Following Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential victory, Alain Badiou published a set of reflections aimed at revealing the true meaning of this event (or, as he put it, ‘non-event’) for French society and French politics. This was followed by the publication of a book with a similar intent and written by Richard Seymour, who wished to ‘unmask the false politics of David Cameron.’ Both pieces aimed to scratch beneath the surface and reveal the true significance of what these men effectively represented, both symbolically and ideologically. Unlike his French and British counterpart, Jeremy Corbyn has not (yet) won the leadership of his party, let alone gained the most coveted prize in British politics (one lives in hope though…). The unexpected popularity enjoyed by a principled, anti-system/anti-establishment politician on the left-hand side of the political spectrum attracting herds of new labour supporters has not, however, gone unnoticed. What, then, could lie beneath the surface of Corbynmania?
Firstly, let’s put his appearance onto the front of the political scene into context. Corbyn emerged immediately after the unexpectedly comfortable victory of a Conservative Party defending the introduction of a vast series of austerity measures, which a Labour Party also playing the austerity card could not realistically discredit. Such a clear defeat was both a shock and embarrassment for Labour Party supporters. By defending a set of overtly anti-austerity measures and even daring to mention the word ‘re-nationalisation,’ Corbyn can position himself as a true opponent of austerity and re-vitalise the ideological debate within the Labour Party. He is currently the symbol of authentic opposition and change on the left.
Such a positioning is helped by the fact that, unlike his leadership rivals and Ed Miliband, Corbyn can realistically play an anti-establishment card. His own political record (chair of the Stop the War Coalition, member of various trade union groups in Parliament etc.), his demeanour and ostensibly principled stance (he subtitled his website as follows: ‘Straight Talking, Honest Politics’) all play a part in cultivating such an anti-establishment appearance.
But what about the substance of his ideas? When one scratches beneath the surface of this seemingly anti-establishment figure, one actually finds some substantially radical ideas – well… radical within the current context of British politics, of course. For example, he is not afraid to stand for the public ownership of railways and the energy sector or to ‘clear the deficit’ by ‘halting the tax cuts to the very rich.’ These are bold proposals indeed, given the majority of the electorate’s approval of current austerity measures.
So why such a Corbynmania? Well, firstly, it must be noted that the term is somewhat deceptive, for it only refers to a small proportion of the electorate, i.e. a section of those eligible to vote for the leadership of the Labour Party, and not the British electorate as a whole (although a recent poll does suggest that Corbyn is the ‘most popular candidate among voters of all parties’). This important clarification aside, Corbyn does appear to have the support of a much wider section of Labour Party supporters than one could have ever imagined when he first chose to join the race for the leadership. This is mainly due, I think, to the confidence he exudes and the trust his principled stance elicits, as well as the benefits accrued from a clearly identifiable ideological positioning following the shocking defeat of a middle-of-the-road stance. However, some parallels with the previous leadership contest can be observed. Indeed, like Ed Miliband before him, Corbyn is enjoying his current popularity among Labour supporters by incarnating non-Blairite politics and, consequently, opening up new avenues for the ideological re-definition of the party.
So, what Corbyn’s current popularity seems to suggest is that there is still a place for ostensibly left-wing ideas within the Labour Party. But the key question is whether there is still a place for them within British politics as a whole. Here arises the problem of electability beyond the narrow confines of the Labour Party – and here, in fact, also arises what many have described as his Achilles heel. Elections are not won solely on the basis of a principled stance, for often such a stance can only be expected to appeal to a small section of the electorate – the section which shares its principles… If elected, Corbyn will face the task of not only appealing to the majority of the British electorate, but also to his party’s own MPs, among which many oppose the return of the party to the left of the political spectrum. Although he would face innumerable challenges in the race to Downing Street, Corbyn represents an invaluable opportunity for a return of left-wing ideas into mainstream politics. He may also be one of the last chances for Labour to position itself as an authentically left-wing party.
What, then, is the meaning of Jeremy Corbyn? In a recent editorial, The Guardian expressed its support for Yvette Cooper, arguing that Corbyn could only be expected to shape the leadership campaign, but not the ‘future.’ Their reason for doing so is, they argue, Corbyn’s incapacity to appeal to the wider electorate. I would nevertheless argue otherwise. As the current incarnation of left-wing politics in the UK, he is also its symbol. What his victory as leader of the Labour Party (providing he is able to keep the party together) could therefore symbolise is, at the very least, a victory of progressive ideas within a party now accustomed to flirt with, if not embrace, right-wing values. At most, and rather optimistically, his victory could also come to symbolise a return of left-wing ideas within mainstream British politics. Indeed, even if, rather pessimistically, Corbyn’s reign as party leader ends with a crushing defeat, a platform would have been given to ideas and values long excluded from mainstream political debates. Also, since it is impossible to predict what the social and economic landscape will look like in 5 years’ time, one must not rush into writing off candidates before they can prove themselves. After all, who can be certain that Corbyn and his team will, by the time of the next general election (and after 10 years of predominantly Conservative rule), be unable to make a convincing case for a form of fiscal responsibility that does not hurt the poor or for a re-nationalisation of railways and energy companies? Leaders may have the power to shape history, but they are also history’s own children. Corbyn appears to have the courage of his convictions. That is a key quality for a leader. Could he be the child of a history shaped by 10 years of Conservative rule? Possibly. Let’s just give him a chance to prove himself. In other words: bring it on!
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