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.”