time it was the turn of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has been an MP for thirty-two years, but has never before stood for, or even considered, any other role within Parliamentary politics. He has served his constituents well from the back benches, and spends much of his energy on things like the Stop the War campaign.

His candidacy was seen as a joke by much of the party, especially the Parliamentary party. He didn’t even actually have the support of the MPs who nominated him — many did so while saying they didn’t support him, but “wanted to see a proper debate”. The idea was that Burnham or Cooper, with their smart suits and hairstyles and government experience, would easily defeat a sixty-six-year-old bloke with a grey beard, and in doing so would show that centre-right authoritarianism is still best.

But they hadn’t reckoned with the fact that this time, unlike the others, it would be the choice of the members and supporters, not the MPs, that would decide matters, and that after two massive election losses when led by a centre-right authoritarian the members were quite keen to vote for something that wasn’t that.

MASSIVE numbers of people joined Labour or registered as supporters, making it (at the moment) a truly mass movement for the first time in decades (I suspect that many of them will let their membership lapse, but who knows? At the moment predicting anything is impossible…). Fifty-nine percent of the voters in the leadership election voted for Corbyn.

So what we have now is an interesting, completely unpredictable, situation. Labour now has a leader who has said that Karl Marx had a lot of interesting things to say, thinks it might be appropriate to try Tony Blair as a war criminal, wants to get rid of nuclear weapons and leave NATO, wants to nationalise major industries, chairs the Stop the War Coalition, has expressed support for terrorists who have attacked Britain because they’re fighting colonial oppression, and once signed an early day motion looking forward to the extinction of the human race because of its cruelty to pigeons.*

That leader has the massive, overwhelming support of the party membership and active supporter base, but many political commentators are arguing — maybe correctly, who knows? — that those are the only people who’d support a party led by him, and that the other one or the other one or the other one, with their distinctive policies of all being exactly like each other, would have been more popular. Maybe so — certainly I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the electorate at all.

But he doesn’t have the support of any of the MPs in his party, who mostly supported the war in Iraq, support continued privatisation and marketisation of public services, and in general are in agreement with the right-authoritarian consensus. He can’t even appeal to party unity, because he’s spent the last thirty-plus years sat at the back attacking his own leadership on every issue.

So Labour now has a leader who can’t lead their MPs, and whose MPs don’t want to follow him anyway, but who is massively popular among the people who do the door-knocking, leaflet-delivering, ground activity on which any political party actually depends for its survival. But *many* of those people are people who’ve only recently joined, who have spent time in several other parties (as an example, Cory Doctorow recently talked on BoingBoing about how he may join Labour as a result of Corbyn being elected leader. Doctorow has been in the Lib Dems and the Greens previously.) — those people may not be reliable in the long term.

So, interesting times. There is literally no way to predict anything in British politics any more, except that strange things will continue to happen, because we have a system at the point of catastrophic failure.

Frankly, the whole political singularity is making me ill from stress, and I wish that people of every party would see sense and introduce elections by STV, which would fix about half the problems and mitigate many of the others. But until they do, politics will remain chaotic, in the mathematical sense, and Corbyn’s election as leader is just the latest example of that.

*These things are cherry-picked examples of Mr Corbyn’s more extreme views — some of which I agree with myself — to point out the distance between him and his party. They’re not meant to be taken as me mocking him, for the most part.

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22 Responses to Corbyn Explained For Foreigners

  1. Iain Coleman says:

    Excellent article. Just one minor correction: in the Conservative party, the list of leadership candidates is whittled down to two by votes among the MPs, and then the final two candidates are voted on by the whole party membership.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Ah, right. Didn’t realise that. Did it change after Cameron was elected, because I don’t remember it being like that in 2005?

      • po8crg says:

        Nope, that was the system the Hague brought in and was used in 2001 (when the MPs excluded Portillo by a single vote, with IDS supporters lending votes to Clarke to rig the final vote) and 2005 (when Liam Fox missed out on the final two by a much larger margin)

      • MatGB says:

        Wot Richard says, they used to do it entirely by the MPs with elimination ballots in which you needed to be re nominated in each round, it was one of the most bizarre systems ever and the only one in which a “stalking horse” candidate ever made sense, they changed it so the final round is now all members, it was Cameron vs David Davis, I forget who the other runners were. It’s still a bizarre system, but it now has added touring the country goodness and I look forward to the next one with anticipation.

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    That seems like a pretty fair summary, thank you for it.

