Britain’s Anti-Austerity Revolt: Labour Gives Overwhelming Victory to Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn’s stunning victory in the election for Labour party leader in Britain represented a spontaneous upsurge from both inside and outside the party, despite the open hostility of most Labour MPs. It restored political agency to Labour supporters who had been disenfranchised by the Blairite leadership and who fused with an anti-austerity movement that had been building outside the party for some years.

The party’s membership soared to over 400,000 as enthusiasm for the leadership election grew, making it the largest political party in Britain. Significantly, the members include a huge influx of a new generation of activists, alienated up until now from the political system and radicalized by the gutting of British society by a Tory government attuned only to the needs of the City. Many ex-party members and left activists rejoined in order to support Corbyn’s campaign.

For example, Rebecca Prentice, a doctor from Crouch End in North London, told reporters she joined the Labour party immediately after this year’s general election “because she was so angry at the result and because she was seeing every day what Tory policy was doing to the NHS.” When Corbyn was nominated, for the first time in her life “someone was up there saying what I believed in.” Laura Parker, who leads a children’s charity, said she had “lost faith” in Labour years ago, but was inspired by Corbyn to rejoin. “This is a man who is absolutely principled, who is interested in debate about ideas and who doesn’t care what color tie you wear,” she said.

A groundswell of enthusiasm built from Corbyn’s last-minute nomination, as people began to volunteer for his campaign. According to The Guardian, he attracted over 16,000 volunteers in three months. Seumas Milne commented: “By any reckoning, Corbyn’s election and the movement that delivered it represent a political eruption of historic proportions. Whatever now happens, such a fundamental shift cannot simply be reversed. Eight years after economic crisis took hold of the western world, the anti-austerity revolt has found its voice in Britain in an entirely unexpected way.”

Corbyn has given this revolt a focus and direction, challenging Tory austerity ideology when Labour’s official response was to abstain on welfare cuts. Gary Younge pointed out: “For the past couple of decades the Labour leadership has looked upon the various nascent social movements that have emerged – against war, austerity, tuition fees, racism and inequality – with at best indifference and at times contempt. They saw its participants, many of whom were or had been committed Labour voters, not as potential allies but constant irritants.” These movements included a massive anti-austerity protest earlier this year that mobilized tens of thousands in major cities.

Corbyn’s opposition to the dominant political narrative appears to reiterate ideas from the 1970s. But in today’s context, where the political class has shifted to the far right, his commitment to public investment has a popular appeal. Renationalization of the railways has overwhelming public support from rail passengers who now pay the highest fares in Europe to travel on services that are all too often unreliable and overcrowded. Scrapping tuition fees, resetting rent controls on landlords, increasing the top tax rate and a mandatory living wage all have general support; even scrapping the Trident nuclear system is favored by 64 percent of the public.

The newly-elected leader also pledged to end cuts and privatization of the cash strapped National Health Service. Its dire situation is reflected by an organization representing doctors in general practice which recently reported that, despite their efforts to meet rising demand, “unprecedented rises in patient demand” means that “the saturation point has been hit even by the most competently working practices in London” as doctors attempt to deal with the knock-on effect from cuts to hospital services.

Corbyn’s rhetoric in his victory speech mixed biblical imagery with a collectivist sentiment that resonates with the ethical sensibility of Labour voters: “I want us, as a movement, to be proud, strong and able to stand up and say, ‘We want to live in a society where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system; instead, we reach out to end the scourge of homelessness and desperation that so many people face in our society’.”

At his first opportunity to question Tory Prime Minister David Cameron, Corbyn noted that many people he had spoken to wanted above all for their voices to be heard in parliament. So he began with a question from Marie in Putney, who asked about the UK’s housing crisis after Corbyn had appealed for ideas from the public. According to the Independent, she joined the Labour party after his campaign caught her eye. “All around where I live we are surrounded by buildings going up … completely surrounded by massive new flat developments … those are flats for rich people. No ordinary working person on an average wage could even begin to contemplate buying one of those, and social housing itself is being completely demolished by this completely stupid policy of selling off the housing stock.”

But Corbyn’s performance in parliament is hardly crucial, notwithstanding the parliamentary fetishism of many journalists. The rejection of his leadership campaign by so many Blairite MPs has exposed their hand and his overwhelming majority weakens their ability to undermine his authority. Gary Younge pointed to “an elemental clash between MPs, many of whom made it to Westminster courtesy of a centralised vetting operation, and a vastly expanded membership who want to take control of their own party.”

