The new leader of Britain’s opposition party, Jeremy Corbyn, has created quite a stir in Britain and across the world. He has created impressive levels of political engagement in a country where disillusionment in politics is common – increasing his party’s membership dramatically from 200,000 to 350,000 since he first put his name down for the leadership of the Labour party. While he has inspired many and is being hailed as the saviour of British politics by some, others claim if elected he would be a danger to Britain. Some predict that he will suffer electoral defeat and bring about the end of the labour party for a generation, whereas other believe he will create political engagement not seen for decades as well as making much needed changes to the way the country is run. Who is he? And why has he created such a strong reaction?
Who is he?
Corbyn is one of Britain’s longest serving MPs, having held his seat in Islington North in London since 1983. Throughout his time in parliament he has earned a reputation as a rebel and a man of principle campaigning against the Iraq war and apartheid for example. During his time as an MP he voted against his party over 500 times, making him unpopular with the party leadership.
Despite his habit of speaking up, he comes across as a mild mannered man, and he is known for wearing unfashionable sweaters and riding his bicycle around London. A vegetarian father of three, Corbyn once claimed his beard was a form of dissent against the direction his party has taken since the leadership of Tony Blair. Since taking charge of the Labour party he has vowed to attack policies and not people, and raised eyebrows by using his weekly opportunity to question the prime minister to ask questions sent in by ordinary people rather than attempt to score political points.
Corbyn’s rise came when the UK held a general election last May – one which was widely predicted to be the closest in recent British history. While Britain has long been a two party state, the last government had been a coalition between the conservatives and a smaller party – The Liberal Democrats. This year’s election was supposed to be decided by the smaller parties such as the Greens and UKIP and media commentators declared the end of two party politics however, when the results came in, the conservatives had won a majority and were able to form a government alone. The labour leader, Ed Miliband, resigned that evening and the party started preparing to elect a new leader.
Corbyn was one of four candidates and only managed to get enough Labour MPs to support his bid on the day of the deadline. He was considered the outsider with little chance of winning, however thanks to changes to the election rules within the labour party (allowing all party members to vote), he quickly emerged as the front-runner and sure enough emerged victorious with an impressive 60% of the vote.
Throughout the campaign labour leaders warned that Corbyn would destroy the party, arguing that his left-wing views were a throwback to an older era and that the recent Conservative victory was evidence that the British public wanted them to move right, not left. Commentators worry that he will have trouble keeping his MPs in line and this will hamper his ability to push through legislation in parliament, however his support base amongst the party’s non-parliamentary members is unprecedented in recent history.
What are his policies?
Corbyn is a campaigner for social justice and seeks to combat the rising levels of poverty and inequality in the UK. The rising cost of living is becoming a problem for many, at a time when the Conservative government has been reducing state help for those struggling to make ends meet through its ‘austerity’ program. Corbyn plans to end austerity and reverse the cuts to social services that have taken place over the past five years. He argues that it is places an unnecessary burden on the poor and actually harms economic growth.
Corbyn aims to lower the cost of living in several ways. One of his most popular policies is to renationalise the railways. A recent survey showed that 58% of the population support this plan thanks to the extortionate cost of travel in the UK. When the railway was privatised, the individual lines were sold off as franchises, and several were bought by the national railways providers of European countries. This means that in countries such as Germany, The Netherlands, and France, the cost of travel is kept down, thanks to the profits made from British railway users. As well as the railways, Corbyn wants to nationalise Britain’s energy and water companies, who he argues, are getting rich from the high prices and lack of regulation. On top of travel and energy, the cost of housing in Britain is extremely high and Corbyn wants to introduce rent controls to curb the ever increasing rents charged by private landlords.
While the cost of living is the issue that currently dominates British politics, Corbyn in outspoken on several other issues that have the potential to divide, and consequently gain him less support. He is against the renewal of the trident nuclear program that forms the backbone of Britain’s military defence. Critics argue that this forms part of his wider unrealistic anti-war stance and that it would leave the country dangerously unprotected. He is also criticised by some for his anti-monarchical stance, and although he says he has no plans to abolish the royal family, when announced as the labour leader, he refused the traditional meeting with the Queen.
Can he win?
Corbyn’s chances depend largely on how you choose to interpret the results of the last election. Nobody predicted the conservatives to win a majority and many Labour politicians argue that to compete, they must move to the right as this is what the electorate wants. On the face of it, this logic seems hard to argue with however a closer look at British politics reveals a potentially different story.
Unlike Australia voting is not compulsory in the UK, and turnouts are generally low (just 66.1% in the last election, and this was the highest in 18 years). This is especially true of young voters – one of the demographics to whom Corbyn appeals most. It is a commonly heard argument that voting changes nothing as there is little difference between the parties and trust in them is low. Many people feel that politicians do not represent them, and increasingly politics is seen as a career in which people will say, and do, whatever is needed for personal advancement. This view is best illustrated by the case of the Liberal Democrats and their ex-leader Nick Clegg, who campaigned against raising university fees and then promptly did exactly that when his party formed the last coalition government with the conservatives. The party was nearly wiped out in the last election.
Another factor has been the shift of the Labour party to the right over the last twenty years. Under Tony Blair, the party embraced what some call ‘conservative-lite’ policies and while winning a landslide victory in 1997 he was eventually forced to resign as prime minister and many of the party’s traditional supporters have been left feeling disillusioned and unrepresented. This explains the hysteria within the party surrounding the rise of Corbyn and their predictions that his leadership will destroy the party. Tony Blair himself said that would rather Labour lost than win under Jeremy Corbyn.
It can be argued that the void left in political opposition by Labour and their career minded politicians has lead to voter apathy as well as the rise of smaller protest parties such as UKIP and the Green party. Disillusionment with Westminster has also fuelled the rise of the Scottish National Party which campaigns against austerity as well as for independence for Scotland. While the Conservatives have never been popular north of the border, Labour has now been virtually wiped out up and surveys suggest that if the independence referendum was held now, Scotland would be independent.
So can Corbyn win? It all depends on how big this block of disillusioned Britons is and whether he can inspire enough of them to overcome the Conservative base. There is either a large number of unhappy people waiting for a leader like Corbyn to emerge, or the country has a large number of naturally apathetic and conservative natured citizens and Corbyn’s left-wing policies will alienate those who do vote, damaging the Labour party for the foreseeable future. As more and more people are affected by the Conservative austerity you might expect Corbyn’s opposition to win voters, however that was what people thought before the last election.
There is a saying that ‘a week is a long time in politics’, and as the next election takes place in 2020, there is plenty of scope for changes in the political landscape. It would be foolish to predict the results of an election that doesn’t take place for another five years, and who knows if Corbyn will even manage to fight off the dissent from within his own party and contest it. Baring major changes however, his chances of winning depend both on his ability to inspire, and how many Britons want to be inspired. He has managed to inspire within the Labour party (if not amongst its elected members), but now he must do it across the nation. If he can gather up the votes of the young, the don’t-votes, the Scottish, and those who voted for protest parties, he might just pull it off and Britain might be about to undergo some radical changes.
Feature image courtesy of Francesca Cox