    One of my fond hopes arising from Corbyn’s election as Labour leader is that now we have two major-party leaders who disagree about fundamentals, we just might start to see something approaching actual political journalism, about issues, in the mainstream press. For me the low-point of the last election was probably the pair of stories about how Cameron is awful because he buys a too-expensive hamburger while Miliband was awful because he ate a sandwich in the wrong way. In the absence of substantive issues to report on, one can almost forgive the press for this. But now they will have no such excuse.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Exactly. And Tim Farron as Lib Dem leader actually has a distinctive position from both of them. For the first time in over thirty years, the three main UK-wide parties (or four if you count UKIP, though I suspect their electoral days are numbered given their lack of MPs…) will all be presenting actual distinct views of the world.
      (If we had a sensible voting system and for some reason all the leaders were standing for the same seat, my ranking would be 1 Farron, 2 Bennett, 3 Corbyn, 4 Cameron, 5 Farage…)

      • MatGB says:

        As MPs, I think I agree with you, but if we had got a godawful presidential system the whole idea fills me with horror. Competence is as important as agreement on issues, the competence question alone rules out 2,3 & 5 from your list, but agreement on issues rules out 4. (Seriously, Corbyn on foreign policy is a scary thing, go back and read STW press releases from the last few years for confirmation of that)

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Indeed. I’m definitely only talking about as MPs there. We have an almost uniquely incompetent bunch of leading politicians at the moment. When I look at the 1976 Labour leadership election and compare it to the recent one, I weep.
          Benn, Crosland, Jenkins, Callaghan, Foot, Healey — if *any* of the current parliamentary parties had six MPs of that calibre to choose from the world would be a much better place right now…

  3. prankster36 says:

    Great post. The thing about the Overton window is something I’d been considering, and I think it might actually go beyond Britain. Here in Canada our leftist party, the NDP, has been featuring a resurgence–they might actually make up the federal government for the first time ever–while the ruling conservatives have been slipping in the polls. Typically conservative Alberta (oil country) also recently elected an NDP premier. I mean, I’m not saying Corbyn did all that, just that in a number of countries (English-speaking ones, at least) there may be a popular movement towards the left, at last. After 9/11 there was a clear push to the right and the various “coalition of the willing” countries all sort of fed into each other (Our current Conservative Prime Minister hastily scheduled one election before the American one in 2008 because he knew Obama was going to get in and that that might inspire the Canadian left to vote him out.) Fingers crossed, people worldwide might be getting fed up with, as you say, a choice of right-wing authoritarians. Of course, being Canadian, we are easily influenced by everyone else to an absurd degree, so maybe it’s just us.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      Anyone who doubts the importance of the Overton window need only look at how Tory and Labour rhetoric on Europe and immigration changes with a rise of UKIP. Without ever getting a sniff of actual power, the kippers absolutely poisoned the discussion on these important issues, and are indirectly response in large part for the UK’s abject response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

      In the same way, the effect of Corbyn — whether or not Labour actually get into government — should be to shift the electorate’s expectation leftward. If by 2020 the Conservatives’ vote-grubbing is being done on the basis of “We’ll properly fund the NHS and BBC, and restore benefits to pre-2005 levels, funding this by increasing the top rate of tax”, then the Corbyn leadership will have been worthwhile.

      • Adam says:

        mmm, up to a point. UKIP was a *threat* in a “if you are insufficiently xenophobic then you will lose votes to us, and under FPTP you will then lose”. It is unclear that a more left-wing Labour party will pose the same threat to the Conservatives; the rough equivalent would be, say, the Green Party providing a deterrent to Labour moving too far to the right.

        That is, while it’s not proof that the Overton Window is unimportant, it is not necessary in order to explain the influence of UKIP.

        • Mike Taylor says:

          That is good analysis — you’re right.

          Still: actual election threat aside, I don’t think there is much doubt that UKIP changed the whole tenor of how we in Britain talk about foreigners. It’s now considered OK again to say things that three or four years ago would have been seen as blinkered and ignorant.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          It’s possible, though, that by picking up left-wing voters from the Greens, the small Trot parties, and the nationalists (and maybe a handful of left-wing Lib Dems) Labour’s vote will be less split and they’ll be able to beat the Tories unless the Tories can win over Labour moderates.
          All of which just makes me want to bash my head against something until I lose enough brain cells to think that FPTP is somehow a good thing…

    • plok says:

      “Typically conservative Alberta”, now there’s an understatement, Prankster! Ha!

      I would only add to this that on a policy level and a political-culture level, right-wing authoritarians simply look increasingly as though they are not up to the job, and surely that must move the Overton Window as much as anything? Minor, though I think telling, example: in the last election, when leaders answered questions about the environment, they could afford to take ideological positions and risk getting it all wrong…however just five years later, that’s not the case anymore, because they have gotten it wrong but can never admit it. Just keep trying to sell those same old rotten potatoes that made us sick the last time. I mean, I vote against authoritarians because I think their policies are terrible — I fully expect the terrible policies to bear terrible fruit! And when they do, I expect everyone else to start to notice, and start to want to reconsider their options.

      Harper just hired Cameron’s strategist from the last UK election — it’ll be interesting to see if he tries to manufacture UK 2015 Redux. Superficially, the dynamics are similar! But I’d be surprised if it works, when he’s got no choice but to run on his record.

