Former Prime Minister Tony Blair stands behind Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party at the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph in central London, November 8, 2015. 
Toby Melville / Reuters

In 1935, the British journalist George Dangerfield published one of the classic works of twentieth-century history, The Strange Death of Liberal England. In it, Dangerfield charted the rapid demise of the Liberal Party in the United Kingdom in the early twentieth century. The Liberals, formerly one of the titans of British politics, had by the mid-1920s suffered a precipitous decline. By 1922, the party was replaced by Labour as the main rival of the Tories.

Fundamental shifts in party systems are strange and rare things, but they can and do happen. The death of the Liberals in the United Kingdom showed it. Now, a century later, it might be happening again.

ENTER CORBYN 

The notion that the Labour Party is undergoing major change arose in September 2015, when the party elected Jeremy Corbyn as its head. Corbyn comes from the most radical fringe of the party; in many respects, he had not even been a part of Labour. During the party’s last term in power from 1997 to 2010, he was its most disloyal member of Parliament, defying the party whips who grimly tried to enforce party voting discipline. 

Corbyn’s views on domestic policy differed sharply from those of former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, but it was on foreign policy—a favorite battleground of the crusading left in the United Kingdom—that Corbyn came into his own. He helped found the Stop the War Coalition in 2001 to oppose the war in Afghanistan. As Blair marched off to war in Iraq with U.S. President George W. Bush, Corbyn marched through the streets of London to protest the invasion.

As a result, Corbyn was probably more surprised than anyone to see himself elevated from the streets to Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. Corbyn was able to gain enough nominations to stand in the party’s leadership election only after a group of parliamentarians decided that it would be a good idea to “broaden the debate” by including a hard-left candidate. In doing so, these MPs were being true to a venerable tradition in Labour Party history, wherein a hardy soul from the party’s far left steps up only to be dutifully squashed by the forces of the center. Two of Corbyn’s closest political allies had played the role of sacrificial leftist in previous leadership contests. Now, “unfortunately,” as Corbyn explained to a reporter shortly after the contest started, “it’s my turn.”

TAKE A HARD LEFT

What happened next was a strange mixture of procedural snafu and stirring principle. Key players in the Labour Party sought to rig the leadership election in favor of the party’s center, only to find that their attempts to inflate the party roster ahead of the election brought to power the sacrificial lamb instead. Efforts to change the roster and voter pool started after trade union members delivered the Labour Party leadership to Ed Miliband in 2010 over his more Blairite brother, David Miliband. The party, fearful of the unions delivering another weak leader, set up a new system in which any member of the public could vote after paying three pounds (roughly $4) to register. A small yet vocal minority of the public began to organize in response, launching a social media campaign to support Corbyn’s candidacy

People at a trade stand ridicule the Labour Party's policies on quantitive easing as they hand out money depicting Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, Britain October 4, 2015.
People at a trade stand ridicule the Labour Party's policies on quantitive easing as they hand out money depicting Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, Britain October 4, 2015.
Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters
Helping matters along was the fact that the Conservative general election win last year had come as a huge shock to the United Kingdom’s activist left, which had spent five years depicting the Tories as devils incarnate. In Corbyn, the British left had found a major party candidate who spoke their language and shared their beliefs. Nearly 100,000 joined as “£3 supporters” to back Corbyn, giving the upstart candidate momentum and media coverage that helped him curry favor with traditional party members and trade unions. The other candidates, mostly from the “soft left” of the party and unwilling to offer the easy answers that Corbyn seemed to provide, were overwhelmed. The Corbyn surge was an object lesson in the power of the Internet for social mobilization. And as even more members flooded into Labour’s ranks after his win, the DNA of the party itself underwent the first stages of a fundamental shift.

Many of the young social media mavens who created Corbyn’s surge said they were attracted to the old leftist because his positions seemed fresh and new. These young, mobilized voters had seen only the decades of political centrism under Blair and a subsequent parade of soft-left Labour leaders who to them were barely distinguishable from the Tories. Few could remember the early and most productive years of the Blair government, wherein Blair introduced a national minimum wage, devolved power to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and oversaw a dramatic reduction in poverty.  Even fewer could remember that Blair—whom they despised for pushing Labour to the political right—was the only Labour leader to win an election since the 1970s.

Labour MPs and mainstream activists watched Corbyn’s ascendance with mounting alarm. Unlike most of the party’s “£3 supporters,” they were familiar with Corbyn’s politics prior to 2015. They understood the ideology that underpinned his actions, and they knew what he and his allies might do if given control of the Labour Party machine. Corbyn had spent his political career playing the role of the hard-left martyr, pursuing lost causes even if he would ultimately have to bow to party moderates. In so doing, Corbyn had liberty to remain true to himself without fear of losing competitive races. Now that he had managed to wrest control of the party from those who routinely crushed his leftist politics, many wondered what revenge he might exact. Given his leadership’s potential to impact the future of the British left, some have also begun to question how the wider public will react when they discover what Corbyn had been supporting during his carefree years of martyrdom. 

