A Primer for Americans on Corbynmania

v218-Jeremy-Corbyn-Get-v2 Many of my American friends have asked me what’s going on with the UK Labour Party leadership election. Hence this primer on the state of play.

After the Labour Party’s shock drubbing in the 2015 election, Ed Miliband resigned as leader. The usual internecine fight that losing parties go through broke out: One faction said the party was not centrist enough and another said it was too close to the center and too far from its traditional roots. The former group are known as New Labour or Blairites (e.g., Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and of course Tony Blair himself). Andrew Rawnsley’s massive book is the essential resource if you want to understand New Labour in depth, but in short New Labour explicitly rejected the socialist left, made peace with the market and neoliberalism and was handsomely rewarded for these changes by British voters (Labour were in power from 1997-2010). In their eyes, Milliband lost because he positioned himself too far to the left, and the party will therefore not get back in power unless it goes with someone closer to the center, like Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall.

Rubbish! says the Socialist wing of Labour, whose negative views of New Labour I related in a prior post that quoted Ian Martin’s dyspeptic, hilarious take on the 2010 Party Conference:

Labour’s message to the electorate is clear – austerity is the new reality but we’re nicer than the Tories. Berks. I hate Labour more than I did when Blair was in charge, squinting into the distance, joshing with America, socialising with the Murdochs. At least he believed in neo-liberalism. The current Loyal Opposition half-believe, but also half-yearn to reconnect to the movement that sustains them, which is half-decent of them I must say. The first clear chance for years to differentiate themselves, to renounce austerity and commit to a genuine Labour manifesto, sod the Mail, renationalise, reunionise, tax the rich, protect the poor, FIGHT FOR THE WORKING CLASS WHICH IS TECHNICALLY THEIR FUCKING PURPOSE and all they can offer is the Vegetarian Option.

In the eyes of old Leftists like Martin, Labour must return to its Pre-Thatcher era values and policies. And to the shock of New Labour, the traditional left has found a champion who is electrifying the party’s grassroots: Jeremy Corbyn (photo above). You can read a bit about his policies here, which reject the essentials of Blairism in favor of the more socialist policies that Labour embraced during the first 90 or so years of its existence. Corbyn is demonstrating the truth of the same political principle as did Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland: If you passionately articulate a clear political message without equivocation and associated Westminster-speak, many formerly disengaged people come out of the woodwork to support you. What can’t be overlooked about Corbyn is that while he is a greybeard who makes aging Labour members nostalgic for their youth, his message is also resonating with a new generation of young leftists who have been alienated from politics until now.

Despite the vein of discontent he has tapped, Corbyn only has a chance of winning because of a major change in the leadership election rules. Previously, Members of Parliament (MPs) had significant control over who became leader. Now they only get to form the list of candidates on which all members of the party then vote (and in that establishment-controlled phase, Corbyn just barely scraped by). The grassroots members are thus in control from here on out, and many of them are looking for someone like Corbyn who speaks to the hearts. A parallel that Americans might appreciate is what happened in the Democratic Party between the 1968 and 1972 elections: New nominating rules meant that former political bosses were overthrown and a wave of new faces with challenging views crashed the party. Of course their hero, George McGovern, got crushed, and that could happen to Corbyn as well if he ever leads his party in a national election. But based on the Labour members I have talked to, many of them would rather lose with someone like Corbyn than win with a New Labour leader.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

10 thoughts on “A Primer for Americans on Corbynmania”

  1. Keith, thanks for the post. Even though I am American I have spent many years in England. I taught at a girl's school in Kent and did a doctorate at Nottingham. However, you left out the best part! Corbyn got divorced because his wife wanted to send their child to a grammar school and he insisted he go to a rather dodgy comprehensive. Cornyn reminds me of the Ray McAnally character in A Very British Coup. Anyways very interesting. I am following it intently.

  2. Thanks for adding that, amazing story. He has also been quoted as saying that he could not be friends with anyone who didn't share his politics. Both details suggest it will be challenging for him to lead the parliamentary party and deal with most Labour MPs having political views that depart from his own.

  3. May be worth noting that the "shock drubbing" was strictly confined to Scotland, where Labour (of either flavour) was wiped out by the Nats. In England and Wales, Labour actually increased its vote. It even gained a couple of seats – but not as many as the Tories, who picked up more of the losses of the cratering Lib Dems, in spite of erosion from the right to UKIP. Whatever. The narrative quickly became "shock drubbing" and that's the background to the leadership election. The different forces at play in Scotland and E&W also explain why there is no single explanation, as with Michael Foot's defeat in 1983 on a completely Old Labour platform.

    You left out the "three quid Tories", non-member "supporters" allowed to vote for a paltry donation. Dumb I know.

    1. The Labour shock went well beyond Scotland — they were counting on voters fleeing the LibDems in Southern and Middle England to go to the party of opposition and instead enough of those seats broke for the Tories to give them a majority, which very few people expected.

      I have read about the three quid Tories but not seen evidence that this is a significant phenomenon — have you?

      1. Failure to make hoped-for gains in England is not a "shock drubbing" to most people. With you, I don't believe the three-quid Tories will be anything like enough to tip the election. But they can poison the atmosphere for years to come.

          1. 1. Shock. Yes. Labour had hoped to win, The (published) pollsters screwed up.
            2. Drubbing. Like I said, only in Scotland. That's significant, but specific. Why did Labour lose Scotland? But they are treating it like a rerun of 1983.

      2. If the Tories want to pay three quid each to elect a Labour leader who's polling well in England and has a better chance of winning than any of the New Labour hacks, I personally would welcome them. When they see what real Labour's about and how a party that stands up for workers and the middle class can make their lives better, maybe a lot of them will stay and join the fight.

  4. One point worth making again is the disenchantment with an inbred, self serving political class of which Tony Blair is the archetype. They are basically selling the super rich financiers and CEOs the opportunity to dismantle the social welfare state. This anger towards the political class is driving much of the rise of the extreme right on a platform that bizarrely combines xenophobia and fascism with an economic platform that could easily have been written by Paul Krugman.

    That's the strange thing about the way in which this leadership fight has been characterized in the media. Nobody's talking about "old style Labour" or Marxism (or even an affinity for beer and sandwiches). This fight is over a center left political agenda which voters have overwhelmingly supported every time they're given the opportunity.

    The other point is that New Labour seems incapable of giving a straight answer to anything. There was an interview on LBC with all the leading candidates. Each was asked a simple question, namely, would they ask Ed Miliband to be in their shadow cabinet. Only Corbyn answered the question. He said yes and explained why. Everyone else just vomited out particularly ambiguous, totally incoherent word salad instead of answering a simple question. These people are simply incapable of giving a straight answer. That's why Corbyn will win.

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