Corbyn has encouraged a movement that continues to grow, transforming the Labour party in the process. Left commentator Richard Seymour argues: “Corbyn has said that his campaign is about turning the Labour Party into a social movement. That’s the only chance he and his supporters have.” But this is something that has already happened. A grassroots movement against austerity has flooded into the Labour party. As these members assert sovereignty over their constituencies, they will clash with the centralized party bureaucracy in Transport House over policy and selection (or possibly deselection) of parliamentary candidates.

The Guardian, interviewing Labour voters about their reaction to Corbyn’s win, noted their sense of relief that the parliamentary party can no longer ignore the views of its membership. “Finally I feel I have a choice,” said Sam Brazier. “We, the people, have given the party a very clear mandate. They are there to represent us, not dictate how we should think, feel or vote.”


1 Comment

Filed under Anti-austerity, British Labour party, british parliament, Jeremy Corbyn, tony blair

One response to “Britain’s Anti-Austerity Revolt: Labour Gives Overwhelming Victory to Jeremy Corbyn

  1. Ian Beveridge

    Dear Colonel,
    Thank you for your cogent analysis of Corbyn’s surprising and overwhelming and long overdue victory in the leadership election of the Labour Party, the UK’s main opposition party. Subsequent to his election, 50,000 new members have joined Labour, in addition to the 200,000 who joined before the election in order to have a vote, according to John McConnell, the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister).
    Having lived abroad in the 1980’s, I was saddened to witness the controlled razzmatazz that was the Blair campaign to replace Thatcher. Large ticket-only meetings keeping party activists out, party apparatchiks planted to ask soft questions and the selection of Blair loyalists as MPs. For example, in Luton South constituency, we chose one of four good candidates on our all female selection list for the 1997 election. We spent an entire weekend on this task. The Blair loyalist and future party whip, Margeret Moran, did not arrive to make a presentation and was ruled out by the selection committee. However, central office over-ruled the local party, demanding a new selection including their person, who was duly picked over the heads of the local party when no-one wanted to go through the selection again for the sake of the latecomer. She later turned out to be one of the MPs who fiddled their expenses, consistently claiming more than any other MP and spending it on a London residence in Southampton, which is over twice the distance from Westminster than Luton. Her lover lived there. Did she get off mis-spending all this money? Yes.
    It is this political elite of faithful but witless followers that have made the Labour Party an enfeebled opposition. Corbyn is a reaction to that state of affairs and what he advocates are all the changes that I have wanted: basically a kinder, caring society which is respected and listened to by those in power, as opposed to being manipulated by endless spinned messages so that it is hard to hold debates that are democratic. Teachers are talked down to in schools, and changes imposed on them that they disagree with making their jobs stressful and unpleasant. The same autocratic management styles has become the norm in all parts of the public sector, including now the much diminished police forces and depressed health workers.
    The disenchantment with the Westminster elite is at the centre of the drive for independence in Scotland as much as it is in a renewal of Labour politics. Most people in Britain no longer believe in government statements, and are not heartless bigots supporting the Tory government in its relentless propaganda on benefit scroungers, blaming immigrants for the loss of jobs and living standards. We take comfort from the fact that less than 25% of the electorate voted Tory in their “victorious” campaign of 2015 built on fear, fear of diminishing living standards coupled with a polished smear campaign of its opponents. The British public just might be better than the right wing press would have us believe, more kind than the nastiness of our leaders.
    What I most want to see is the issues that affect us, and often oppress us, such as housing, equality, immigration, health and education, once more taking the centre place of debate and concern in the UK. I cannot see the point of being electable if to become so requires abandoning the principles we hold. I do hope we can change the political structures in Westminster that prevent us making political choices reflecting our nation and its diversity. That means that I voted for Corbyn in the hope that he might help us change the debate to issues that matter rather than to change the faces of our political elite. If that can happen, all political parties will have to respond to the same issues so that the debate is more important than who is elected.
    Corbyn’s election has given encouragement to all the social democracies in the EU. They are hugely interested in what is going on in the UK at grassroots level. That is why Corbyn is arguing for change within the EU rather than be part of a small nation that has to follow the global powers of Capitalism. Good luck to him; he has my support.

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