How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
This past June, British politician Jeremy Corbyn was a thousand-to-one outside pick to become the new leader of the Labour Party. Yet on September 12, the 66-year-old socialist won the contest to become leader of the official opposition in the United Kingdom’s Parliament by a huge margin, with almost 60 percent of the vote.
Corbyn’s long-odds victory is remarkable in multiple respects, not least because he reached the minimum threshold of nominations, 35 members of Parliament, to get on the leadership ballot only minutes before the June 15 deadline. Corbyn’s final-moment entry was helped by several Labour colleagues who, believing he stood no chance of actually winning, nominated him at the eleventh hour to help ensure a plurality of voices in the party leadership ballot, the first to follow Labour’s blistering defeat in May’s general election. Around half of the parliamentarians who nominated him ultimately backed one of his three rivals: Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall, and Yvette Cooper. Plus, ex–Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown criticized his candidacy, alongside some other senior party figures, for his policies.
Corbyn, for certain, is a politician of a different stripe—one who is far removed from the “New Labour” centrist political philosophy promoted by Blair and Brown, in their different ways, from 1994 to 2010. Corbyn advocates the renationalization of key industries, including energy and the railways. He has been a long-standing critic of U.S. foreign policy, favors unilateral nuclear disarmament in the United Kingdom, would seek withdrawal from NATO, and said he would not rule out campaigning for a Brexit during the referendum on continued EU membership promised by Prime Minister David Cameron for 2016 or 2017.
It remains to be seen how these positions will play out in the coming months, given that they are opposed by a significant body of Labour MPs. One immediate test of how Corbyn’s election could impact the British political landscape regards policy toward Syria. He has long expressed opposition to military intervention overseas—standing against action in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. He has also declared his opposition to an extension of RAF air strikes from Iraq to Syria against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also called ISIS) and questioned the legal basis for a British drone strike against two of its citizens in Syria, where they were allegedly fighting alongside members of ISIS. This is believed to be the first time in British history that a prime minister has authorized the killing of a British citizen by an unmanned drone.
Cameron has said that he would seek parliamentary approval before potentially extending RAF air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria, and the drone attacks came after receipt of intelligence information that allegedly signaled a forthcoming terrorist atrocity in the United Kingdom. He has said that he reserves the right to authorize further drone strikes if he sees another “clear and present danger” to the United Kingdom. Corbyn, on the other hand, has called for “urgent consideration to be given to the appropriate process by which attacks such as this one are sanctioned, on what evidence and on what basis of law.” With his leadership of Labour confirmed, he will now ratchet up his criticism of Cameron’s policy in Syria, although there may be enough Labour MPs who dissent from his position to enable the government’s stance to prevail.
And it’s not just on matters of foreign and defense policy that Corbyn finds himself at odds with a significant number of MPs in his own party. Across multiple areas of domestic policy, Corbyn is the most left-wing leader of any major British party since former Labour leader Michael Foot, who headed Labour from 1980 to 1983. Foot championed a platform that included a commitment to renationalize recently privatized industries, including British Telecom and British Aerospace, as part of a significantly more interventionist industrial policy; unilateral nuclear disarmament; and a proposed exit from the then European Economic Community (now the EU). At the 1983 general election, which came at a time when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was enjoying higher popularity following the Falklands War, Labour won its lowest share of the vote at a general election since 1918 and its fewest parliamentary seats since before 1945.
The Financial Times might have declared that “no historical comparison will do the event [of Corbyn being elected] justice,” but he has been likened to U.S. Senator and current Democratic Party presidential contender Bernie Sanders. Parallels have also been made with other insurgent politicians from left and right, including Greece’s former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his radical left party, Syriza. This is because, despite the fact that Corbyn has been an MP since 1983, he is perceived by his supporters to represent a new, highly authentic, and radical deviation from the political status quo.
Corbyn’s success is not simply the result of a stronger than expected campaign and his calm demeanor. Little understood outside of Westminster is the importance of the rule changes introduced by former Labour leader Ed Miliband, which helped fuel Corbyn’s victory. The reforms were introduced by Miliband because of criticism in some quarters that the previous electoral college for selecting the leader gave too much influence to trade unions. The system, which offered trade unions, MPs, and party members one-third of the vote each, was changed in a way that now sees union members having to sign up as individual affiliated party members before being allowed to vote.
The new rules also allow those who tick a box confirming that they support Labour’s “aims and values” to become registered supporters for just over $4, which gives them the ability to vote in the leadership contest. Around 70,000 people have become registered Labour Party supporters, and 92,000—mainly trade unionists—have become affiliated members. Moreover, there has been the largest increase in full membership in the party since at least 1951, from 194,000 members before May’s general election to some 282,000 by August. Collectively, this has increased the electoral base for the leadership contest since the May general election to some 450,000 people, and Corbyn performed especially strongly among the new recruits to the Labour ranks.
But this swell in numbers has not come without scrutiny: new recruits have been vetted, and over a thousand have been found to belong to other parties or groups and have been thrown out. On the basis of what they perceive as wider suspected “infiltration” from the so-called militant left, several Labour MPs have questioned the integrity of the leadership contest and called for it to be halted this past summer. Although some will continue to ask questions about the way the race was run, there is very little prospect of a serious legal challenge given the landslide victory.
For his part, Corbyn called upon only genuine Labour supporters to vote for him in the ballot and dismissed claims of widespread malfeasance in the election process. Based upon his success, he argued repeatedly, “what is there not to like about young people turning up and being interested in politics? What it’s about is converting Labour into much more of a social movement. . . . The entryism I see is a lot of young people hitherto not really excited by politics coming in for the first time and saying we can have a discussion—we can discuss our debts and housing problems.”
With the leadership contest now behind him, Corbyn will attempt to reunify the party’s right and left quickly. Above all else, he will seek to avoid a formal split—as the party experienced during Foot’s leadership in 1981, when four senior Labour politicians from the right wing of the party left to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a forerunner of today’s Liberal Democrats.
Although a similar scenario cannot absolutely be ruled out in coming years, it is significantly less likely, partly because the Conservative Party was the chief beneficiary of the Labour/SDP split in the 1980s—and everyone knows it. After winning power in 1979, Thatcher and her successor as prime minister, John Major, won elections in 1983, 1987, and 1992, providing the party with almost two decades of government power.
Even if Corbyn avoids a split, it cannot be taken for granted that he will be Labour’s leader at the next general election that is anticipated in 2020. The outcome of the May 2016 Scottish Parliament and London mayoral elections will help determine his fate as the party seeks to recover previous losses in both races in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Labour experienced a general election massacre in Scotland this past May, losing all but one of its previous Scottish seats in Westminster. Corbyn has rightly put significant emphasis on rebuilding the party there.
But if Labour were to lose seats in the Scottish Parliament next May, it would undermine his credentials as the person best placed to restore the party’s fortunes in the country. Conversely, if Labour does well in the Scottish elections and manages to win the London mayoralty for the first time since 2004, Corbyn could claim that a Labour resurgence had begun under his watch. This would bolster his longer-term prospects of remaining party leader for the duration of the current British Parliament and his bid to become prime minister.
Corbyn’s victory is a remarkable outcome for a veteran parliamentarian who stood for the leadership only after several of his socialist colleagues chose not to do so. The full impact of his win will not be evident for months, but already he seems determined to shift the British political landscape in a direction that seemed very unlikely only a few months ago.