Jez We Can – If anyone saw me in the canteen on Saturday lunchtime, you might have noticed me jumping out my seat as my BBC News app told me that Jeremy Corbyn had won the leadership of the Labour Party (the main centre-left opposition party in the UK) by a landslide. I didn’t vote in the election – I have never even voted Labour before – but after Corbyn’s victory, I think there could be something new in the Labour party for me and for much of Britain’s young people and students. Corbyn’s victory could well unite a huge chunk of the left-voting society, and bring Labour to victory.
So why am I so happy? It could partly be from being overtired and still drunk when I found out I guess. But also, even though I don’t agree with everything Corbyn says, his victory signals a potentially huge change in British politics. Conservative and Labour MPs generally occupy a very centrist position, with arguably very little to distinguish between them. For example, during the leadership campaign it was often said that Liz Kendall, one of the candidates, was more naturally a Conservative than a Labour supporter. Corbyn’s win brings a much-needed freshness to the political debate and allows a more clear policy division between the two main parties. His straight-talking, no-nonsense style is also a refreshing change for those who were (at least considered to be) ‘disillusioned’ from Westminster politics, as unlike for most politicians, it always seems to be easier to get a straight answer out of Corbyn about what his views are on a given issue.
Corbyn’s views are a big change for a country that is generally quite conservative: he believes in nationalisation of energy companies and the railways, ending spending cuts, unilaterally scrapping nuclear weapons, being tough on Israel and more hesitant towards NATO, talking rather than fighting, etc. In terms of Europe, although he hasn’t elaborated much on his views, I think people are creating a storm in a teacup. Corbyn seems to be pro-EU generally, whilst criticising the handling of Greece and TTIP. This sort of view may well actually reflect the opinions of the British public better than ‘stay in EU no matter what’ or ‘stay in EU with reforms’, but in any case, as the rest of his party is generally quite pro-EU, I don’t think I need to marry someone from another EU country to keep my citizenship just yet.
Corbyn seems to me to be the Nigel Farage of the left – he seems new and fresh, more anti-establishment, and something which people frustrated with politics have been looking for. He also has a fantastic beard, and in a country where MPs are told to be clean-shaven to look more approachable, perhaps Corbyn is the desperately needed man who breaks the mould.
A brave new world – Jeremy Corbyn has electrified the Left in the UK with his passionate defence of socialist values. However, his leadership may have extremely serious and damaging implications not just for the Labour Party, but also for Britain’s place in Europe.
As a supporter of the Labour Party and of social democratic values generally, there is much about Jeremy Corbyn that appeals to me. I admire his resolute opposition to the austerity centred economic policy of the current government, which the previous Labour leadership under Ed Miliband failed to counter effectively. I also support his calls for an ethical foreign policy, and his defence of the rights of workers, and marginalised groups. Yes, it is undeniable; the Corbyn platform of unapologetic left-wing values is appealing to the British Left, which has spent much of its recent history trying to compete on Conservative terms.
Despite this, it is my view that Corbyn’s election is in fact bad for the British Left. Corbyn may have electrified the Labour rank and file, but it is quite another task to convince the electorate. He will have few allies in the media; the right wing and populist press is likely to be even more relentless in its attacks than it was towards Miliband, while left-leaning newspapers have displayed a lack of enthusiasm for Corbyn’s leadership. The opposition to Corbyn from within the party is strong, with many leading figures ruling themselves out of serving in his shadow cabinet, including two leadership candidates, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. The last time Labour elected a staunchly left-wing leader, Michael Foot, the party split and, in 1983, suffered its worst election defeat since 1935. While the party appears keen to avoid a formal rift this time, a divided Labour Party will struggle to portray itself as a credible electoral force.
Meanwhile, the implications of Corbyn’s election beyond Britain’s shores are also troubling. Corbyn’s apparent ambivalence towards European integration, which he sees as a neoliberal project, has provoked concerns, given that the Labour Party has recently been the more Europhilic of the two major British political parties. The question of Labour’s position on the upcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU has thus come to the fore. On the day after the election, Chuka Umunna, an early contender for the leadership, announced he would not join Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, as a result of his stance on the EU. Although the new Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn, has stressed that Labour will not advocate British exit during the referendum campaign, it is as yet unclear how Corbyn will approach it, and this uncertainty is a great blow to pro-Europeans who look to Labour to balance the prevailing Euroscepticism of the UK Conservative Party.
I wish I could join those celebrating Corbyn’s victory as bringing in a new era of politics, but I fear that his leadership risks doing a great deal of damage.