      So in this case, perhaps, it’s the most conservative party that’s moved the Overton Window the other way?

  4. David Brain says:

    My own reaction was “OK, so Labour have done the Hague phase (the attempted moderniser) in the form of Miliband, and are now in the IDS phase (the ideologue) in the form of Corbyn, but at least it looks like they won’t need to go through the Howard phase (the loony) – but knowing the Labour party, I wouldn’t put it past them.”
    The key difference with Corbyn compared to IDS is that he seems to have energised more than just the membership (something that the Conservatives have always considered less important because they just throw money at the problem of getting out the vote instead.)
    And yes, I am definitely in the camp that thinks that shaping the narrative is more important than necessarily being in power. I bet Osborne hated having to accept that the minimum wage was here to stay and, likewise, I bet Cameron is hating having to take the UKIP line on Europe…

    • MatGB says:

      They key difference between Labour in opposition now and the Tories then (and I agree about the Hague/IDS thing completely) is that Labour perpetually believe they’ve got a chance of winning the next one, the Tories are more realistic, they were fairly sure Howard was never going to win, you can see that in their strategy, so they went clearly for a ‘prop up the core’ vote to make it look like he’d made more progress and done better than he actually had to make way for Cameron (who was, after all, Howard’s main strategist). “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” No, I’m not you racist arses.

  5. The £3 registered supporters thing (of which I was one) didn’t make too much difference in the end: if only members had been voting, he would still have been withing 1000 votes of an overall majority on the first round. My feeling is that most of the Labour Party members have always been “socialists”, but party loyalty and sentimentality (and an understandable desire to win elections) made the put up with Blair, even when he was effectively in a coalition with the George W Bush.

    It’s going to be very hard for the MPs *not* to support their leader, when such an overwhelming number of party members voted for him.

    Could Corbyn be Prime Minister? Obviously, the odious right wing press will crucify him; but then, they would have crucified and Burnham just as much. But for the next five years, Corbyn will get to appear on every political discussion programme on TV, as much as he wants; and he’ll be asked over and over again why he’s a socialist, and, on present form, he’ll give blunt, straight forward (though hardly politically sophisticated) answers. Will a sincere plain speaking bloke score against a smooth posh boy telling lies? I think it is quite possible that he will.

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  7. David B. says:

    I am extremely curious as to what extent Corbyn’s election resembles that of Michael Foot in 1980. There are some remarkable similarities. Besides the general situation: background of right-wing government run into the ground by a fag-end PM (Callaghan, Brown) followed by a party seeking to find its way, they (after an interval in this case) elect a long-time left-wing back-bench gadfly, a fervent self-declared socialist, rumpled and gaunt and white-haired, devoid of pomposity or slickness, 66-67 years old [yes, Foot then and Corbyn now are almost exactly the same age], and personally well-liked across the party but considered as appalling a choice as leader by his opponents as he is eagerly celebrated by his supporters. And a more right-wing deputy leader to mollify the other side.
    Yet there are also differences. Not so much that Foot actually served in government (only briefly, and he was never really a government man), or even the form of the election (Foot was chosen by MPs), but the feeling of it: Corbyn’s win on a wave of enthusiasm from previously disaffected and apathetic people who’ve signed up in new hope gives a positive vibe that I didn’t feel in 1980, which felt more like a purge. There’s also the fact that Foot, though one of the most brilliant intellectuals in British politics and warmly loved personally, came across in media coverage as a political loony of a kind that doesn’t seem to stick when the same charges are made of Corbyn.
    I have no idea whether these two differences are just perceptual and tactical, or if there’s a real divergence here. Nor have I any idea whether Corbyn and his supporters, though their positions are similar to those of Foot and his (unilateralist, anti-EU) are as authoritarian and dogmatic as those of their predecessors. In Foot’s day, the Labour right was not particularly authoritarian; since Blair it has been. The left back then was extremely authoritarian; is it less so now? As you’re an LD I presume this is something you’d be particularly sensitive to.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      My impression, and it is only an impression, is that the Labour left are generally now less authoritarian than the Labour right. I don’t really know where Corbyn’s placed on the authoritarian/liberal spectrum — I suspect it’s not an issue that greatly concerns him.
      (Of course the Labour right’s post-80s authoritarianism is largely because Labour’s liberal right moved to the SDP, leaving only their illiberal right…). I do wonder what will happen if there’s another SDP-style split, as the New Labour type would definitely not fit in with the Lib Dems (although the Danczuks and Stringers would probably fit in well with UKIP).
      I have no personal memory of how Foot’s election felt — my first political memory is a very dim one of the 1983 general election — but I think Foot and Corbyn are very different types. Corbyn’s an activist footsoldier, not really a political thinker (that’s not a criticism), but Foot was a theorist first and foremost. I think that’s a very, very big difference…

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