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.