A WAR ON WAR 

Corbyn comes from a pacifist tradition that has not previously played a large role in the history of the Labour Party. Asked during the leadership campaign if there was any situation in which he could foresee deploying British military force, he replied, “I’m sure there are some, but I can’t think of them at the moment.” Corbyn has called NATO—an organization from which he advocates British withdrawal—“one of the big threats of our time” and has professed his interest in unilaterally scrapping the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent program, Trident. Corbyn opposed not only the war in Iraq but the war in Afghanistan and the NATO intervention in Kosovo. Most bizarre of all, Corbyn offered a reductio ad absurdum in the wake of the Paris attack by stating that he was uncomfortable with the idea of security forces shooting terrorists dead—even those who were caught in the act of massacring civilians on British soil.

Pacifism is, of course, a principled position—even if it is not one shared by the vast majority of the British public, who are open to the idea of shooting fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) if they were to bring terror to the streets of London or Manchester. Corbyn’s stance on shoot-to-kill betrays the fact that he has always been able to operate in the realm of principle without worrying about the messy realities of governing. But of even greater concern to those worried about Labour’s public standing is that Corbyn’s pacifism appears to be on a collision course with the realities of domestic terrorism.

If the Corbynistas manage to force the moderates to leave the party en masse, Labour risks becoming a shell of its former self.

Corbyn and his key allies—MPs John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, as well as former London Mayor Ken Livingstone—have appeared much less concerned with condemning and opposing violence when it targets the West. Corbyn received great criticism during his leadership campaign for a widely circulated video in which he greeted representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends” while introducing them to speak at an event. Although Corbyn claimed that his use of the terminology was meant only to express British politeness, commentators such as Andrew Gilligan have pointed out that it paralleled Corbyn’s support for the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland. Corbyn even opposed an incipient peace process in 1988 because of its ability to end the conflict before the IRA had achieved its goal of a “united Ireland.” For over a decade, Corbyn wrote a weekly column for the Morning Star, a socialist newspaper that bylines stories from Northern Ireland as “By our foreign desk.” The controversial opinions of a one-time political outsider now have bigger implications for the Labour Party’s future.

More optimistic party figures hoped that the leader could transcend his historic baggage once in office, but the opposite has proven the case, as Corbyn's shoot-to-kill comments showed. Livingstone, drafted to provide some extra firepower to defend Corbyn after the comments provoked a media storm, only deepened his colleague’s mess by saying that the terrorists in the 2005 London bombing “gave their lives” in “protest” against British involvement in the Iraq war. McDonnell, whom Corbyn made his finance spokesman, whipped out a copy of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book during a parliamentary debate and told British Chancellor George Osborne that he might benefit from reading it. “If you’re trying to convince people you aren’t a bunch of hard left menaces to society,” asked one commentator with incredulity, “what possesses you to quote Mao?" 

STALLED LABOUR

Many political observers had hoped that these early headlines during Corbyn’s term were merely the missteps of an acclimating leader. But the Labour party’s new leadership does not seem to care about its daily decimation in the media, nor does it pay mind to its plummeting poll ratings. Polls of party members continue to show they strongly approve of Corbyn, even as Labour experiences the worst poll rating among the general public at this point in an election cycle since routine polling began in the 1940s. As one local party secretary in a swing district—the sort Labour won under Blair—said of the new members, “There are a lot of ideologically driven people who feel that we’re going to lose anyway so we may as well lose on principle.” As a result, panic is setting in among the mainstream left. Political party membership in the United Kingdom has traditionally been very small for all parties, but the hordes of new Corbynistas flooding the Labour Party have altered its trajectory significantly. Corbyn is opposed by most Labour MPs—openly by many—and is drifting ever further away from public opinion. This year, he is poised to launch a divisive intraparty battle over unilaterally scrapping the Trident program, even though 54 percent of the public oppose such a move while just 23 percent support it. 

Meanwhile, young activists have organized a pressure group called People’s Momentum and have branded anyone with the temerity to question Corbyn’s leadership as a closet Tory. Labour MPs with long tenures who have criticized the leader—for example, Hilary Benn, David Lammy, and Ann Coffey—have been threatened with expulsion from the party by the group, which Corbyn has openly called to put pressure on his internal opponents. Even Corbyn’s deputy, Tom Watson, who launched the party coup that toppled Blair, has found himself labeled a “Blairite,” the gravest political insult the party’s new ruling class can levy. Watching the zeal with which Labour is eating its own members in a search for ideological purity brings to mind the factionalism that has always plagued the British left, but that this time is threatening to destroy one of the country’s most important political institutions.

If the Corbynistas manage to force the moderates to leave the party en masse, Labour risks becoming a shell of its former self, staying animated purely through Corbyn’s charismatic appeal to his base and zeal for intra-party combat. In this, it should keep in mind the 1983 defeat that Margaret Thatcher delivered to the last hard-left Labour leader. That contest left Labour in disarray for 15 years—a period of political irrelevancy that the British left can ill afford. This time, with its soft left discredited, its right wing purged, and the hard left determined to valiantly go down with their ship, the blow to Labour could be terminal. 

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  • ANDREW GAWTHORPE is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Belfer Center's International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School.
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